Sushi-loving Olly Mann finds himself at a “Hyper Japan” event—and is astonished by what he discovers! The food's already won him over, but how long before he partakes in cos-play?
I came late to Japanese food. The home counties of the 1980s provided, you see, just two categories of “family” restaurants: Italian for the conservative heartland, or Tex-Mex for the yuppies. As a child I adored both, for their lurid servings of cheesy, salty meatiness: pizza and pasta, quarter-pounders and loaded potato skins. Yum.
The opportunity to expand my palate would arise only if a classmate’s parents stumped up for a birthday meal in the West End: a trip to Chinatown for my bezzie’s ninth birthday (followed by a performance of Cats) introduced me to chicken and sweetcorn soup. Another friend, turning 14, facilitated the debut of lamb jalfrezi on my culinary jukebox. Then, as a student, I discovered kebabs. (Not women, sadly. Kebabs.) But Japanese food? I didn’t try that until I was about 26.
I mention this because Japanese food has, of late, become My Thing. I sip rice tea when I’m working, between cups of coffee. I schedule meetings at Itsu instead of Pret. When tackling a hotel buffet, I head first for the Japanese breakfast: I once wolfed down two cold helpings of a delicate curdled egg concoction while on a stag do in Mexico, as my fellow bachelors swigged on breakfast Buck’s Fizz. I’ve learned to love the lightly fishy, lightly spicy exotica of Japanese food. And I want to eat as much as I can.
But here’s the thing. Though I now love the cuisine, I can’t get my head around the culture. I mean, I’ve played a lot of Super Mario in my life, and my in-laws bought me a kimono for Christmas, but there’s a lot of Japanese stuff—anime, karaoke, karate, the whole dressing up as a schoolgirl thing—which strikes me as alien and mystifying. But could it be I’m missing out? Could more exposure to wide-eyed plushie dolls turn me into a fully-fledged Japan Fan?
It was this train of thought that lead me to Britain’s biggest festival of “J-Culture”, Hyper Japan at London’s Olympia.
I visited with my friend Nate, who has almost opposite interests, Japan-wise: he became fascinated by their tech, fashion and trends after visiting the country on a business trip, but has no particular appetite for their food. (There was a great selection of street grub at the exhibit, as you might imagine. I had mango bubble tea and a tray of takoyaki—fried wheat balls filled with minced octopus. Nate opted for beer, chicken and chips.)
But Nate is a journalist, and tends to explain his interests in an impartial and comprehensible fashion, so I thought he’d be a reliable guide. This time, however, he showed up wearing cat ears. It turns out “cos-play”, the trend for dressing up as your favourite animated character, is adopted by around 30 per cent of the crowd. Nate only had the headgear, but one poor soul was fully turned out as Sonic the Hedgehog—a brave decision in a sweaty exhibition hall on one of the hottest days of the year. Others came dressed as sword-hurling Manga heroes, or pink princesses—including a plump man in his 60s, who seemed to have shaved his legs for the occasion.
“The cat ears thing is a genre within a genre,” Nate said, unconvincingly.
“Is it a sex thing?” I asked.
“It’s kind of a sex thing,” he acknowledged. “Everything here is kind of a sex thing.”
We stumbled across a stall selling “love pillows”—four-foot long cushions emblazoned with images of cartoon characters. “Some men in Japan have been reported to marry these pillows”, Nate explained. “They hug them. It’s like a comfort blanket that got out of hand.”
He gestured at a pillow featuring a cartoon teenager. As far as I could tell, this pillow was surely under the age of consent. She had cutesy blush cheeks and rosy red lips, and was crouching suggestively, in stockings and a very tight PVC bra, with huge boobs and, most bizarrely of all, bunny ears. Not in the style of Playboy bunny ears, but actual rabbit ears protruding from her skull, instead of human-girl ears. All in all, I suspect, a fairly niche fantasy.
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Yet here were thousands of attendees who didn’t bat an eyelid at this product—or the necklace pendants in the shape of mutant cat burgers, or the baby-panda pencil cases carrying the slogan “CUTE BAG”. To them, this all seemed just as mainstream as the Nintendo stand, or the YO! Sushi in the food court. After a few hours in their company, I even found myself becoming deadened to my initial reaction (“What the hell is that?!”) and stopped sneering at the neon signs for the shops, with names such as Jazzy Menagerie and Cakes With Faces. I began, almost, to feel part of the club.
Then an opportunity arose for me to buy my very own cat ears, for £20. No, I thought, I’ll stick to the sushi.
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