While there are many different conventions around the UK that focus on Japan and the cool things the Japanese are responsible for, there are two that clearly overshadow the rest. The first, and biggest, is the London MCM Expo. This runs bi-yearly and draws in well over 70,000 visitors each time. However, this isn't just a convention about Japan, as it is also a Sci-fi event. You could even argue that Sci-fi is the main focus, but hey, we're moving a little off topic. Hyper Japan is relatively new in comparison, drawing in a little over 25,000 visitors.
There's a big difference in the number of attendees, so why should I bother going to Hyper Japan when I could be spending all that money saving up for a long weekend around the London MCM Expo, or one of its many spin-off conventions? Hyper Japan focuses on the culture and cuisine from the Land of the Rising Sun, so theoretically, there will be more interesting and relevant things for you to see, if you don't care much for Sci-fi anyway.
But was this the case? The last time I'd been was back in 2010 for the very first Hyper Japan, and that was held in the Old Truman Brewery of all places. Two years later it's in Earls Court and is bigger than ever, so things are looking good, right? Well, come find out!
I arrived at Earls Court at about 1:30pm on the Friday to sort out my fancy pants press pass and the like, and very kindly they said that I could enter the exhibition hall way before opening. Being the fine English gentleman that I am (nah, my brother was with me) I decided to queue with the regular ticket holders. By this time the queue had already wrapped around the building, and while the size and number of people was a little crazy, it didn't take that long at all to get inside the event. When inside, we were greeted by a giant inflatable Chopper and the Namco Bandai demo area, which we decided to check out before the queues got too crazy.
Available to play were copies of Tekken Tag Tournament 2 (Wii U), Tank! Tank! Tank! (Wii U), Ni no Kuni (PS3) and Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 (PS3). While I messed about with all of them, it was Tekken Tag Tournament 2 that really stuck out as the one to remember. First of all, both myself and my brother were able to play versus, one of us using the Wii U GamePad while the other used the Pro Controller. The Pro Controller feels very nice, and it seems to take the best features from the 360 (in the controllers form and layout) and the PS3 (thumbsticks in-line and general feel). It got a thumbs up from my brother, who likes to play/shout at Call of Duty, so that's got to mean something, right? The GamePad was also very surprising in how easy it was to use and how light it was, but even though I'd played Tank! Tank! Tank! before Hyper Japan, it was Tekken Tag Tournament 2 that really sold me on the screen. The action looked great on the controller, and while it changed to a special move selection during fights, it showed that the controller wouldn't look like ass when playing away from the TV. Not really news at this point with the Wii U firmly in the grips of North Americans, but with the console a week or more away for Europeans, it was reassuring to see.
Ni no Kuni and Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 looked great, but I didn't manage to play enough of those to really be able to offer fair judgement on how I feel about them. While I'd love to tell you more about Tank! Tank! Tank!, there's really nothing I can say. It seems that all four consoles showcasing this game were broken in one way or another when I showed up (both at the beginning and end of the day), which is pretty unfortunate. I did play a little of it at the London MCM Expo earlier in the year, and walked away unimpressed with the dodgy frame rates. Still, the game was far from out, so I'd have liked to see if it had changed since then. Seems it wasn't meant to be!
Of course, with an impending Wii U release, it wasn't just Namco Bandai showing off their offerings for the new console. Nintendo were there in full force, showing off both Nintendo Land and New Super Mario Bros. U. I was also very glad to see that Nintendo-published Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge was available to play, which I had assumed wouldn't be because the game isn't a European launch title. I was certainly glad to see that they were showing it off, despite it looking a little out of place in what looked like a child-friendly, helper-filled display. That they didn't decide against showing it is good news for the future of the console, especially when they are trying to secure that 'hardcore' market they so crave.
While I stood at the stall for a fair amount time checking out both Nintendo Land and New Super Mario Bros. U, I was kind of put off actually playing them myself. Why is this? Because each and every Wii U console had it's own dedicated employee to shout things like "Wow!", "Amazing!" and "Grab the coins!". I don't need your help to decide if I'm enjoying the game, Nintendo! Nonetheless, the games certainly looked great in long-awaited HD graphics, and I'd be lying if I wasn't just a little excited to see what the console can do in the future.
