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Men treat virtual girlfriends to beach vacations

This summer, the hot springs resort of Atami became a vacation hub for guys who like to treat their digital girlfriends to romantic sun-and-fun getaways.

Man and virtual girlfriend in Atami
At the famous Omiyanomatsu pine tree, in Japan's Atami, a man stands next to a black-and-white marker to have his picture taken with a virtual girlfriend from the game Love Plus Plus. The resulting image can be seen on the iPhone screen at right. (Click to enlarge.) AFP Photo/Kazuhiro Nogi

If you visited the Japanese hot springs resort of Atami recently and spotted a disproportionate number of men gazing longingly at their smartphones, it probably wasn't because they were playing Angry Birds. This summer, the beach town became a vacation hub for guys who like to treat their girlfriends to sun-and-fun holidays. Girlfriends, that is, who only exist on-screen.

And yes, there are such men, particularly those enthralled with Konami's Love Plus, a popular dating sim for Nintendo DS that also comes as an augmented-reality application for iPhones. Players of the game know that to keep their virtual gals happy, they'd best spend quality time with them, throw them birthday parties, take them on dates, and yes, shell out yen for beach getaways. After all, at $84, a return fare from Tokyo to Atami on the Shinkansen bullet train ain't cheap (fortunately virtual girlfriends travel free).

Love Plus +
Love Plus Plus players pick one of three, um, high school girls to woo with gifts, and yes, vacations. Komani Digital Entertainment

Sadly for romantics everywhere, Atami's summer of virtual love ends Tuesday. It was geared toward players of Love Plus Plus, a sequel to Love Plus released this year. The object is to form and nurture a relationship with one of three high school girls with rotating outfits, distinct musical tastes, and clearly permissive parents. (See a game trailer featuring stars Rinko Kobayakawa, Manaka Takane, and Nene Anegasaki below.)

More than 2,000 visitors have taken part in events related to Atami's lovefest, according to reports, with some traveling from as far as South Korea and Taiwan, locals say. The young bucks did things fairly typical of suitors--gaze into their girlfriends' eyes during long sunset walks on the beach, admire their pixilated bikinis, and touch their virtual cheeks with a stylus.

The Asahi Shimbun newspaper quoted a 21-year-old Tokyo man as saying the game has encouraged him in his search for his first human paramour. "I hope that this will serve as practice for when I have a real girlfriend," he said.

The festivities kicked off July 10, when some 200 people attended a ceremony to mark the opening of the campaign and revel in the freshness of young human-on-game-character love. "I hope you all can experience the real Atami when you enjoy the virtual Atami," Mayor Sakae Saito said.

Vacationing Love Plus Plus players were encouraged to visit 12 romantic locations in Atami and take AR pics with their virtual flames. One spot, a large pine tree known as Omiyanomatsu, was made famous by "The Golden Demon," a novel written by Koyo Ozaki. The fun didn't stop in public, as girls would appear on the tatami mats of local hotels to be--ahem--tucked in for the night.

Atami, a famed hot springs town southwest of Tokyo, enjoyed massive popularity in the 1960s as a resort and honeymoon destination, but its fortunes have sagged in recent decades. This summer's influx of men and their virtual girlfriends may have done some good for the town. Sixteen Atami businesses took part in the campaign, selling Love Plus Plus souvenirs such as keychains, towels, and protective amulets and handing out special commemorative stamps.

And in case you're wondering, we don't know whether Sal9000 was among those vacationing in Atami this summer. We do know, however, that the Love Plus player who famously wed game character Nene Anegasaki last year spares no expenses when it comes to love. For his wife's birthday (she's an Aries, by the way), he said the pair would spend the night in a Tokyo hotel room where they could see the city lights.