4 December 2015

Sushi, sake, and stuffed alpacas


Hyper Japan, Tobacco Dock, London

Japan does have a national religion, the saying goes: it’s being Japanese. Strands of Shinto, Buddhism and Christianity might be respected and even practised, but fundamentally Japanese culture trumps everything else. There is something spiritual about the tea ceremony performed in Kyoto, drinking hot sake from a lacquered box is ritualistic, and sumo wrestling is a sacred manifestation of the historic honour system.

But as Japan has developed and modernised, so have the manifestations of this public faith. A new Japanese religion has evolved, consisting of gaming, anime, cosplay, gadgets, and ridiculously fluffy toys. With globalisation and the internet, this cult has attracted worshipers from outside Japan. And over the weekend, Tobacco Dock in East London hosted a shrine for British followers: the three-day Hyper Japan Christmas Market.

This is not an exaggeration. Over 60,000 tickets were sold – that’s more than the capacity of the Emirates Stadium. Visitors, once they had navigated the queue stretching half a mile down the road were greeted by 114 exhibitors, selling everything from Harajuku fashion to traditional woodblock paintings that fetched over £1000.

Where to begin describing it all? There was the food court, offering not only predictable fares like sushi and ramen, but the Kansai speciality okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes, often with squid) and the Osaka delicacy takoyaki (balls of fried diced octopus, my personal favourite). The sake cocktail awards, blending traditional sake with western favours. The Hyper Maid Café, giving visitors a taste of some of the weirder corners of the Akihabara district in Tokyo, where your drinks are served by young women in maid outfits wearing cat ears.

And of course there was cosplay. Guests costumed as characters from every major anime series abounded, from cutesie schoolgirls with fluorescent wigs and white platform heels, to masked ninja assassins with disturbingly realistic weapons. I even saw one women with ornate angel wings spanning three metres across, struggling in the queue for pumpkin korroke. Somehow, it didn’t feel contrived. Walking past the cosplay workshops, where visitors swapped tips on perfecting each other’s costumes, was less like stepping onto a filmset, and more like the imagination of a whimsical teenager.

Interestingly, the people wearing the most elaborate costumes and participating in the COS Masquerade were generally not Japanese. Nor were the martial art performers, the best gamers, or the most enthusiastic vendors of Japanese trinkets. Surrounded by the thousands of Brits who had come from all over the country to celebrate manga and J-Pop, it struck me that Japan’s greatest export might not be cars or electrical appliances after all – it may well be the Japanese culture itself.

Is there anything to attract those less dedicated? With tickets to a single session costing £13, and £39 for the whole weekend, this event is unlikely to appeal to casual viewers. But for any gaijin (westerner) who has always been fascinated by Japan but who can’t quite afford the £900 flights, Hyper Japan gives a tantalising glimpse into one of the world’s most rich and unique cultures.

What did I get out of it? Aside from watching an incredibly exuberant Visual Kei band (costumed in mock-Georgian velvet and complete with a rock-oboe), I was swept away by the soft toy stalls, and ended up posing with a plush alpaca the size of a Shetland pony. What this has to do with Japan, I have no idea. (Alpacas are, after all, native to Latin America.) But today, Hello Kitty and Pokemon are as intrinsic to Japanese identity as the long tradition of ikebana and noble martial art of kendo.

If reading this makes you wish you had been there, fear not, Hyper Japan is returning this summer. Until then, British converts will have to find their ways to show their devotion from their own homes. And after a day spent at the altar of Japanese culture, ancient and modern, all I can say is I am now checking flight prices on Japan Airlines.

Rachel Cunliffe is Deputy Editor of CapX.