Anyway, this isn't just about the Wii U! Hyper Japan had arranged a quality selection of shows and speakers to grace their stage at various points throughout the day, and they certainly didn't disappoint. What I had considered to be the main event of the Friday (at least because it managed to get my chef brother to attend!) was the giant tuna carving. It showed off the culinary prowess of Tomokazu Matsuya, a chef at the popular So Restaurant in London. The fish was a huge 45kg yellowfin tuna, and while it's size was incredibly impressive, know that it was most definitely from a sustainable source. For almost an hour, both Matsuya and his assistant wrestled with carving this monster, so much so that there was even a short break in the middle to show off some tourism videos! However, the chef and his arsenal of knives managed to quarter the monster, with his sweaty brow and lack of breath serving as evidence of his victory. He then proceeded to carve the fish into much smaller chunks for sashimi, which were then distributed amongst the crowd with small cups of sake. The tuna was incredibly fresh and tasted delicious because of it, and the sake was nice and smooth with a slight kick to it. Due to the size of the fish, the remaining meat was sent over to their stall, which could either be bought in portions to take away or served with noodles.
Following a short break, samurai sword artists KAMUI came on to the stage. Using katanas and other weird and wonderful weaponry as props, they acted out different scenes and fights to various songs from the film Kill Bill. Tetsuro Shimaguchi, the leader of the troop, had previously worked as an actor and choreographer in that very film, so it wasn't much of a surprise to see them perform to the arguably fantastic soundtrack. While the performance started and ended with serious routines and stories, there was also a slapstick act in the middle of it all. To see the troop who are quite clearly very proud to be continuing the traditional samurai spirit enjoy themselves with some light-hearted comedy was quite the spectacle! Before the end of their stage time, the announcer came on to introduce someone else. It seems the news hadn't spread as much as I'd assumed it would, as the crowd seemed shocked to see none other than Tomoyasu Hotei himself appear with KAMUI.
It turns out that Tomoyasu Hotei has relocated to London, which explains where his upcoming one-off gig has come from! He spoke a little about why he was there, promoted his concert, then performed his very famous Battle Without Honor or Humanity, also from Kill Bill. It was pretty funny seeing the people in the crowds faces as it dawned on them that yes, they had indeed heard music from the Japanese master of rock. His appearance was brief, but it certainly showed us a glimpse of what was to come in December, and I honestly cannot wait. This is certainly something that the London MCM Expo hasn't been able to do. Hyper Japan certainly has plenty of connections with those working for Japanese tourism, so big names like Tomoyasu can be lured in for things like this.
Unfortunately, as I only attended the Friday and for a set period of time, there were plenty of events I didn't manage to see. However, there was quite the variety of stage events going on throughout the whole weekend. Japanese company ITK showed up to show off some interesting robotics, including a hand that followed the gestures its controller was making. There were also some other Japanese music performances spread across the three days, including Tomoca, NINJAMAN JAPAN and THE MICRO HEAD 4'NS. Failing that, there was the World Cosplay Summit and the European Cosplay Gathering preliminaries on the Saturday. Something for everyone, I'm sure!
For those who enjoy a more hands-on experience, Hyper Japan offered a Sushi Workshop, hosted by the SOZAI cooking school. While these courses are organised by So Restaurant, it was Atsuko Ikeda who was helping out and teaching budding cooks. She has been running her own courses on Japanese cuisine for quite some time already, so it was great to see someone with proven experience passing on her knowledge. The sushi workshops came in two different flavours, as you could choose to try your hand at making makizushi (sushi rolls), or have a go at nigirizushi (rice blocks with fish/meat on top). The prices were pretty steep at £20 for a 30-minute session, but they did come with £10 worth of goodies to take away. Included in the package was sushi rice, wasabi, soy sauce and rice vinegar, perfect for having another go at home. It's kind of a shame that they didn't come with nori and a rolling mat for those who tried out the makizushi, but never mind!
If you prefer a good drink, the Sake Experience would certainly have been up your alley. There were 23 different varieties to try out and buy (if you liked it that much), from aged to pasteurized, full-bodied to sparkling. Who would have thought there was so many different types? Alas, I'd already had some sake from the tuna event and a Kirin beer (which hilariously caused an organiser to ID both me and my brother, presumably because he thought I was getting kids drunk), so I didn't fancy putting another £20 towards more alcohol. Still, it looked like a great experience for those that are interested, and there were even sake brewers and sommeliers around to have a chat with.
