A vacationer poses with his digital girlfriend from Konami's "Love Plus". He's at a special resort town that features barcodes around town that generate augmented reality images of virtual sweethearts. The town also sells Love Plus food, towels, and other souvenirs.  (Source: AFP)

The characters are from Konami's popular "Love Plus" game. At least one Japanese man even married his digital girlfriend from the game.  (Source: Kotaku)
Apparently getting a real world female is falling out of fashion these days

When it comes to girlfriends, perhaps people will soon need to add the clarification "in real life" (IRL).  Japan is blazing bravely into undiscovered territory, pioneering the world of digital relationships.

While the nation still hasn't perfected an android "lovebot", its video game companies have launched a deluge of romance simulators aimed at young men.  The most popular of these games is "Love Plus" which is produced by Konami.

Now a special resort experience has been created, offering fans of these digital romances a virtual getaway with their "sweetie".  The new getaways are staged at the resort town of Atami, within a quick bus ride southwest of Tokyo.

While the town's sun-drenched beaches are home to real females, many of the Japanese men arriving aboard tour buses aren't interested in those livebloods.  They scamper off to various locations about town that feature special 2D barcodes, compatible with the"augmented reality" (AR) software on their iPhones.

When they take a picture with the barcode, they get to feast their eyes on a generated image of them with their Love Plus sweetheart.  Shu Watanabe, 23, is in love with Rinko, an attractive girl who attends a local high school.  But Rinko only exists in the digital world.

"Look, it's like I'm in a snapshot with her," Watanabe elates showing off the iPhone image created using the augment reality software.

There are 13 locations in which Watanabe and others can get shots of their digital sweetheart.  They can also buy a variety of Love Plus-themed souvenirs, from good-luck charms to steamed buns and fish sausages -- and even special Love Plus towels.  They even have special hotel rooms with two futons, one of which has a barcode on it.  When the young men snap a picture, they see their virtual lover sprawled sensuously across the bed in a "flattering" summer kimono.

Konami spokesman Kunio Ishihara says that the game isn't just about one-liners and easy romance -- like real life romance, it takes 
work.  He states, "In conventional love games, you went up stages to make a virtual girl fall in love with you, so that she would accept you as a boyfriend or express her love for you.  But players of Love Plus are in a scenario where they are a high school boy who is already dating one of the virtual girls. The goal is to see how good you can be to her and to build a relationship."

Naoyuki Sakazaki is enamored with the game and was among the love tourists in Atami.  He describes, "With earlier love simulation games, we only scored girls, as bad as that sounds, and that was it.  Love Plus is fun because the relationship continues forever."

So far the hotel has received 200 guests, and over 2,000 Love Plus visitors have made the pilgrimage to the town this summer alone.  That's great news for the resort, which has seen business traffic decline by 40 percent since the 1970s.

At least one Japanese man has even married his digital sweetheart in a formal ceremony. 

Konami's Ishihara, though, stresses that the company has no plans to allow users to "go all the way" with their virtual hotties.  He states, "The virtual girls can kiss you as a way of communication, but nothing happens when she sleeps next to you at the hotel.  We have no intention of trying to sell a product with pornographic elements.  I think Love Plus fans would get offended if somebody tried to disrespect his girlfriend like that."

While the virtual romance craze sweeping Japan, South Korea, and even Taiwan may seem a bit strange, perhaps it's just another form of sexuality in a growingly permissive era.  Freed from the confines of acceptability and morality, Japanese men are finding themselves free to find their own version of happiness and romance.  And for some, that happens to be on a digital device.

"I modded down, down, down, and the flames went higher." -- Sven Olsen

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