"The pressure's high / Just to stay alive."

The cherry blossoms were in bloom again, which meant another Cherry Blossom Festival (CBF) Parade in San Francisco on April 19th filled with wonderful displays of Japanese and Japanese American culture. I would not actually see most of the floats this year since I again chose to be part of the Safeway sponsored float devoted to anime and manga cosplayers. Despite swearing not to participate in another CBF, the cajoling of fellow cosplayers brought me back. If I'm going to wear a costume on the streets of San Francisco, it might as well be during a parade with plenty of spectators and photographers. The sun was blazing, but at least the breezes of San Francisco would counter the heat, right?

I left the house early on the Sunday of the parade. This year I chose a light costume suitable for light marching: Brock from "Pokemon." I made a quick stop for hair glue and painkillers after noticing the default mousse was not strong enough to spike the hair. I then literally sped to the BART station and caught the train to rendezvous at the cosplayer rally point near the--forgive the shouting but it will make it easier for me to find this crucial bit of information when I read this to remember the location for next year's CBF--CIVIC CENTER BART STATION. Cherrybomb of SuckerPunch Tees spotted me at one of the earlier stations. I received help in getting my hair spiked and would have had an easier time if I had a haircut and brought a comb.

Cherrybomb happened to be one of the judges for this year's costume contest, which always seemed to start late each year. Would Cherrybomb's late arrival from BART delay this year's contest? The cosplayers riding the BART train with us probably could have asked for judgment during the trip; not that I wanted judgment. I opted to skip out of the annual CBF costume contest this year after last year's experience when I forgot to register and instead focused on enjoying myself and making a spectacle for the spectators, which was a lot less stressful and a lot more fun. I understand that competition is healthy and motivates people to churn out their best work to display in front of judges. But during CBF I usually stop caring about craftsmanship and competing when I walk past the first block of the parade and notice how several costumes are now the ovens baking the cosplayers who made them.

I knew that water and food were hard to score at the congregation point. Convenience stores lined the parade route, but plowing through the line of customers and falling behind the cosplayers made them inconvenient stops. A side benefit of cosplaying Brock was having a legitimate reason to carry a backpack containing supplies. While I knew I would not have enough for every dehydrated or drained cosplayer, I would at least take care of a few fellow cosplayers as Johnny on the Spot with food, water, and painkillers.

The BART arrived at the CIVIC CENTER BART STATION at around 9:30AM. Cherrybomb and I ran in the assumed direction of City Hall. Fortunately, the sight of people in brightly colored and impractical clothing usually seen in anime milling in front of a government building indicated that we were at the right location. Cosplayers busied themselves by making final adjustments to costumes, catching up with friends, making new friends, and posing for photographs. Photographers varied in skill and exposure ranged from professional, media, amateur, point & shoot, and creepy. It was easy to tell who was who based on camera, clothing, demeanor, and smell.

Cosplayers outdid themselves this year whether dressed as a ninja, a pirate, a Pokemon breeder, or a Gundam. My personal favorite was Jonas' pink Nintendo DS Lite. It accurately resembled my pink DS. It worked just like a DS with its functional buttons and stylus. And it's a freaking pink DS. It would be 1000% more awesome if it could actually play DS games.

"DiGi Charat" cosplay continues to be cute enough to punt. For Brock, capturing that Gema Pokemon would be a nice feat. Di Di and fellow "JoJo's Bizarre Adventure" cosplayers were identifiable from orbit. Brock isn't Brock without hitting on anyone with aesthetically appealing reproductive organs, even if the character owning those reproductive organs is composed of plankton. Traditional headlock greetings remain traditional.

The cosplayers increased from a handful to too many to count within minutes before the costume contest. OniCourseMusha performed double cosplay duty with his DDR pad for himself and "Brainage" for supporting the DS. While shooting, I announced myself as a dispenser of "Food! Water! Ammo! I'm out of ammo."

The costume contest began once all the judges and the Japan Video store owner arrived. I took my spot among the photographers and shot what I could amid Mike's backdrop. I lost count of the number of entries but by the 30th, my leg was aching from my shooter's position. Batteries and patience with interloping creepy photographers ran low during shooting as well. I used my usual spray and pray shooting method and shot depending on number of poses and attempts to get a good shot. Apologies for several duplicate shots. I got myself on the backdrop as the contest died because how often do I get shot in front of a backdrop? Some Japanese ladies felt the same and we let them pose in front of it as well.

After looking through the costume contest photos, I kick myself for not recognizing people I previously met at prior spring events like the Hakone photo shoot and Okage Sama De~ party. Had I known better, I would have popped over to say hi or something just as unoriginal. While Wendell the MC/judge and the rest of the judges decided on the winners, it was back to shooting cosplayers. It was great seeing Ruby Moon III and RyuHayabusaDOA2 outside of Twitter. Claudine and other participants who arrived only to walk the parade registered. Luckily, I had the organizer Ray Nagar register me while I was shooting the costume contest. I will have to know better than to have my Poke Balls physically examined by a schoolgirl. The request to place my arm around fellow Pokemon trainer Misty was met with awkward compliance from both of us. There's never an Ash to divert tension when we need one.

