For three days in late July, Battersea Park in London England was taken over by Japan. I’m talking about the Hyper Japan Festival, of course! Going strong since 2010, this annual celebration of Japanese culture is the biggest of its kind in the UK and is a definite highlight of the year for fans of all things otaku and the traditional arts too. That is to say, you’re as likely to see people sporting kimono as cosplay at HyperJapan. And see them you will! Along with a great many other cultural delights that may be familiar to you only through such series as Barakamon, Those Snow White Notes, Laid-Back Camp, or the gamut of martial arts and samurai series that air every season. So for someone like me, who is equal parts history weeb and anime fan, it was a dream come true.
The festival played out in three main areas: the Festival Stage and food stalls outside, the Exhibition Hall and Fringe area, and the Main Stage indoors, in the back right-hand corner of the hall. So with that basic map in mind, ikimasho! Let’s get going!
The Out of Doors Experience
We can’t talk about HyperJapan without first singing the praises of whoever decided to hold it at Evolution, an events space smack dab in the middle of one of London’s largest parks, right on the Southern bank of the River Thames. Genius move. (Apparently, it’s been in less suitable locations over the years, so well done Planning Team ’22!) Holding the event in Battersea Park meant that attendees had to wander for about ten minutes or so through the gardens, trees, and stretches of waterfront on the way to the site, all the while letting those slice-of-life vibes soak in a little alongside the sunshine (miraculously, we had stunning weather for the entire three days!).
Along the way, the sense of community mounted with each branching off of the path, as those drawn to the park in pursuit of other entertainments—dog walkers, joggers, canoodling couples—gradually sluiced off, leaving only those bound for HyperJapan. Indeed, on the second day, this sense of community extended even beyond the park to the neighboring environs, as cosplayers filled the Sainsbury’s Local and spilled out of nearby rail stations and onto the streets. The excitement was palpable, and the mood celebratory.
Evolution, the festival site itself, is somewhat tucked away with stretches of shrubs and trees lending it a sense of privacy. All the food stalls were set up outside, where they presented a decent range of Japanese cuisine, from okonomiyaki to vegetarian and meat-based rice bowls, to that staple of anime, curry. Admittedly, the range of offerings was somewhat on the slim side considering the masses of people they were meant to cater for throughout the weekend. Let’s just say I got to know some lovely Italians very well indeed in the food queue that first day: we spent over an hour together, all told!
But it was worth the wait when that fresh ebi fry was served up in my wooden bowl. And to be fair, there was plenty to see and listen to while we waited: in addition to abounding cosplayers, the Festival Stage, the smaller of the two performance areas, was right in the thick of the food area. Subsequent queuing experiences were much more reasonable—perhaps fewer people were eating on site? Either way, the cooks certainly had their work cut out for them, yet managed to keep a cheery attitude all the while.
One peculiarity of the festival is that it sells separate tickets for the daytime and evening sessions (on Friday), and morning and afternoon sessions (on Saturday), meaning that everyone needs to clear out for about half an hour or so in between sessions, even those who have a three-day pass. This meant that there were times during the day when there were more exotic creatures to be sighted among the trees and grassy reaches of Battersea Park than even the most over-populated isekai lands. There was one point when I’m sure I read disappointment on the faces of a bride and groom who were in the park for their wedding photos: they were decidedly not the best-dressed couple there, and were in fact noticeably underdressed compared to many a picnicker among the trees. Poor dears.
Inside Evolution: the Main Exhibition Area & Fringe
This is where the cultural range of the event truly shone. Everything under the rising sun could be found among the stalls and displays in the Main Exhibition Hall! While many a wacky, artful and fan-tastic wonder was to be seen in the Fringe!
There was calligraphy and ink-painting, porcelain and tea sets, a minimalist, easily overlooked table dedicated to upcoming re-releases of Murakami (somewhat random, but hey, gorgeous cover art!), an unexpected selection of elf ears, craft stalls sporting multiple reuses of kimono material, such as Kimono Kraft, and fashion stalls where you could purchase everything from your own kimono—vintage or otherwise—to meme-tastic T-shirts, samurai garb, or a Gothic-punk lolita dress that would make Victorique’s eyes turn green with envy, if that was more your style.
There was also karaoke, taste-testing (sake and soda pop), tons of fan-art, plushies, video games (with fancy kit including taiko drums and speed racers), and a cherry grove where you could get a picture with Hello Kitty, who was there on Official Business, I was told. And the most mysterious stall of all, an homage to Golden Curry that remained curiously empty the entire three days, apart from generously proportioned, mouth-watering images of said curry.
