Otakon 2013 Diary: One fan’s view

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With Otakon – the massive celebration of East Asian pop culture held at the Baltimore Convention Center – now in its 20th year, we wanted an insider’s view of the action.

So we turned to Carrie Wood, who has been attending Otakon since 2002 and has been actively cosplaying (for the uninitiated, that’s when fans dress up as characters from their favorite TV shows or video games) since 2003. Here’s her take on Otakon 2013.

FRIDAY, AUGUST 9

My Otakon 2013 experience started like most of my past conventions have: waking up to some obnoxious song at 8 a.m. Since we’re in Baltimore, “Orioles Magic” made the most sense. Audible groaning filled the room before the somewhat-ceremonial dressing process.

Depending on the complexity of one’s costume, it can take a while to actually get dressed for a convention. Thankfully, none of mine are that intricate. My biggest issue is makeup. I almost never wear it outside of a convention – I’m just not a makeup person – so actually applying the cosmetics to my face takes me a while. But when I know I’m going to have my photo taken, I take care to get the look I want.

Arriving at Otakon used to be a chore. There would be only one entry to the convention center in the mornings, and the line would wrap all the way around the building. I never understood why they didn’t open more doors. At the very least, this year, they’re letting people in via the skywalk that runs between the Hilton and the convention center (especially convenient for me, since I’m staying at the Hilton). Once you’re inside, the scope of the convention really starts to hit you. The sheer amount of people in that building never ceases to impress me, and the fact that so many people are in costume makes it even more of a spectacle.

There’s a lot of stuff to do at a convention like Otakon – getting autographs, checking out the arcade cabinets in the video game room, visiting the artist’s alley, listening to the industry panel discussions and sinking money into the dealer’s hall. Given that Otakon is the second-largest convention of its kind in the United States, pretty much everything is bigger here than at similar gatherings. The artist’s alley and dealer’s hall take up almost the entire first floor of the Baltimore Convention Center. It’s pretty intense.

I tend not to spend any money on merchandise on the first day — deals come later once the merchants realize they have extra stock to move. There’s nothing I have an incredible need to throw my money at, anyway, but sometimes the deals burn enough of a hole in my wallet that I can’t resist them. Once such example: In the artist’s alley, one artist is selling wall clocks made out of old, dead Nintendo cartridges for $20. I’m a big Nintendo fan, so I’ll probably end up getting one this weekend. Whether it’ll be Zelda or Duck Hunt is yet to be decided.

I spent a lot of time just wandering the halls, checking out the other costumes. I also got my own photo taken quite a bit, which is nice. I don’t make costumes for the sake of pleasing others — I tend to just make costumes of characters that I really like — but it’s nice when other people appreciate your work. Meeting people who like the same things I do is a great bonus to going to conventions, and it’s how I met all of the people I’m currently staying in this hotel with. I’ve met a lot of my better friends through conventions. It’s really one of the best perks.

I’m looking forward to Saturday, which is usually the biggest day of the con in terms of major events. But we’ll have to see how much money I manage to save through tomorrow. My current outlook is not positive.

SATURDAY, AUGUST 10

Carrie Wood (left) as Utena from Revolutionary Girl Utena at Otakon 2013.

Carrie Wood (left) as Utena from Revolutionary Girl Utena at Otakon 2013.

Saturday at Otakon was much of the same, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

I wore the same costumes I wore on Friday — I tend to do costume changes at conventions once one costume becomes too uncomfortable to wear. I started out with Utena from Revolutionary Girl Utena. It’s a show from the late 1990′s about a girl who wants to become a prince after being so impressed by one during her childhood. The show has a lot of underlying themes to it, like dealing with adolescence and the loss of innocence. Visually it’s stunning, and Utena is a fantastic protagonist, which is why I chose her as a character to emulate. The problem is, she’s got long pink hair, and I do not, which necessitates a wig.

Wigs are easy to get but can be difficult to maintain. I’ve got shoulder-length hair, and I do not envy anyone who decides to go longer. Obviously, the fact that it’s plastic fibers has an effect on that; it tangles easily, it’s a pain to straighten out, and it’s no fun to wash. But I deal with it. I changed midday simply because the wig became so hot, and because wearing a black jacket in Baltimore in August isn’t a fantastic idea.

I spent a lot of time on Saturday simply bumming around the convention, meeting new people and checking out panels. Nothing too memorable panel-wise, but those can be pretty hit-or-miss. Even if a topic seems interesting, if the people running it aren’t good at public speaking, the whole thing can become an embarrassing disaster pretty quickly. I’ve been on panels in the past, discussing games or shows that I like in detail, but usually with other people, which takes the pressure off (and makes the whole process more fun).

I went back to that artist’s alley booth and picked up one of those Nintendo cartridge clocks. I had decided on the original “Legend of Zelda,” but by the time I went back, those had sold out. I ended up settling for “Zelda II: The Adventure of Link,” which is not exactly fondly remembered by fans of the series. I enjoyed it, though, if for no other reason than it introduced a lot of great musical themes that have persisted in the games since then. The ladies running the booth said that they are actual, genuine Nintendo cartridges that have been donated to them because they no longer worked as games. They also take busted controllers and turn them into wallets. It’s a pretty cute way to recycle such iconic video gaming items.