After much discussion, the judges reached their decisions and announced the winners:

Cosplay judges are like the umpires of a sports game. No matter what they decide, at least half of the people will end up hating them. As mentioned earlier, I do not compete in costume contests because I do not deal in drama outside of television programs and performing on the stage. Despite most cosplayers saying something similar, not every cosplayer shares the same view and will start a ruckus about costume contest judging. Here's an idea I have on holding a CBF costume contest while alleviating drama: Hold a cosplay raffle instead. Every participant gets a ticket just for being in costume. Judges who wish to spotlight good craftsmanship or impressive visuals discreetly give the cosplayer an additional raffle ticket or two. Ideally, this would give every cosplayer a chance to win while also encouraging cosplayers to construct costumes to wow audiences and judges. When determining who rides the float--after accommodating cosplayers who need the float due to large costumes or other situations--get a neutral person to draw out the winners. Then fly that neutral person into an undisclosed location that does not have Internet so he/she will not have to deal with the cosplayers who end up complaining about the results anyway. At the very least, this raffle idea should deflect complaints from the hard working cosplay judges since they are not responsible for random chance and every cosplayer did receive at least one raffle ticket.

With the winners revealed and en route to the parade float, the rest of the cosplayers formed up into columns to march along San Francisco into Japan Town. Since most cosplayers lacked formation marching unlike the marching band participants, it may have been easier to order cats to march in columns. Wendell and Ray gave pep talks to psych everyone up before the march.

Perhaps now is the time to talk about the weather and subsequent theme of the report. Imagine a typical San Franciscan day where the sky is cloudy and the cool breezes blowing in from the bay. Wearing a comfortable spring outfit, you are riding on the streets of San Francisco inside a clean and well air-conditioned MUNI bus. Now lose the clouds and the breezes before throwing your highly detailed yet highly impractical costumed self into a walk-in oven that is pre-heated to 90-95 degrees and is about two miles long. Welcome to the 2009 Cherry Blossom Festival parade route, you masochistic exhibitionist. Cosplayers quickly went from excited to dehydrated to potentially afflicted with heatstroke. I personally had an embarrassingly sick moment due to the heat just as I was about to introduce myself to Festival guest George Takei. One major suggestion for next year is to have a volunteer pull a wagon full of water bottles and other drinks/refreshments for the cosplayers. The marching band ahead of us had one and they seemed to enjoy it. With Safeway as a sponsor, I'm sure they could also provide the water bottles. It was hard to say why the weather was so hot this year. I would not be surprised if some cosplayer somewhere blamed the cosplay judges for the hot weather.

Nevertheless we marched along, waving at spectators and posing for cameras. I showed off my crappy juggling skills while dispensing water and granola bars until I ran out of both. I accepted a huge ladle of sake from a lady and appreciated the amateur photographers handing out water to cosplayers in desperate need of it. The convenience stores sold additional liquid to help hot cosplayers like Patrick. And I shot who I could where I could when I could.

After reaching Japan Town, cosplayers displaced and went about their own activities. While shopping, freshening up, reuniting with friends, eating, drinking, and fighting past crowds were viable options, I found kneeling underneath a refreshing AC vent and disregarding the traffic I was causing to be the best option. I eventually followed Di Di and company into the mall and lost myself in the sea of people. Chris and his army costume buddies helped lead me towards the Peace Plaza. The outdoors of the Peace Plaza was full of heat and people, but I stopped caring when the sake from the parade began to take effect.

Between talking to Ruby Moon III, hanging with Jonas and the video game related cosplayers, listening to OniCourseMusha's talk of ballroom dancing, looking for girls to strike out with to keep with Brock's character, being too hot and tired to do anything, and napping on friendly girls' laps, I caught bits of the activity on the stage. Ray and Wendell announced the cosplay contest winners to the general audience. The spectacular costume contest winners was a bit more subdued at the Peace Plaza since most of the winners already removed most of their costumes due to heat and fatigue. The talent portion of the show began as cosplayers sang and danced to songs representing their characters. I ran backstage to claim my participant prize: A box of strawberry Pocky and a Haruhi poster that I lost by the end of the day.

As "Petit Love" ended and concluded the cosplayers' time on the stage, the organizers of the Cherry Blossom Festival ended the event with a raffle of various prizes. Saying goodbye to Jonas and company and wondering how to to get back to BART, I ran into RyuHayabusaDOA2 and his friend Jessica. Since both were en route to BART, I tagged along for the journey home. We said goodbye to Patrick and Raider3--both as exhausted from the day as we were--at the hotel. I offered to take Jessica home since we lived relatively close to each other and she accepted. After parting ways with Ryu, the two of us got lost in Fremont before finally using the GPS to reach home.

RyuHayabusaDOA2 had his fill of melon pan and Jessica had her art books. I then realized I was too tired to think about shopping after the parade and wasted a shopping trip. Come to think of it, I never really explored the booths of Japan Town during the annual Festival. If I do participate next year after arriving at the CIVIC CENTER BART STATION, I should really peruse them.

Hopefully you enjoyed this report from the trenches of CBF. If you wish to add me on Facebook, look for Tom Tonthat. The same photos from CBF are uploaded there and perhaps you can help me bag and tag yourself and the other cosplayers. And be sure to check out the CBF playlist of the talent show and other footage from the field.

Pictures are copyright by Traveling Valentine. Feel free to use any photos of you, just link us back. If you want us to remove something, kindly email us. While you're here, do sign the guestbook. Many thanks to Chaz Boston Baden for the image resizing and watermarking program.