San Japan: Mach 5

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Texas is all about big things. And there’s nothing like a burgeoning convention to live up to its home state’s image. San Japan: Mach 5 moved into its largest location this year: the Henry B. Gonzales Convention Center in downtown San Antonio during the weekend (Friday included) of August 10th – 12th, 2012. In 5 short years, the convention has exceeded expectations and established itself as the place to cosplay and catch up on all things Japanese and will continue to do so well into the future. Because of the speed in which San Japan has grown, the theme for 2012 was a tribute to Speed Racer’s car, the Mach 5.

For our stay, I missed out in reserving a room at the Grand Hyatt, so I booked a room for our group at the Marriott Riverwalk hotel which is right across the street from the action. Booking through the San Japan web site allowed me to snag a lower rate than booking through the hotel directly. And the location was amazing too. I could either stroll across Market Street to the convention centre or enter along San Antonio’s famed River Walk. Where else can you do this?

This year, I pre-registered online but had encountered some limitations with the web site seeing as I’m from outside of the United States. After a friendly email with the registration staff for assistance, I was able to submit my information and relax knowing all I had to do was show up with my printout to claim my badge.

Claiming my badge was easy enough. Outside of the Henry B. Gonzales Convention Center, two lines greeted me on Friday morning. Although there were no signs advertising which line I should stand in, a helpful blue-shirted staff member pointed me in the right direction. The lines moved pretty quickly and everyone seemed excited on what they wanted to do, who they wanted to see and so forth. Fortunately, I got there before the sun and the heat made waiting uncomfortable. Once inside, I handed over my printout and got a sweet looking pre-reg badge.

Friday morning at the convention centre
Friday morning at the convention centre

Inside the convention centre, the street level had one of the exhibition halls opened right up to serve as a general purpose area with plenty of space for the artists alley, table top gaming, mock battles as well as a place to chill and catch up with friends. Two halls off from this open space served as the dealers room where almost anything anime related could be bought, while the second hall hosted all sorts of video games. Outside of the general purpose area were a number of rooms used for registration art show and panels. Downstairs, two larger rooms were available for moderately sized events (e.g. Anime Olympics), with another room for a manga library and convention volunteers. The remaining rooms for panels, main events stage, and video showings were held next door in the Grant Hyatt hotel. Unfortunately, the doors that allowed use of the walkway over the San Antonio river between the hotel and convention centre remained locked and forced everyone to go outside to make their way between the buildings; a pointless (or perhaps logistical?) restriction considering that the walkway was open convention space on the hotel side.

San Japan is now joining other conventions in using the Guidebook application for mobile devices to allow attendees to download their program guide and more. This handy little app has everything needed to navigate through the Henry B. Gonzales Convention Center and Grand Hyatt hotel – schedules, maps, guides, lists of vendors, guests, performers, artists, information, and more. My favourite feature: setting reminders on events so I don’t forget what I wanted to check out.

An American victory!
An American victory!

My first event at San Japan: Mach 5 was the Anime Olympics panel. My friend has hosted this fun, interactive event since the convention’s creation when it started as the Hetalia Olympics. Now, like the convention itself, the popularity has grown and the list of participants expanded. I was invited to take pictures of the event, so I grabbed my the 55-300mm zoom lens so I wouldn’t interfere with the party. Despite some early technical issues, the Anime Olympics got off to a great start with the parade of nations – finished by a resounding chant of “USA! USA! USA!” when Hetalia: Axis Powers‘ America strode into the room. The first round had the teams recreate various poses and phrases from a selection of anime series – Naruto, Vash from Trigun, the fusion stance from Dragon Ball Z and more. Contestants would advance based on two sets of votes: audience reaction and points from the three judges. The second round had the participants face off against each other in a game of bowling on the Nintendo Wii. Winners there would then move onto the Iron Cosplay challenge. In the Iron Cosplay challenge, the remaining two teams would have a set period of time to use pieces of cloth, duct tape and cardboard to make a wearable costume for the chance to reach the final round. The winning costume was that from Adventure Time propelled the finalists into the last round – the eating contest. Seated at a table, were four rows of four individually wrapped Rice Krispy Squares. The first person finished all four won. Hilariously enough, the final round ended in a tie, so it was back to a pose-off to determine this years champion.

