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ATAMI, Japan—This resort town, once popular with honeymooners, is turning to a new breed of romance seekers—virtual sweethearts.
Since the marriage rate among Japan's shrinking population is falling and with many of the country's remaining lovebirds heading for Hawaii or Australia's Gold Coast, Atami had to do something. It is trying to attract single men—and their handheld devices.
In the first month of the city's promotional campaign launched July 10, more than 1,500 male fans of the Japanese dating-simulation game LovePlus+ have flocked to Atami for a romantic date with their videogame character girlfriends.
The men are real. The girls are cartoon characters on a screen. The trips are actual, can be expensive and aim to re-create the virtual weekend outing featured in the game, a product of Konami Corp. played on Nintendo Co.'s DS videogame system.
"Atami has always been a romantic place, but it is now a romantic place for a modern generation," says Sakae Saito, Atami's mayor.
After choosing one of three female characters—goodie-goodie Manaka, sassy Rinko or big-sister type Nene—to be a steady girlfriend, the player taps a stylus on the DS touch-screen in order to walk hand-in-hand to school, exchange flirtatious text messages and even meet in the school courtyard for a little afternoon kiss. Using the device's built-in microphone, the player can carry on sweet, albeit mundane, conversations.
Adding real elements to the virtual relationships is central to the Love Plus+ series. The games can be synched up to an actual calendar and clock, which means playing the game too late at night might mean that the virtual girlfriend is already asleep. Players are expected to remember important dates like birthdays and holidays.
Korean barbecue-inspired restaurant Hien says a quarter of its customers are currently game-related. For 5,000 yen, customers get a special Love Plus+ menu of Japanese beef and side dishes.
Kanji Nagasawa, Hien's owner, says he is accustomed to making small talk with customers, but the Love Plus+ crowd often sits in silence and plays the game while eating.