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By Charles On 10 Apr, 2013 At 11:45 PM | Categorized As Conventions, Reviews | With 0 Comments

No Gravatarzenkaikon_rgbA few weeks ago, while the gaming world was abuzz at PAXeast over in Boston, Christians were commemorating Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem, and die-hard Westerosi were anticipating the return of their favorite soap opera reality show, I had the benefit of attending the 6th incarnation of Zenkaikon in Lancaster, PA. A mid-sized convention teeming with local flavor, ambitious guests and a location to die for, this con often falls under the radar of so many congoers in the mid-Atlantic and New England regions, which is unfortunate given how enjoyable this event has become in the past three years.

I started attending Zenkaikon in 2011, its last year at the Valley Forge convention center, before that location was turned into a casino. I had mixed reviews about both the con and the crowd that year, but since I’m (rarely) never one to judge on first impressions alone, I gave it a second try last year, when it occupied a lovely May weekend at the Expo center in Oaks. At the end of those two days of fun and fellowship, I discovered the con would be moving back to March, and into the fancier Lancaster County Convention Center, another hour away from its previous locations. I lamented the loss of mall-crawling at King of Prussia and the easy access to mass transit, but given how enjoyable the con had been at Oaks, I knew I would be going back regardless.

Needless to say, like a fine wine, Zenkaikon gets better with age.

Location:

Let me just say this: the fact that there’s a farmer’s market across the street made eating a VERY pleasurable part of the weekend. Local meats and cheeses (which I brought home in droves and gorged upon for DAYS after the con), excellent coffee roasters and surprisingly awesome cuban food made for a very happy con indeed: you couldn’t walk through the small market without seeing plenty of cosplayers interacting the the locals (for good or ill), and the local creamery offered free scoops to anyone in costume. Lancaster was happy to have the con, and the con was very happy to have Lancaster.

SAMSUNG

Seriously, you would wander into stuff like this ALL WEEKEND if you took the stairs…

The convention center itself was a fine spot, with a huge vendor room, panel seating on par with Otakon, and plenty of free space for gatherings and cosplay shoots. This is one of those sites Zenkaikon can grow into with ease, and likely will: next year the con should have access to the entire top floor of the convention center, a location they only had for Friday this year. That means more panels, more events and more “roaming” space for wayward congoers.

Plus the convention center also has an archeological site AND a back hallway system that feels like something out of Lord of the Rings. Seriously. It was like walking through the mines of Moria at one point.

Programming:

Zenkaikon has always had surprisingly solid programming for a con its size. This year was no exception, as more theoretical fare found its way into panel rooms. The Friday night burlesque show, hosted by Uncle Yo (and featuring me in a creepy mask and hatchet), was easily the best one I’ve ever seen, Greggo’s Game Shows pulled off a solid reworking of the Pokemon game he debuted at Ichibancon, and the media guests were both friendly and informative. I would even go so far as to say there was more to do at Zenkaikon this year than at a lot of the smaller cons I went to last year. The audience asked for more, and more was given back to it.

I also will go on to reiterate my assertion that I had the best Friday I’ve had at a con in the past few years at Zenkai 2013. No lie, I was kept pleasantly busy all day, culminating in probably the best presentation of “Kowai” I have ever given, before hamming it up at the burlesque show. I didn’t want the day to end (and technically it didn’t, as I found myself in a huge Cards Against Humanity game a scant 90 minutes later), it was that enjoyable.

Vibe:

epic

This man. Seriously, THIS MAN. Most epic cosplayer of the weekend.

I love Zenkaikon’s attendees. I really do. This con has one of the most welcoming communities of any con in the mid-Atl. From random meetups in the halls to encouragement of cosplayers, the people who attend Zenkaikon make sure everyone feels welcome and at home. Consider the case of one attendee, who found herself sitting on the Pokemon game show Saturday night: a girl dressed as Mei from White 2, found herself in a trivia battle with another potential Pokemon master. Flustered and in over her head, she attempted to throw in the towel during the final part of the opening round of the show, and requested to simply forfeit and leave the stage. The crowd, however, would have none of that, as they cheered her on and made sure she knew they were solidly behind her. And while she didn’t win the round, the ovation she got as she left the stage was nothing short of inspiring.

