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Heidi, Girl of the Alps Draws Japanese Tourists to Switzerland

posted on by Eric Stimson
Early Takahata anime's influence remains strong 40 years later

Heidi, an 1880 novel by Swiss author Johanna Spyri, is one of the classics of children's literature. Its portrayal of innocent youth, pristine mountain landscapes, and simple pastoral life have appealed to people of all generations, both genders, and many nations and languages. Its reception in Japan, however, is particularly strong.

To a large extent this is due to the 1974 anime Alps no Shōjo Heidi directed by Isao Takahata — cultural scholar Ryo Kohsaka found that 90% of respondents in his survey knew Heidi from this version. Its leisurely pace, cute young characters, detailed and accurate representations of Swiss alpine life and culture, and picturesque mountain panoramas (derived from a month-long observation trip to Switzerland) made it popular when it was first broadcast, and it remains popular to this day. Japanese Heidi fans cite the carefree lifestyle of the story's young heroine, the wide-open landscapes, the clean mountain air and fresh farm products, and the sense of nostalgia and longing as elements that appeal to them, especially those with cramped, hectic, urban lifestyles.

As a result, tourism has capitalized on this appeal. A replica of Heidi's home village in Yamanashi Prefecture, a mountainous area near Tokyo, attracts tourists with its flowers, cafes and luxurious Western-style hotels. But more ambitious Japanese head straight for the source: Switzerland itself, whose mountains, valleys and quaint towns sometimes closely resemble the landscapes of the 1800s.

Heidi's Village

Maienfeld, a tiny village near the tiny country of Liechtenstein, is where Heidi was set. The surrounding area is now referred to as "Heidiland" and markets itself as a tourist destination for Heidi fans. Stores, hotels, restaurants, and a museum are aimed at foreign tourists; Japanese make up 60% of visitors. A "reconstruction" of Heidi's house on Ochsenberg, a nearby mountainside, draws tour groups who take pictures of the Heidi and Peter mannequins around the table. Maienfeld's image of Heidi is largely drawn from the anime. Tourist shops' merchandise portrays her with short, dark hair, as in the anime; St. Bernard's are kept to recall the dog from the anime, Josef; even the bells on the goats sound like the ones in the anime.

If anyone asks where Heidi is, Markus Zindel, the official herder of Ochsenberg (who also plays Heidi's grandfather, Alpöhi), tells them she's visiting her aunt in Frankfurt.

Other tourist destinations in Switzerland, including Grindelwald and Zermatt, see large numbers of Japanese tourists and provide Japanese signage and food to accommodate them; Zermatt's summer population was a sixth Japanese during the height of the boom in 2000. That year, 1,014,700 Japanese tourists visited Switzerland. Recession, disease scares and the fallout of the 2001 terrorist attacks saw numbers dip slightly, but they have made a comeback since.

Swiss reactions to the Heidi craze are mixed. Some approve of the positive image of the country it reflects and of the revenue eager tourists bring. Others are tired of the cliche and hope to project an image of Switzerland as efficient, high-tech, and innovative. This was the goal of the Swiss pavilion at Expo 2005, a World's Fair in Aichi Prefecture, Japan, yet many Japanese visitors were surprised that Heidi wasn't there.

[Via Swiss News, BBC News, Hamburger Morgenpost, swissinfo.ch, DW, swissinfo.ch, thestar.com, swissinfo.ch and Times Higher Education; Images from e+, LVZ Online, Süddeutsche.de and Tabisuke]

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