The world around you is not what it seems.
This is the tagline of the smartphone game Ingress. Free to download on Android and Apple devices, this unique GPS dependent game is becoming popular all around the world. The complex science fiction story line basically boils down to the player must join one of two fighting factions to help decide the fate of the world. Choose between the Resistance (blue) or the Enlightened (green) the first time you open the app after downloading. By setting up "portals" in the game at real world locations, you can control an area. Portals can be defended, attacked, hacked, and all sorts of fun tactics can be used in the game. The game is in of itself very fascinating and not too difficult to understand after completing the in-game tutorial. However, I find its portal aspect is something that is truly amazing for those looking for adventure off the beaten path or those wanting to promote tourism.
Portals in the game are usually significant buildings, public pieces of art, memorials, or also often in the case of Japan, shrines or temples. However, not included are natural features such as rivers or large trees. Why? There needs to be a connection with information, thus something man-made. This is why post offices, transit stations, and historical plaques are plentiful in the game. Lawson convenience stores are a sponsor or paid-in advertiser, so you see their convenience stores (and no others) in the game. For more info about general portal guidelines, look here.
Opening my game on my smartphone, I tried it around downtown Sendai where I live. I have walked through the area many times, never realizing I missed so much. The game pointed out tasteful sculptures, a mini shrine hidden in an alley, and a memorial for the soldiers and horses(!) of past wars. Those particular portals were not major tourist locations (though many portals are), but for that very reason it made discovering them feel like I was let in on a secret. I certainly learned more about my city. I also recommend opening up the app when traveling to a new place. Once you are near a portal you can click it for more information. It may or not be provided and could be in Japanese or English.
Surprised your favorite gathering place or unique statue is not a portal? Well, no problem. Users can submit their own portals easily by taking a picture and adding a description into the game. The submission is then sent by email to the programmers, and in time, you will (usually) get a response. You can also add more pictures or edit descriptions of places in the game already.
As you can imagine, Ingress can be a great way to share your city, and some tourism sectors are realizing it. In November 2014, Iwate Prefecture officials organized a local Ingress event. The assembled groups focused the fight for control on places of interest inside and outside the capital of Morioka. However, newly built and recovered areas in the once destroyed earthquake and tsunami-ravaged coastline were also introduced. Now even more than before, you can discover local sights with the help of Ingress. Or you can just enjoy the game as it is, too.
As Ingress is a global game, there are also global events. Special events are chances for new storylines and a chance to gain extra experience in the game, giving you access to power-ups and abilities.
Whether you want to wage war on the planet or be a neutral bystander and enjoy sightseeing portals, you should check out what all the hype is about with Ingress.
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Justin Velgus (ジャスティン ベルガス) is a long-term resident and promoter in the Tohoku region. He has been a content producer for JapanTravel.com since 2012 and was the Miyagi Prefecture Regional Partner 2013-2015. Justin’s over 300 published travel and culture articles come from a background of studying in Akita, teaching English in Miyagi through the JET Program, and working for the government in Fukushima. He lives in the gyutan capital of the world, Sendai. Justin is an expert in local culture and history. He was the first foreign volunteer at Sendai City Museum and regularly advises the local volunteer guide group GOZAIN , which he is a veteran member, on guiding techniques and hidden locations in the city even locals don't know about. In his free time he enjoys delivering original walking tours, such as his Dark Sendai Tour (ghost tour) or Kokubuncho Mystery Tour (redlight district tour). Justin is also a Certified Sake Professional.