I don’t know if there is a confirmed connection between developing an interest in geeky things and in Japanese culture if you’re a young British chap, but it’s certainly what happened with me. I think that my first encounter was with the television show Monkey, shown on BBC2 at 6pm in the early 1980s (yes, I am that old), and so was to begin my enjoyment of the culture of the Far East that has not abated. Therefore, when given the opportunity to attend Saturday of Hyper Japan at Tobacco Dock in Wapping, I was slightly giddy with excitement.
Hyper Japan calls itself ‘the UK’s biggest J-Culture event’, and you can’t argue with that – Tobacco Dock looks small from the outside, but it is deceptively large inside (making it perfect for geek-related conventions, I guess), and it’s a labyrinth of rooms and annexes and alleyways that were all packed with a wealth of Japanese culture. The place was packed with stalls where you could buy seemingly everything: kawaii (‘cute’) stuff, bowls, books, mochi, dorayaki, plushies, sake, wigs, pins, art, swords, necklaces, manga, t-shirts, statuettes (lots of girls in uncomfortable poses and limited clothing), prints, artists selling their work. It was a cornucopia of colour and culture, the colours so dazzlingly bright and a never-ending supply of merchandise, all with a background soundtrack that sounded like it was from cut scenes from Final Fantasy.
It wasn’t all about getting you to buy everything. There were demonstrations on two different stages: aikido, kendo, karate (by local British clubs, instead of actual Japanese practitioners, unfortunately); mascots for different cities (a particularly Japanese concept – one of the mascots was Nishiko-kun, from Nishikokubunji City, Tokyo, who was based on an Abumi Tile in a temple); and girls doing synchronised dances/miming to pop songs. There was also the Miyabi area, calling itself an ‘authentic cultural space’, which had the best of the demonstrations, the calligraphy/art experience, which was a delight to watch, as two performers created beautiful pieces of calligraphy art on large pieces of paper. We were lucky to happen upon it at the right time – there was so much going on throughout the day, trying to plan your schedule was tough. You really needed the timetable and map for the event.
There were also different exhibitions of different aspects of Japanese culture. The biggest was the Illuminight, a festival of ‘akari’ (lanterns) in a blend of ancient and modern aspects of Japanese culture. There was a room with goldfish lanterns, a room with paper cut-outs of animals in a mystical forest-like experience, a room with modern interpretations of the akari concept, such as ones that could be turned on and off by clapping your hands. There were some beautiful pieces that captivated and inspired, and it was a lovely artistic refresher in the midst of the noise and people.
Another exhibition was dedicated to the manga Fairy Tail, which I have to confess I’ve never heard of, but I’m rather glad of that because perusing the pictures on a display felt a bit like looking at pin-ups that were the fevered dreams of a pervert and wondering if you are going to get arrested for looking at them because of the scantily clad teenage girls with enormous breasts.
The wonderful thing about attending was seeing the variety of people enjoying Hyper Japan, instead of the clichéd stereotype of the comic book fan at comic-cons. There lots of different people – old, young, girls, boys, cosplayers, muggles – all of them enjoying the variety of J-culture on offer in their own ways. The numbers increased throughout the day and into the second half of the day – if you want to get the most out of it, go early when it is much emptier. (An aside: it was weird splitting the day into two sections; everyone is asked to leave the building at 3pm and then, if you have a ticket for the second half, everyone queued outside to get back in again. I guess it works out financially for the organisers, but it seemed a strange way of doing things.)
After seeing all that was on offer, you need sustenance and there was plenty to sample. The food courts smelled divine: dumplings, noodles, katsu dishes, pancakes, rice dishes, ramen (you had to pay in advance for the ‘ramen experience’). And I wanted to sample it all. (Narrator’s voice: ‘He didn’t.’) We got some wagyu tasters (Wagyu? More like wow-gyu!) and some beef donburi, and I succumbed to a bubblewrap waffle (admittedly from Hong Kong originally, not Japan, but my taste buds and stomach didn’t care for geographical inaccuracy). The only complaint was that there weren’t enough stalls: the area was packed and British people got to demonstrate their excellent queueing skills.
The most noticeable element of the day was the cosplay – at times, I felt that my partner and I were the odd ones out, cosplaying as normal people, because there were so many people in so many amazing costumes. I did feel bad for some of them: it was a lovely sunny day but it was very chilly and Tobacco Dock is covered but exposed to the elements, and there was a cold wind blowing through the building that must have been tough on those cosplayers (both female and male) wearing female costumes, with all that exposed flesh and limited clothing. There was a cosparade that was fun, but it seemed to be a very small selection of the people who were attending Hyper Japan; but what do I know – I thought the most impressive outfit was the person with the Pikachu suit. And they didn’t select a winner; a special guest cosplayer from Japan picked a name from a hat. The rest of Hyper Japan was the true cosparade, a constant cavalcade of colourful costumes that showed dedication, enjoyment and genuine fan enjoyment. My favourite was the man cosplaying as Monkey, mainly for the reason mentioned at the start of this blog, and not because his was the best costume but because he was really getting into it, enjoying his cosplay and having fun with his posing with other people. It was the true spirit of the day – it was a bonus that it happened to be of my first taste of J-culture – and representative of the whole Hyper Japan experience: enthusiastic, passionate, gleeful, energetic, interactive and enjoyable.