It had been a few years since I visited San Antonio for their annual anime convention San Japan. This year, I was invited by my partner Tony to join him as he would drive his itasha, Toyota Deku, from Birmingham, Alabama over a thousand miles west to the great state of Texas. I happily accepted his offer since it afforded me an opportunity to travel through a part of the United States I never thought I’d see.
San Japan was held Friday, August 30th thru Sunday, September 1st, 2019 at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in San Antonio, Texas.
The Labour Day long weekend was an eventful one; with our journey starting the moment we stepped out of the airport and into an evening rainstorm. It took us almost two days to drive across four states to make it into the Alamo City for Thursday afternoon.
I usually arrive for a convention on a Thursday afternoon so that I can check into the hotel, grab my badge and get oriented with the location, restaurants, and relax before the fun starts on the following day. For us, it was important as we were meeting up with the San Antonio itasha group ItaPara. As Tony’s car would be on display, we needed to arrive early enough for the fire marshal to inspect the engine and confirm the fuel tank was less than a quarter empty (a safety precaution), and to enter the convention centre before the other vendors and exhibitors did.
Thursday afternoon was intense, with the mercury around 105° Fahrenheit and well over a dozen cars beautifully wrapped in vibrant designs of girls (and a few guys). Under a glaring sun, many of the drivers popped their hoods to show off their latest engine mods, traded stickers (known as “slaps” in the community), shared stories, or took shelter in the few cars that were running air conditioning. After the fire marshal signed off on his engine check, it was time to drive into the building itself. Never would I imagine that I’d be entering through the loading bay, so I eagerly recorded some video since I might not experience this again. Inside, we were directed to park in spots against the wall that served as entrance to the artist’s alley and exhibitors. Then began the preparation: cleaning the grime off the wrap, setting up the giant banner of Izuku “Deku” Midoriya, and then the tedious process of assembling figures and placing them inside on the dashboard and seats. To our dismay, we discovered a new crack on the windshield, caused by a chip that grew out of the extreme heat while we were parked outside.
Later in the evening, the remainder of our group started arriving from different parts of Texas (Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and the Rio Grande Valley) after checking in at the La Quinta hotel two blocks over from the event. Affordable, complimentary breakfast, guest laundry, free WiFi, and plenty of parking, this hotel is great value and within easy walking distance (ignoring any sort of discomfort caused by the dry Texas heat). I’ve stayed in it once before for a previous San Japan and was satisfied enough to return.
Friday morning began early, and since we had complimentary badges as exhibitors, we could enter the halls before anyone else. Bypassing the long line of attendees waiting with a flip of our badge, we could make sure the cars were ready for the show. At 10:00 am, the doors opened officially and people streamed in, phones and cameras in hand, to check out all the colourful cars. Tony’s car proved popular, as fans of My Hero Academia snapped pics, posed in cosplay and overall complimented the design. The other drivers milled about, fielding questions, making sure no one touched their vehicles.
While Tony decided to hang back with the car, I ventured out into the artist’s alley, chatting up one of my friends who I hadn’t seen since my last visit into Texas for Anime Fest in 2017. Once I finished my circuit around, I went back to collect my partner so he could have an opportunity at browsing this year’s vendors. The main hall was split into three sections: at the entrance (where the itasha were parked) was for arcade gaming, autographs, indie gaming booths and concession with seating. The second was for the artist’s alley where rows upon rows of tables overflowed with prints, sketches, home-made plushes, crafts and more. In the final section, all the vendors hawking all sorts of anime merchandise from DVDs, manga, figures, apparel, plush, curiosities, and yes, VHS tapes.
Saturday was a tough day for me as my Nikon D5000 gave up the ghost while I was capturing cosplay in the exhibitor’s hall. After realizing no amount of turning the camera off and on again would bring it back to life, I made the agonizing trek back to the hotel room to offload the camera and take a breather. For the rest of the weekend (and the following week and a half), I used my Google Pixel 2 XL mobile phone to take pictures.
Back at the venue, I decided to explore the rest of the building. Like everything in Texas, the place is massive, so I didn’t see some of what was available until this day. Upstairs, rooms along the corridor held panels, one with an anime screening room by Texas-based Funimation, with another hosting an impressive collection of vintage video game consoles, many still functional where people tried their hand at classic titles. I even picked up a controller to give Sonic and Knuckles a go on a working Sega Genesis; the outcome being I had no idea what I was doing. Opening into a larger atrium were more rooms with gaming tournaments and music videos running, where seats were always filled by those taking a break, watching the latest fan-made creations or playing the recently released titles on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch.
J-POP band Do As Infinity was scheduled to perform in the Lila Cockrell Theater; admission to this concert required separate tickets. Sadly, we didn’t purchase admission and thus had to miss out on their show. Do As Infinity recorded their first single in late 1999 and since bolstered their catalog, with songs “Raven” and “Deep Forest” being used as the ending themes to the anime Uzumaki and Inuyasha, respectively.
On Sunday, the last day, was filled with adventure. Clearing out our room is never easy, since whatever we pack in never fits back in the suitcase. That and I usually buy too much without asking myself “how I will take this home?” This year, I was a little more fiscally responsible by limiting myself to one figure and a few shirts. Go me! Now that everything was crammed into our luggage, plastic bags and backpacks, we encountered every convention’s worst enemy: non-functional hotel elevators. With all four elevators now out of service, we relented and took the stairs, but found quickly, they didn’t exit into the lobby, but to an alarmed door that would go off if opened. Finally, after a few phone calls and some banging, confused, yet helpful, hotel staff opened an inner door for us to escape through an office and into the lobby.
Through the afternoon, we were lined up for autographs from Justin Briner and Clifford Chapin who voice Deku and Bakugo in English respectively in My Hero Academia. Tony had brought a copy of the hood design from his car for them to sign, but it was all for naught as apparently Justin and Clifford had already departed the convention grounds earlier to catch flights back home. Bummer.
The biggest scare came once San Japan had ended and we stopped for gas after departing the facility -– Tony had lost his wallet. It was a very anxious drive back into the downtown core where Tony and a friend took everything out of the car and I returned to the grounds to see if someone had found it. After employing help from a security guard, we had no luck and it looked like the wallet was gone for good. However, something magical had happened. Someone did indeed find the wallet, and so amazingly enough, knew Tony as well. After a phone call, he was reunited with his wallet, cards and cash, intact.
San Japan for 2019 was full of highs and lows, but was still an amazing experience. As south Texas’ largest anime convention, it is full of guests, gaming, cosplay, artists and vendors, enough to satisfy even the most demanding fans’ appetites. I definitely look forward to coming back very soon.
Photos from San Japan are available on Gallery.
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