I had a lot of high hopes for this festival- I'm a huge Jpop fan, and as a chef and food writer, exploring the local color is always on my mind. It's not the first time the festival's been there, the organizers had past experience, plenty of time to arrange everything and set it up nicely, and to have plenty of backup supplies or manpower on hand for all manner of potential problems.
Didn't happen. Since my press credentials don't count for much, I couldn't afford to spring for the VIP pass. Even if I had though, I suspect I would have had a pretty rough time. As a seasoned adventurer and conventioneer, I had no qualms about my experience, but the average attendee that might not have had my level of interest would have been grumpy and called it quits far earlier.
I took Caltrain into SF proper and walked over- it's a modest hike to Japantown (about 2.3 miles each way), and the simplest walking route goes through what might be called a less than stellar part of town. I'm no stranger to panhandlers and aspiring muggers, but the average person might consider traveling with a few friends.
The first thing I noticed, from a long way off, was that it was busy. An entire block was simply a writhing mass of people, but despite that, I couldn't tell what was happening. When I got closer, I saw why, spotting the banners noting which ramen stall was which. Apparently they thought it wise to set up the 'Ramen Street' a double handful of ramen stalls right in the middle of the festival!
Needless to say, this resulted in a right mess. The lines of hungry people were freely mingling with the passers-by to the point that not only were the lines impossible to single out, you couldn't even be sure where the ends were! (though I later spotted people holding signs “END OF THE LINE” for this or that ramen stall) I came hoping to taste good ramen from far away, but I never got the chance. Case in point, I didn't get to see one friend of mine who went because he was waiting in a ramen line the entire time I was there! One person I interviewed mentioned that last year they hadn't had the ramen expo, and everyone in earshot promptly chimed in, saying the new addition was the reason for the massive increase in attendance. Imagine that, a festival that adds high-quality food to its arsenal suddenly exploding in popularity!
Since it probably would have been easier to crowd-surf than to try and fight one's way through that mess, I simply took to the walltops and the streetlights to parkour my way around. I wasn't alone in doing that, either. I nearly got elbowed off a high wall by a deft and graceful older lady. Good for her!
I dropped into the Peace Plaza to see what was happening, and I had the good fortune to hear music! I'd walked into a fantastic short concert between rounds of the fashion show. I wish I'd had the equipment to record it because the vocalist, a model named Akira, was superb! She's a member of a group called DISACODE, and known for performing the ending theme of a modern anime called Black Butler: Book of Circus. The track itself is called “Aoki Tsuki Michite”, or 'Blue Moon Arising'.
I admit to a giggle when I got up close and noticed she'd written a few stock English phrases on her hand. And while the BGM appeared to have been pre-recorded, it didn't matter at all, because nobody can shred on guitar like Japan.
The actual brick-and-mortar malls and shops on both sides of the plaza were just as mobbed as the ramen and other food stalls outside- plenty of people said 'the heck with ramen, let's just get some FOOD', and buried the indoor restaurants and snack spots. I saw handwritten signs going up all afternoon saying things like NO MORE TAKOYAKI SORRY. This kind of festival is a blessing and a curse for nearby restaurants. If you sell out of your stocks entirely, you go home early. But all you'll have the strength for is to crash into bed.
A friend and fellow chef had much to say about exactly that as we made it into the sake-tasting area, but I dare not repeat any of it! Said sake enclosure was about the only vending area I managed to get at, really. I was extremely pleased with the variety of sake the various booths had for tasting, as I'm not a frequent sake drinker. The brand awareness alone made it worth the ten dollar price of admission.
One booth was not only sampling wares, but had a dozen or so sample bottles out, polling the attendees on which *bottle* they liked most, in preparation for a new release. Clever! For those of you that are gin drinkers or just like G&Ts, I have just the thing for you! Iichiko Yuzu Shochu will leave your palate pleased as punch. Icy cold on the rocks, it's simply lovely.
Overall, the festival seemed to do beautifully when it came to theory and planning, but fell dreadfully flat when it came to organization and execution. It was easy to get stuck in crowds for far too long, the number of attendees was far beyond what they prepared for, and the level of scrutiny from them left any flaw wide open to trouble. In spite of that, I think Moshi Moshi Nippon has a good thing going with their intent to spread interest and awareness of Japanese culture around the world while trying to erase the existing misconceptions. I'll have my eye on the organization for the future.
But man, now I want some ramen. (^^)v