At ass o’clock of my last full day in Japan, I am possessed by the spirit of an obsessed anime fangirl. It’s Yuri!!! On Ice day, I think. (That figure skating anime, for the uninitiated. That revolutionary work of love depicting an unproblematic, blatantly gay relationship, for the more passionate.) I take off in a dead sprint towards Hakata Station — towards the train for Karatsu, the city that protagonist Yuuri Katsuki’s hometown of Hasetsu is based on.
I’d been waiting for the day to make this pilgrimage for a week, since my mom and I touched down at Fukuoka — no, for the six months since I bought the tickets, or maybe since that fateful night in 2016 that I decided to investigate the incoherent keysmash on my Tumblr dashboard. Well, I posted after the binge, look who just played herself.
I’d fallen for skating world champion Victor Nikiforov falling for Yuuri Katsuki. And people can do crazy things for love, like flying to other countries or braving mercilessly windy beaches in single-digit degree weather. Or, as I’d put it, making a pilgrimage to places in which two fictional characters slowly but surely discover that love is all around them — that they don’t have to fight alone.
That fondness is something you feel, walking Karatsu’s quiet streets. There are traces of Yuuri — and everyone who’s come to love him — in this town. When the staff at the tourism center realize why I’m here, I’m sent off with an official scene location map. When I meet another fan snapping a photo of her Victor plushie on the steps of Karatsu Castle, I show her my matching phone wallpaper — we smash language barriers with the universal code of squeeing.
At Karatsu Shrine, where director Sayo Yamamoto and writer Mitsurou Kubo left an ema before the series aired, there is an entire wall of them from fans. There’s one bakery selling Makkachin candies and a liquor store offering the sake served at Yu-topia Katsuki. I scream when I see Yuri Plisetsky’s tiger sweatshirt hanging in Kyomachi Arcade, just like in the show.
Caravan, the anime’s local site of fan worship, is a Michelin Star steak restaurant run by Chef Akinori Kawakami, who happens to be the president of the Association to Connect Hasetsu to Karatsu. He has a Yuri button pinned to his chef’s jacket, and he gets a wild gleam in his eyes when he realizes I’m a fan. His treasure trove of memorabilia (including signed drawings by Kubo herself) on display is suddenly eclipsed by the reveal of his actual shrine, which has full-sized standees, body pillows, Sanrio collaborations, and a huge Makkachin doll. The real treasure, however is the collection of notebooks filled with drawings and notes from fans not just from Japan, but everywhere from Malaysia and the USA, to Trinidad and Tobago.
I have a mild heart attack when I later arrive at Kagamiyama Onsen, the basis for Yu-topia Katsuki, and see leopard-printed shoes on the genkan. (Though instead of an angsty teen clad in Hot Topic, the owner is just some oji-san.) I defrost in the baths and rake my eyes over the posters and merch lining the walls before getting to the main event: the onsen’s now world-famous katsudon. I post a photo online. This, I say to myself, tastes a lot like Victuuri. Victory. Whatever.
The sun is setting when I get on the train back to Fukuoka. I check my phone — my photo’s gotten a comment from an old friend I haven’t spoken to in years. “WAH!” it reads, “YOU LIKE YOI TOO???” Perhaps it’s only then that it sinks in. Huh, I think. I’m not alone.
Fans making the pilgrimage can refer to the fan-made Yuri!!! On Ice map here.