THAT is the power of this community, and that is why Zenkaikon is worth attending. Forget programming, guests and vendors: attend this con simply to meet other supportive, like-minded fans, and develop connections with them. I guarantee you will never be bored, nor will you feel alone. While it may not draw the numbers of some cons, the quality of the fans at Zenkaikon more than makes up for the quantity.

Zenkaikon might not have the flash or flair of PAX, or the size and variety of Otakon, but that doesn’t mean this con should be ignored. While you won’t find Funimation announcements or giant cosplay summits during the weekend, you will find a welcoming community full of frenetic (if tempered) energy and fun times. Zenkaikon manages to tread that perfect line between growth and hearth, and it shows in the excited attendees, happy gatherings and generally relaxed atmosphere that permeates that con every year. Despite being smaller, it’s definitely worth the visit (as my friend Doug made all the way from Boston, eschewing PAX this year despite living right next to it). So if you have time and some cash to splurge, consider hitting up Zenkai next year. You will appreciate it.

By Charles On 15 May, 2012 At 11:19 PM | Categorized As Conventions, Reviews | With 1 Comment

No GravatarIt’s a mark of dedication when a con seemingly moves heaven and earth to keep going despite having the proverbial deck stacked against it. But sometimes it doesn’t matter how many factors are in flux, if the administration and the fans are willing, the event will go on. Such was the case of Zenkaikon, a two-day, mid-sized convention located near Philadelphia that faced a dire task of hosting an even this year despite losing a great deal of the stability it had enjoyed previously.

Zenkaikon has had its fair share of bad luck: the 2010 event was massively overcrowded, with a tiny venue and masses of snaking lines. 2011 bounced back with a full three-day event in the Valley Forge Convention Center, but that location was lost to renovations and a casino in the event space. For 2012, the con had to scramble for a venue close enough to Philly, but still capable of hosting several thousand otaku and casual fans seeking community activities. Their eventual home became the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center in Oaks, 20 minutes away from Valley Forge by car and a wide open space that facilitated easy encounters and mass gatherings.

Courtesy of Bloomberg University Manga Club

Zenkaikon is similar to many cons its size, balancing event programming with a casual atmosphere that promotes Japanese culture but also leaves room for the fans to dictate their own experience. Taking a quick look down the list of panels and screenings showed a well-rounded schedule and plenty to choose from, but also wide enough gaps for relaxing, photoshoots and informal gatherings.

Pros:

Location- I was skeptical about having the con at an Expo Center, but the layout and flow of the space worked very well. It also gave a sense of scale and scope, without feeling confined or claustrophobic. It also felt good to know that crowding wasn’t a big deal, because there was more than enough floor space to go around.

Scheduling- A solid mix of panels, with a little something for everyone. Popular webcomics, voice actors, J-culture, art and irreverence were all on display to varying degrees. While camping out in panel rooms wasn’t really an option this year, there was enough variety for everyone to get a taste, if they so wanted it.

Welcoming Community- It felt good to see that drama wasn’t “a thing” at this convention. In fact, I don’t think I saw a single confrontation the entire weekend. Possibly this was related to the open feel of the location, but it made the entire weekend feel like a family gathering rather than a con. Plus it was fun to watch people charge across the con floor because they just HAD to get a picture of someone in cosplay.

Cons:

Courtesy of Milli

Location- One of the big complaints over the weekend was the sound bleed between the two panel rooms. Rather than being two separate rooms, it was more like one room with a retractable divider, which led to loud sounds invading, and occasionally overpowering, the room next door. I give credit to the panels staff for trying their best to limit the bleed and lower the volume if things got out of hand.

It also was a bit of a challenge to find suitable food and lodgings near the convention center. Across the parking field were a few options, as well as around the con hotels, but barring a car, variety was limited. The same can be said for hotels- I was staying at the “con hotel,” a lovely Homewood Suites…which was 3+ miles away from the Expo Center. The closest hotel was around a mile out, and filled up rapidly.

These issues, however, are minor since the con is moving to Lancaster next year.

It would be very tempting to refer to this year’s Zenkaikon as a “sampler” of what the event offers, but such a label wouldn’t be very far off. Instead of focusing on one or two programming tracks due to the festival-like atmosphere, Zenkaikon chose to remain as close to it’s standard practice as possible, making sure all the elements were represented. And the convention managed to pull off a successful weekend. I look forward to next year, with a new location and more space to work with, and a return to the same standards that attendees have come to enjoy at this convention.