After the Anime Olympics panel, I made my way through the artists alley and dealers room while snapping pictures of passing cosplayers and perusing things for sale. One thing I like about San Japan is their ability to bring in the good vendors – ones that sell legitimate products. Far too many conventions that I’ve been to allow dealers to sell stuff that isn’t authentic, but the people running the show here manage to weed out the questionable sellers and keep the good ones. I’m still kicking myself for not picking up a copy of the fourth Soul Eater DVD collection. Next time.

Who doesn't love to duel?
Who doesn’t love to duel?

In the evening, my friends and I decided to check out a few of the panels. One of my favourites is with the North American voice actors engaging in unrestricted improv. I won’t go into further detail (you have to hear it to believe it), but you have to be over 18 to catch one of these (don’t forget your government issued ID). They’re pretty hilarious and the crowd seems to always enjoy them; an hour seems just too short for this type of amusement.

I spent much of Saturday reconnecting with some friends that I hadn’t seen since the previous San Japan and taking more pictures. I was able to get in on the Naruto photoshoot which was a lot of fun. Two of my pals were masquerading as Naruto and Sasuke asked if I could take a few extra pictures of themselves outside. I happily obliged, capturing a bit of the tension between the two rivals. I really want to get into doing more advanced photoshoots with individual cosplayers so that I can share their skill and beauty with the rest of the world.

San Japan also does something I don’t see at many other conventions: they work with local law enforcement. Having police onsite, I find, helps build a better relationship between attendees and the authorities to ensure that everyone feels safe at such a large gathering. On Sunday afternoon, we saw the San Antonio Police in action apprehending two people who decided it was a smart idea to steal a stack of DVDs and Blu-rays. The cops had them up against the wall, in handcuffs, while the loot was sitting on the table used by the staff for peacebonding. How humiliating is it to be caught stealing at an anime convention and having hundreds of people walk by while the police have you cuffed?

Sunday is always a bit depressing – the weekend is winding down, everyone is getting ready to return to their normal lives. Martin Billany, better known to everyone else as LittleKuriboh, had a table setup near artists alley for signing autographs and such. My friend brought along his Yu-Gi-Oh! duel disk in hopes of getting it signed. The first attempt wasn’t fruitful as Martin was elsewhere, but the second one proved successful. Standing in line for less than 15 minutes, Martin greeted us both, autographed the duel disk, posed for a few pictures and then shook our hands. Such a gentleman. Shortly afterwards, my friends who organized the Naruto photoshoot started an impromptu Kingdom Hearts gathering where I was lured away again to take more pictures. Following a final round of the artists and vendors, it was time to say my goodbyes and depart.

Mach 5
Mach 5

Now that San Japan is in their permanent home, they’re going to have all the room they need to make themselves a successful attraction to not only the people in Texas, but the rest of the United States and the world. With that said, more signage is needed. I like seeing signs telling me what lines are for, especially for registration – but don’t use the signs to replace staff – a friendly face along with printed directions is always needed. And San Japan staff are about the friendliest I’ve encountered. Also, during previous conventions, there were a number of watering stations available. I had heard grumblings of people not finding enough places to remain hydrated. San Japan had been awesome in past years where there would have plenty of spots for a refreshing drink of water.

I really did enjoy my time at the convention and the location seems pretty nice. Being in downtown San Antonio has its advantages – lots of hotels, restaurants, plus the river presents a fantastic backdrop. I’m looking forward to next year – I can’t wait to see what San Japan: Sinister 6 has in store for 2013!

If you couldn’t make San Japan: Mach 5, browse through the collection of photos from all three days on Gallery.

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