Even before we set foot inside the Earl’s Court exhibition hall, groups of harajuku girls tottering along the roadside suggested Hyper Japan was more than a collection of leaflets, posters and special offers on flights to Japan. With luminous wigs and steampunk accessories, they were but one brand of enthusiast of all-things-Japanese we saw. Cosplay fans, in full “pikachu”-costume, outlandish anime costumes and even a few ninjas wandered the stalls alongside those who just came to see what all the fuss was about.
Although sushi was plentiful, Hyper Japan is a rare opportunity to sample some of Japan’s lesser-know specialities (at least here in Europe). In particular we enjoyed the Takoyaki (octopus balls) which nostalgically reminded us of our first taste at an all night local festival near Matsuyama in Japan where piles of local men carried enormous floats through the town. Takoyaki are much less of an acquired taste than they sound and come drizzled with sauce that together are a fine example of the different pallets of flavours that Japanese cuisine uses. The hash-brownp/pancake hybrid called okonomiyaki were also excellent, taking us back to the bustling Tokyo cafe where we cooked our own pancakes on the hot plate that formed our dining table.
We spent some time watching the martial arts display which, uniquely in our experience, didn’t seem awkward for all concerned. The teacher’s enthusiasm was infectious. Nearby, the art on exhibition was also an opportunity to see prints of the Japanese masters.
Also to be recommended is the extensive sake experience. The queue shuffled, then staggered, it’s way past exhibitors from ten sake breweries from across Japan, each with at least one sample at the ready. Sweet, smooth, savoury, fruity, sharp sakes passed our lips, and at each table the attendants were ready with each one’s story. As we moved from brewery to brewery, more of the story and complexity of sake was revealed. Like many Europeans, we have drunk sake very occasionally at large intervals. It was only when we tried so many one after the other that it became clear how diverse sake is. Climate, nearby mountain springs, region, filtering process, variety of rice and whether it was brewed traditional or in a modern style
all have an effect on the taste that even we, complete sake beginners, could recognise. The differences were distinct, and we both came away with some firm favourites. We were drawn to the floral, bright taste and long finish of Dassai 23 – from Asahi Shuzo brewery, as well as the sweeter aged sake Golden Amber from Hayashihonten brewery. Certainly, an opportunity to experience so many sakes in one day is rare indeed and, with plenty of even the oldest breweries preparing offerings for the growing Western market, it is an excellent opportunity to get ahead of the trend.
Perhaps the strength of hyper japan was how it succeeded in catering for two camps. Those who live and breath Japanese culture seemed satisfied with the depth on display: rare anime books, for example, and authentic crafts could be obtained and the food on the whole wasn’t the westernised versions that perhaps the rest of us are more used to. But for the casually interested like us who, although having been to Japan, were mostly there to spend an interesting Sunday afternoon there was plenty to see. We never felt as though we were missing some key or some revelation before we could enjoy the exhibition. It’s hard to imagine anyone not finding something to hold their interest, for every aspect of Japanese culture was represented, from food to film to homeware to art and fashion. And if even the stalls and shows aren’t enough, simply wandering around absorbing the bright colours of the kimonos, the rattle of the games machines and the smell of the food was a fine way to spend an afternoon.