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Kyoto hopeful, anxious about real-life 'Pokemon Go' event to be held amid pandemic

The Tottori Sand Dunes in the city of Tottori are seen overflowing with "Pokemon Go" players during a real-life event held on Nov. 24, 2017. (Mainichi/Ayami Abe)

KYOTO -- This western Japan city was chosen as one of the four metropolitan cities across the world in which a real-life event of location-based smartphone game "Pokemon Go" will be held on Nov. 22.

    In the past, many global Pokemon Go players have visited venues of such real-life events, and there are hopes that it will raise demand for tourism, which has seen a decline amid the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, Kyoto -- the only city chosen from Japan -- remains hopeful but nervous about the event as the nation sees a surge in COVID-19 cases and is said to be facing a third wave of infections.

    Pokemon Go is a game in which players aim to capture various kinds of "Pokemon" characters that appear on a map parallel to the real world, and players have to actually walk around in order to find the creatures. The game became a worldwide phenomenon before it was released in Japan in July 2016.

    The "Pokemon Go City Spotlight" event will be the first real-life program to be held after coronavirus infections spread. Pokemon Go developer Niantic Inc. announced that the event will be held between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. on Nov. 22 in the cities of Kyoto, Busan in South Korea, Auckland in New Zealand and Tainan in Taiwan. The four cities were chosen partly because of their coronavirus infection situations.

    Real-life events in which game players have to actually visit the area have a great ability to attract people. Some 89,000 people attended the three-day event held at Tottori Sand Dunes in November 2017, greatly exceeding authorities' expectations. A Tottori Prefectural Government official said, "People waiting for shuttle buses formed lines, and there were traffic jams and other disruptions (because of the event)." Three months before that, around 2 million people participated in the seven-day event held in Yokohama.

    Although Kyoto, one of the most visited cities in Japan, has seen a gradual recovery in demand for tourism thanks to the national government's "Go To Travel" subsidy campaign and for other reasons, it is still struggling. For example, the occupancy rate of major hotels in the city remained at 33% in September. Regarding the Pokemon Go event, Kyoto Mayor Daisaku Kadokawa commented, "As a city making efforts for safe and sustainable tourism, Kyoto welcomes the event. We would like visitors to have fun playing Pokemon Go while enjoying Kyoto's beautiful autumn scenery."

    However, Japan is again seeing an upward trend in coronavirus cases, and it is not rare for Kyoto Prefecture to report daily cases in the two-digit numbers. As the area is entering the best season to see autumn leaves and tourists have become noticeable due to the travel campaign, there is concern that the real-life event held during a three-day holiday may cause the "three Cs" of confined spaces, crowded places and close contact.

    According to Pokemon Go's official website, the upcoming event only allows the participation of residents living in the select cities, meaning that people outside of Kyoto cannot participate in the program in the western Japan city. However, the game does not have any features to confirm a player's residence, and it is expected that anyone in Kyoto at the time of the event can participate in part of the program that is free, which suggests the possibility of people gathering from outside of Kyoto.

    Niantic emphasized that it will asks players to find Pokemon characters while practicing social distancing. Kyoto says it discussed with Niantic in advance to spread out the locations where creatures appear to prevent infections. A senior city official told the Mainichi Shimbun, "We didn't want Pokemon characters to appear only in certain areas, but they have been considerate regarding that matter."

    A senior executive of the city's department in charge of coronavirus countermeasures explained, "The city of Kyoto has not confirmed cases in which a cluster infection occurred due to tourists." They added, "In the end, it comes down to whether participants will take thorough basic prevention measures such as wearing masks. Even though it's a valuable event, please don't strain yourself (to visit Kyoto) if you are feeling unwell."

    (Japanese original by Hiroshi Odanaka, Kyoto Bureau)

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