The nearly 20-year-old convention celebrates anime, pop culture and gaming

Have you ever wanted to master staged combat choreography? Learn Japanese folk songs? Play a game of “Cosplay Chess,” where the people are the set pieces? If so, you're probably attending Ohayocon, an annual anime, pop culture and gaming convention that returns to the Greater Columbus Convention Center and Hyatt Regency from Friday, Jan. 26, through Sunday, Jan. 28.

Attendees can customize their convention experience by selecting from hundreds of photo shoots, tournaments, concerts, workshops and panels.

“We like to focus on the fun and interactive stuff, but we also have stuff that is heavily information-based,” said Ohayocon marketing department head Katie Phelps.

For example, one panel will cover autism and the anime community. Another will address consent and cosplay.

There will also be big-name guests such as singer Diana Garnet. “She's actually an American who lived in Japan most of her life, then won a game show in Japan and landed a contract with Sony,” Phelps explained. Voice actor J. Michael Tatum will be the convention's “Roastee of Honor.”

“Every year we throw a roast where we take one of our beautiful, talented, incredible guests and we just rake them over the coals,” Phelps said. “He doesn't necessarily deserve what he's getting, but it's all in good fun.”

Ohayocon is not only defined by its activities; the aesthetic is just as compelling. There is anime art provided by Phelps and artists such as Robert DeJesus, who created the convention's mascot nurse character, Lindsay Howard. Then there's also the art worn by the attendees.

“I'd say about 86 percent of our attendee base is a cosplayer,” Phelps said. “It's really part of the community and [how] some of our people make friends with each other. It's like, ‘I'm in costume from the same show you are. We're friends now.'”

Phelps' favorite costume was an attendee's take on Mechagodzilla 10 years ago. “It had the three heads and was coated in some kind of faux metal that really replicated the look almost perfectly,” she said.

Phelps' relationship with Ohayocon extends even further back than a decade. Her mother, Melissa, co-founded the convention in 2000, and Phelps started attending when she was 5 years old.

“[My mom] introduced my sister and I to anime when we were very young,” Phelps said. “She's a big gamer. … It was cool having the only cool parent when I was growing up. All my friends would be like, ‘I want to hang out with Katie's mom more than I want to hang out with Katie,' because my mom had all the cool stuff.”

The convention began in Cleveland, where the other co-founders lived, but moved to Columbus a couple years later. “We love Columbus because it's such a freaking beautiful city,” said Phelps, who lives in Northern Kentucky. “We could never break into any of the local scenes [in Cleveland] because there wasn't really a market for it, but because Columbus was so hip and cool, there were a lot of people like us looking for something to do.”

Once a two-room event with fewer than 500 attendees, Ohayocon now attracts more than 18,000 people from Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and beyond. In fact, Ohayocon artist Lulu VanHoagland travels from New York to participate.

“It's been one of my favorite convention experiences overall, [and] I've been going to conventions since I was in the eighth grade,” VanHoagland said. “The convention scene in New York is up-and-coming now, but it's been pretty dead because it's really expensive to do things.”

“There's really just a sense of community,” VanHoagland added.

Caitie Bolton, who helps manage the Ohayocon panels, echoed that sentiment. “Historically, the geeks … we've been on the outskirts,” she said. “It's becoming mainstream now, but we still need a place where we can get together, talk about our weird, geeky things and just enjoy our passions.”

The average Ohayocon participant defies old stereotypes. “The community has changed a lot,” Phelps said. “You think ‘anime person' and you think [of a] guy in someone's basement with a pillow with an anime girl on it. … It's just not that anymore. It's a lot of young people with varied interests [and] a lot of people from all walks of life.”

With a major focus on accessibility components like wheelchairs and ASL interpreters, the Ohayocon staff strives to welcome everyone.

“We really want to make sure that people know that no matter what, they can come and enjoy our show,” Phelps said. “It's not about being better than anybody. … It's about having fun with your friends and making some lasting memories.”