Otakon is an annual American convention celebrating Far Eastern culture, specifically anime. It lasts Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of the first weekend in August, although one year con organizers experimented with extending it to four days. Otakon grew from humble beginnings in 1993 at Penn State with a few hundred attendees to the largest anime con on the East Coast, drawing upwards of 17,000 people to Baltimore each August. In terms of attendance, it is second only to AnimeExpo in California. While the con began with a tight focus on anime, it has since broadened to a general celebration of Japan, gaming, fantasy, science fiction, and nerd-dom in general - booths in the Dealer's Room sell authentic Japanese clothing and weaponry (of course), and attendees can be found cosplaying as Gandalf, the cast of the Matrix, Pac-Man, the Ghostbusters, and the Stargate SG-1 team.
The con currently resides in the Baltimore Convention Center, although space constraints may soon force yet another move. Otakon has had numerous homes, moving out of each when attendance grew too large for safety. Registrations, both before the con and at the door, are unlimited (though they can get pricey - around $35 to $50). Otakon has something of a love-hate relationship with the City of Baltimore at large, which tolerates the hordes of unwashed otaku in return for the incredible hotel boom. Other benefactors include sushi restaurants and beer vendors, although traditional restaurants gain less than you would expect because of the otaku tendency to spend money on stuff rather than food. The people of Baltimore quite intensely dislike the convention-goers and it's not uncommon for cosplayers walking the streets to be jeered at, though insults are as far as things go.
Otakon features something for everyone
- There are numerous workshops on topics ranging from cel painting to beginner's Go and more or less constant panels on nearly every anime-related subject imaginable (Otakon 2004 included Q&A panels on understanding Evangelion, webcomics, and hentai).
- The video game rooms are crowded round the clock, though the con closes at 0200h in hopes that attendees will take the hint and go to sleep. They're filled with the latest import games along with fan favorites such as Dance Dance Revolution (DDR), Super Smash Brothers, Soul Caliber, and old arcade games (Pac-Man and Asteroids are big here). Otakon also sponsers tournaments in many competitive video games, especially DDR.
- There are 4 video rooms, each having a themed track (drama, romance, humor, etc.), along with special showings of live action anime and 35mm films. Many studios screen animes or movies at Otakon before releasing them to the general public; at Otakon 2004, fans were allowed to prescreen the live movies Zatoichi and Hero.
- The big evening events usually consist of the AMV (anime music video) screenings, Mystery Anime Theater 3000 (although this favorite disappeared from Otakon 2004 to make room for the concert), and of course the Masquerade, where cosplayers show off their handiwork or perform a short skit. When the Masquerade's good, it's really good, and when it's bad, it's really, really bad.
- There's a LARP, a rave (fairly tame, by rave standards), and even childcare in the Otachan room. Attendance at Otakon, though obviously dominated by the 18 - 24 contigent, is fairly age-inclusive. Often entire families come together.
- In recent years Otakon has also hosted a JPop or JRock band for a concert (in 2003 they had TMRevolution, in 2004 L'Arc~en~Ciel).
- Cosplayers who don't want to enter the Masquerade can participate in the Hall Costume contest and be evaluated by judges roving the con.
- If you feel like singing (and who doesn't), you can join the Otaku Idol competition or just wander into the Karaoke Bar.
- There's also a model building competition for gundams and the like.
- The guests - American, European, British, Japanese, and Chinese - are often a fantastic cross section of the best artists, writers, and seiyuu in the industry.
The big money-sucking draws, however, are the Dealer's Room and Artist's Alley, along with the Art Show and Art Auction.
The Dealer's Room is...well, it's two and a half football fields of cash-draining joy. Large anime distributers such as Bandai, ADV, and Genex put up elaborate booths featuring free merch and screenings of their flagship animes, while smaller specialty shops merely lay out their stuff and await your gold. Finds in the Dealer's Room can range from trenchcoats, stuffed everything (I personally have purchased a stuffed plush cube of tofu), untranslated and translated manga, humorous tshirts, bumper stickers, doujinshi, buttons, bookmarks, shitajiki, posters for everything from Gundam Wing to Nightmare Before Christmas, wallscrolls, models, modeling kits, swords, axes, and of course, lots and lots of DVDs. The Dealer's Room is noisy, jammed, cold, and a ton of fun.
The Artist's Alley, in contrast, is less crowded and a lot quieter. It usually features some 40 tables, each occupied by one or more artists - some represent firms, some webcomics, and some just themselves. There you can purchase swag from webcomic artists, look through selections, and even commission your own piece of art (if you do this, do it early in the con). Artist's Alley is also a great place to get business cards for online shopping. If you can't find what you're looking for in the Alley, you can try the Art Show, where various pieces of art are put up for sale. Be warned, what you consider "art" may not be the same as everyone else. The Art Show features conventional drawings, watercolors, cels, etc. but also models, mobiles, sculptures, wall hangings, plates, and, on one memorable occasion, handmade towels. Even if you don't buy anything, the Art Show is worth checking out just to witness the devotion of some fans to their favorite series. It also has a hentai/18+ only section, if you're into that. If you want to purchase a piece, obtain a bidder's ID and write in a price. If three bids are placed on an item, it goes to the Art Auction on Sunday for bids.
Otakon is not just a convention, it's an experience. It's a sacrosanct time and place for people who often face harassment and prejudice in their daily lives to feel as though they are among friends. It's a breath of fresh air, a delirious escape from reality; you can be as silly and nonsensical as you want, you can crack as many nerdly puns as you can think of, you can certainly wear whatever you want, and no one will think any less of you for it. For these and other reasons, in recent years Otakon has become something of a home to many ostracized social groups - goths in full regalia are a common sight, and I've known hackers to skip Defcon to attend. Whatever Baltimore and the world at large may think of it, Otakon remains in my opinion one of the best times the year.