I also picked up a blind box trading figure from a series of games I’m a fan of called Touhou Project. The issue with these kind of figures is that they are indeed blind boxes — you don’t know what you’re going to get. Most sets have photos of what’s in the set, somewhere between six to 12 different figures, and when you pick a box it could be any one of them. I had already ranked which figures I wanted from most to least in my head, and went ahead and purchased a box. Of course, since this is my luck we’re talking about, I got the one I really didn’t want at all. Thankfully, the people I’m rooming with are also into Touhou Project, and one was willing to purchase it from me for what I had originally paid for it. No loss there, thankfully.

Speaking of the people I’m rooming with… we had arranged an annual convention dinner with a lot of our friends. The people at Edo Sushi at Harborplace have been very accommodating in the past, and were willing to rent a room to us this year. When you accidentally bring close to 50 people to a restaurant — together — unannounced, they’ll do that. (Apparently, that’s what happened last year — I missed last year’s convention due to work conflicts.)

The rest of the evening was spent packing, since check-out on Sunday is going to be a predictable mess, given that a vast majority of the people staying here are going to be checking out at the same time.

Here’s hoping things go well.

SUNDAY, AUGUST 11

Well, that’s it. Otakon 2013 is now a thing of the past.

Sunday was pretty low-key, as it usually is — convention Sundays are usually only half-days — and Otakon is no different, ending at 3 p.m.

I didn’t do much, honestly. I only went to a panel on the history of the Digimon franchise, since I watched that show as a kid and wanted to experience some nostalgia.

There was also a major concert featuring Yoko Kanno, a pianist and composer, who has written the scores for several popular anime and video game series, but I didn’t go. You had to get a concert pass on Saturday and I totally forgot about it. I heard it was fantastic, though, and hopefully the next time she comes to the U.S. I’ll be smart enough to get a ticket.

Other than that, the only other thing I did was to make sure to check over the dealer’s hall once again. There were some good deals — 30 percent off books, half-off DVD’s, buy-one-get-one deals — but nothing stood out to me. I used to leave conventions with bags of merchandise, but these days I’m nagged by thoughts of filling up my gas tank instead.

Overall, the 20th iteration of Otakon was a great time.

Here’s a breakdown of the weekend:

The Good: The guests, as always, were great choices. Musical guests Yoko Kanno, TM Revolution and Home Made Kazoku clearly pleased attendees and held successful concerts. The industry guests were also apparently awesome, holding U.S. premieres of such shows as “Wolf Children” and “Oreimo 2.” Programming was also good, as it had a good mix of the old and new – those new to the convention scene could go back and see how anime style had evolved, and those who have been around a while could catch up with what’s fresh. The layout of the dealer’s hall and artist’s alley made perfect sense, as isles were clearly labeled, so if you were looking for a specific booth you could immediately pinpoint where they would be.

The Bad: Traffic control was an absolute disaster at times. I don’t know how many doors the Baltimore Convention Center has, but there were a lot of them that were clearly not being used to their full potential. I understand the desire to have one entrance and one exit for the sake of simplicity, but when close to 35,000 people are trying to move around, that’s just not going to happen. There were lines to get in the building and lines to get out of the building at some points in the day. Certain high-traffic areas in the convention center suffered from the same problem, like the dealer’s room. The line for that room went halfway through the BCC at times, because they were trying to limit the entrance to just one set of doors. Meanwhile, in the room next to that, the artist’s alley, you could enter or exit from multiple places. It didn’t make any sense.

There also seemed to be communication issues between staff members at times, and attendees suffered for it. For example, a friend of mine had an issue with her pass for the weekend. Every Otakon pass is supposed to have a shiny holographic sticker on it – this is how people checking passes can verify if it’s real or fake. My friend paid for her registration in advance, and when she picked it up, the staffer forgot to put that sticker on it. When she realized the mistake, she went to go get one, only to be accused of falsifying her badge. This year, Otakon badges all had a unique barcode on the back and staff could have easily checked that barcode against her ID and seen that she had indeed paid for it. Instead, they sent her through the registration line again and then accused her of essentially stealing from the convention before the head of registration got it figured out. That’s unacceptable.

We also learned today that Otakon will be moving out of Baltimore and into D.C. after the 2017 convention. Obviously, that’s four years from now, but it’s still something that will impact the convention in a big way. I’ve been attending Otakon since 2002, and the convention has been held at the BCC every time since then. I’m quite accustomed to the center and I think it suits Otakon well, but I can understand why the people running the convention would want to relocate. Otakon uses every inch of space available to it – the BCC, the Hilton conference rooms and even the First Mariner Arena for large concerts and events. I’m interested in seeing where exactly in D.C. it moves. The D.C. area is already home to multiple large conventions of this type, including MAGFest (video game convention) and Katsucon (anime convention) at the Gaylord National Harbor Resort. Regardless, this move is a few years away, so I suppose there’s no point in worrying about it now.

Despite some hiccups and silly lines, I’m very happy with this year’s Otakon. I had a blast at the convention and saw a lot of friends that I don’t otherwise get to see very often. I have been to 11 Otakons now, and every time I go, it gets bigger and better. I can’t wait to see what they have planned for next summer.

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