The real highlight for me though was the lacquerware stall, where not only was the quality and artistry of the traditionally-crafted serving bowls immaculate, but I also had the opportunity for my inaugural conversation in Japanese. I say conversation, but what I mean is that I used one of the sentences I’ve learned through one or another ‘Learn Japanese’ audiobooks to inquire whether I might take photos, and the elderly gentleman actually understood me (mask and all!) and waved me forward. Later, he came by and said something else to me but I have no idea what it was and just answered with an enthusiastic ‘uhn’, a head nod and slight bow, which seemed to go over well enough.
A close second to this memorable encounter was when I got to ‘see’ some of those campsites that Rin, Nadeshiko and cheeky little Chikuwa frequent at the feet of Mt Fuji thanks to a VR headset at the National Parks of Japan stall. This was my second go at VR (the first one having been an hour or so earlier, at a game stall where the VR rendered me rather queasy and I had to shut my eyes for half of it—what I saw was pretty cool though), and I fared much better with it, perhaps because it was footage of Real Life and your perspective of the space changed with the motion of your head. This is how I spotted a family sitting behind me atop a mountain, quietly eating their bentos. (After that, my head was on a constant swivel to see if I could spot any other hidden NPCs!)
There were workshops too for those who purchased a spot in advance—sake-tasting, manga-drawing, mask-painting, calligraphy, candy-making and other arts—but I was a little too late in securing my press pass to take advantage of these opportunities. Looked like fun though!
The Main Stage
Now for the good stuff: the performances! I heard that at some of the other major cons this year there were no in-person Cosplay Parades. Well, not so in Old Blighty, my friends! We had—count ’em—two, yes TWO Cosplay Parades, both the Saturday and Sunday. And let me tell you, the dedication, attention to detail, and in-character performances were something to behold. I’ll admit, I’ve never been to a cosplay event before (unless you count the London Tube on con weekends), but I was impressed with the folks who turned out to HyperJapan to share their passion and display their sartorial skills. Hats off to you, cosplayers!
My apologies, cosplay fans! My indoor photos did not turn out well… 🙁
As with the rest of the event, the full range of Japanese culture was to be seen on the Main Stage, from pop to traditional. There was rakugo or Japanese stand-up comedy by Katsura Sunshine, chasing hard on the heels of martial arts displays, cooking demonstrations followed by gargantuan Jankenpon matches, and a wide range of musical talents keeping the crowds energized and entertained throughout the afternoons and evenings. Among the musical acts were traditional folk singers, shamisen players, idols, vtubers, and most epic of all, the songstress of Attack on Titan, Kill la Kill and The Promised Neverland fame, Mika Kobayashi. (Watch out for an interview with her soon…ish!)
In addition to Kobayashi-san, two sets stood out in particular, the first being the shamisen master, the appropriately named Hibiki Ichikawa, and his vocalist, enka singer Akari Mochizuki, who walked us through the fascinating history of the instrument. Apparently, the shamisen is a larger, Northern version of a much smaller instrument that was popular in the South, and it was made that way in order to overcome the noise of the strong winds in the blustery North that would drown out the wandering minstrel’s sound and negatively impact his ability to secure an audience and bread and board for the night! That’s right, the most dignified traditional instrument of Japan was born as a marketing strategy. So the story went.
The second was Samurai Artist Kamui (of Kill Bill fame), who actually tour with Kobayashi-san and together perform the most intriguing form of martial arts interpretive dance I’ve ever seen! Ok, the only such thing I’ve seen, but still, it was pretty mesmerizing. At HyperJapan, they held one set outdoors with Kobayashi-san, leaving her the stage and taking to the asphalt out front for their demonstration. Indoors, they had the Main Stage to themselves and, can I tell you, they left it all on the stage! Each piece told its own story wordlessly, relying on the gestures and expressions of the martial artists and the accompanying soundtrack, and it was riveting.
My favorite was the tale of the upstart onna-musha or swordswoman who challenges the master only to be bested by him. In recognition of her talent and determination though, the old master takes her on as an apprentice, training her in the way of the samurai. They practice kata together until the young woman is honed as sharp as her blade and the time comes for the two warriors to face one another in martial contest once again. Both are injured, but the old master fatally so. In a final act of honor, as he breathes his last, the samurai master presents his killer with the sword she has now earned. When does the anime adaptation come out—am I right?
If you’re primarily interested in anime industry panels or stocking up on DVDs, BDs and manga, HyperJapan isn’t for you. But if you’re looking for a festival that celebrates the fullness of Japanese culture and brings to life many of the arts and traditional craft that you see in your favorite series, then it most assuredly is.
The atmosphere was ebullient throughout, and it was a family-friendly environment, with entire families rocking up in themed cosplay, and grandparents being towed along by excited grandkids, or doing the towing themselves in their own enthusiasm to experience all that was on offer!
For my part, I couldn’t have enjoyed it more, and the chance to finally put my beginners’ level Japanese into real live practice was such a delight. It almost felt like being in Japan for those few days. Indeed, at a time when we’re waiting patiently for Japan’s borders to reopen, HyperJapan may just have been the next best thing.
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