Of course, there's plenty to look around and enjoy outside of the large events and attractions. Stalls selling all sorts of anime and video game merchandise are ever present, so be sure to bring that extra bit of cash to snag a figure or two! There were also stands selling clothes (both regular t-shirts and Japanese themed attire), retro video games and art, so there's going to be a little something for everyone. Don't expect there to be mazes of stalls, as there are far less than you would see at the London MCM Expo. Still, the stalls that were there had some top notch stuff, and we've already seen that the event is still growing. As a result of this, the show is significantly quieter than you may be used to at conventions. Definitely a positive, as it's certainly handy being able to speak to other people!
The folk from Tofu Cute were showing off a lot of their imported goodies, which includes various different kinds of sweets and cute apparel. I took a layer off my tongue trying some sour gumdrops, and their large selection of flavoured Ramune was also pretty great! It's hard to find anyone selling anything other than lemonade Ramune, so be sure to give them a visit if you're feeling adventurous! While the event wasn't really bustling with bodies, be warned that their stall certainly was! Bear that in mind if you plan to load your bag up with sugary treats.
One of my favourite stalls this time around had a whole bunch of retro and import games to play. They had set up Taiko Drum Master for two-players, which was pretty fun to play. Unfortunately it was the NTSC version of the game rather than the Japanese import, so we got to hear terrible covers of Britney Spears' Toxic and ABC by the Jackson 5. Fortunately, there were some great songs on there as well, such as the Dragon Spirit medley and Katamari on the Rocks. The fact that the drums were a little temperamental put a bit of a damper on the experience, as I couldn't show off my Taiko prowess and felt like I was smashing the drum a little too hard to try and get blue notes to register! Other games on show included DrumMania, Ghosts'n Goblins and 8-player Bomberman!
With the events lasting until 8pm on both the Friday and Saturday, you'll likely be around long enough to feel the pangs of hunger. Something that the London MCM Expo doesn't do so well is finding many, if any, stalls to sell food. Sure, there are a few places outside the main hall with crazy prices, but you'd want to travel into London for something well-priced and worth eating. Hyper Japan smashes this issue out of the park, as the place is filled with great food stands. Better yet, the food is all Japanese, so you can enjoy some takoyaki (battered and fried octopus balls), dorayaki (pancake with filling) or okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes with all sorts of fillings) without having to scour London for the odd place that actually sells them. Udon, ramen and onigiri are also available if you want to stick to some less adventurous foods, but hey, you need to know what these things are like! You certainly have my word that the takoyaki are darn amazing!
As you might expect, an event like Hyper Japan draws in plenty of cosplayers. I mean, you can't expect an event with some link to Japan to not do so, right? Of course, the aforementioned cosplay events on-stage are going to be a big draw, but there's plenty of casual cosplay and photo opportunities going on across all three days. It's certainly not the cosplay hotspot for the UK, but if you just want to dress up and have a good time, you'll definitely be able to.
So, how many of your precious British pounds do you have to give up to enter the event? Well, this event cost a reasonable £12 for a single day if you order in advance, or £15 at the door. You can also pay £24 for all three days if you want to check out all of the stage events, and kids that are 10 and under are allowed in for free. Hyper Japan has blossomed nicely since my original visit, and they are putting a great deal of effort into securing some fantastic events. I walked away very impressed, and I'm eagerly awaiting details of the next one!
In my opinion, if Hyper Japan gets some popular, big-name guests in the near future, it'll come to rival the London MCM Expo. Here is my suggestion. Go and get Shinya Arino, then get Norio Wakamoto. Set up a grand stage, with all the gold trimmings and plenty of pyrotechnics, then have them both duke it out in a game of Street Fighter. Your venue won't nearly be big enough to contain the crowd, mark my words!
[A big thanks to @AQua_ng for lending me some of his photos! If you attended Hyper Japan 2012 Christmas and wouldn't mind sharing your photos with us, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. We might just run a cosplay special if we get enough!]
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