What started out feeling like a dumb gag manga became a source of strength as our otaku reporter searched for a purpose in life.

For nearly 20 years, our Japanese-language reporter Seiji Nakazawa had a dream: to go to Lake Toya. A large, beautiful body of water, Lake Toya is Japan’s northernmost lake that never ices over, and it’s a popular destination with visitors to Hokkaido Prefecture’s Shikotsu-Toya National Park.

▼ Lake Toya

But when Seiji first felt the desire to go to Lake Toya, he didn’t know any of that, He didn’t even know where in Japan Lake Toya was. So why did he want to go there so badly?

In December of 2003, Seiji was in his third year of college. That’s kind of a strange, calm-before-the-storm phase of life in Japan, when class loads are light and the pressures of job-hunting are yet to fully set in. Spending his abundance of free time flipping through manga anthology Weekly Shonen Jump, Seiji came across a then-new series called Gintama. It had unique concept, blending the turbulent social and cultural changes of the end of Japan’s historical feudal era with science fiction elements, but Seiji wasn’t sure if it was going to last. The series mixed silly gags with serious plot developments, and the main character wasn’t a handsome hot-blooded hero, but a disheveled, self-serving swordsman who carried a bokuto, or wooden katana, with “Lake Toya” engraved on the handle.

Despite Seiji’s initially lukewarm reaction, he found himself growing more and more interested as the series went on, and that went for the rest of Japan too. Gintama would eventually go on to become Weekly Shonen Jump’s third-longest-running manga ever in number of chapters. That’s thanks in no small part to protagonist Gintoki’s charisma and hidden depth of character. Sure, Gintoki never quite seemed to get ahead in life in terms of material wealth, social status, or any of the other metrics people so often judge themselves and others by, but at the same time, he always stayed true to himself and lived his life freely.

Those were qualities that Seiji increasingly admired as he entered his fourth year of university and had to start thinking seriously about his future. When he asked himself “What do I want to do?”, the answer wasn’t to become a doctor, lawyer, or banker. He wanted to be a musician, but he knew that making music might not make him any money.

Eventually, Seiji decided to pass on the standard process of trying to secure an office job during his last year of school, and after graduation he spent a year working late-night shifts in a convenience store (and continuing to read Gintama in the new issues of Jump when they came in). Once he’d saved up enough money, Seiji moved to Tokyo and started looking for people to form a band with, a process that didn’t exactly go smoothly.

Now, though, Seiji has settled into a happy life for himself. While he can’t earn enough to make a living doing music full-time, he’s got a band, and also a side gig writing idol lyrics, plus he’s found a 9-to-5 purpose at SoraNews24. Through it all, Gintama has been both a comfort and an inspiration, especially Gintoki’s ability to take both laid-back and purposeful attitudes as best fits the situation, and so Seiji has long desired to go to the real-life Lake Toya and get a Gintama-style wooden katana of his own.

He’s not the only person to feel that way, and Towako Onsen, the town on the south side of the lake, has a number of souvenir shops stocked with bokuto and other items of interest for Gintama fans.

After looking around, Seiji decided to buy his bokuto at a shop called Echigoya, which even has a replica of Gintoki’s scooter out front for fans to take photos with. The sword itself cost him 5,000 yen (US$38), with an additional fee of 100 yen to have the three kanji characters for “Lake Toya” engraved on the hilt.

After waiting for about 10 minutes for the engraving, Seiji’s sword was ready.

It’s been a long time since Seiji first read Gintama, and in the years since, he feels like Gintoki has gotten him through a lot of tough times. Come to think of it, he’s now older than the character is within the manga, but Seiji’s life, and the challenges it’s going to throw at him, are far from over.

But when the going gets tough, he can always wrap his hand around his Lake Toya bokuto and remember that as long as he remembers to believe in himself, he’ll find a way to cut through whatever troubles he needs to.

Shop information
Echigoya / 越後屋
Address: Hokkaido, Abuta-gun, Toyako-cho, Toyako Onsen 71
Open 10 a.m.-7 p.m. (weekdays except Thursday), 9 a.m.-7 p.m. (Thursday, Saturday, Sunday)

Photos ©SoraNews24
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