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At Otakon 2000, Giuliana Funkhouser, 18, of Vermont, dressed as Anita from “Dark Stalkers,” photographs Susane Andracki, 19, (center) and her mom, Susan Andracki, of Pennsylvania, dressed as Mama and Babbit from “Child’s Toy.” (Chiaki Kawajiri, Baltimore Sun photo, Aug. 5, 2000)

Welcome to the weekend where Baltimore turns more than a little Japanese.

We speak, of course, of Otakon, that massive three-day celebration of Japanese and Near Eastern popular culture that makes the area around the Baltimore Convention Center look like something out of an anime artist’s sketchbook. Thousands of cosplayers will sport costumes, usually self-designed and inspired by the best of Japanese media, from Pokemon and Sailor Moon to Bleach and Madoka Magica. It’s all very colorful and revelatory, if perhaps a little (to the uninitiated) weird — not a bad thing. 

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Sara Sams, 15, and Jennifer Barclay, 17, came all the way from Georgia to attend Otakon 1999. Sara dressed as the anime character Cherry, Jennifer as Lime. (Chiaki Kawajiri, Baltimore Sun photo, July 3, 1999)

But this is no small-time fan gathering. By Otakon’s end Sunday afternoon, some 35,000 people are expected to attend.

Like most fan conventions, Otakon started small. It began in 1994, when about 350 people showed up at a Days Inn in State College, Pa. Two years later, the convention moved to Maryland; about 1,000 people came to that three-day gathering at the Hunt Valley Inn in Baltimore County.

Since 1999, Otakon has taken over the convention center for a weekend, usually in late July or early August. And as the gathering has grown – from 4,500 participants in 1999 to over 34,000 in 2013 — so has its footprint. This year, Otakon activities will extend to the Baltimore Arena and other nearby locations.

Organizers estimate about 10 percent of attendees dress up, but to the naked eye, that percentage certainly seems like an underestimate. Fans take pride in their outfits, and since most of them are handmade (buying off the shelf is considered tacky), they clearly put a lot of hours into preparation.

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Connor Albers, 14, of Cincinnati, Ohio, is No Face, from the anime, “Spirited Away.” (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun photo, Aug. 19, 2005)

"I really enjoy looking around and picking out my favorite characters," 19-year-old Samantha Benya of Sykesville told the Baltimore Sun at Otakon 2004. Dressed in a costume lifted from the original "Final Fantasy" video game, complete with huge green foam mallet, she looked around and said, “I like to think that it’s really them."

As popular as the costumes are – it’s certainly what attracts most outsiders’ attention – that’s far from all that Otakon is about. There are panel discussions and presentations, concerts (often featuring Japanese performers who otherwise are rarely seen on these shores), vendors, sumo wrestling, talent appearances and lots of general hob-nobbing.

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Yumi, of the Japanese pop duo Puffy AmiYumi, came to Otakon 2005 for a fan Q&A session. (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore Sun photo, Aug. 19, 2005)

For years, Otakon has been a large feather in Baltimore’s pop-culture cap as one of the largest anime conventions in the U.S. In 2013, only Los Angeles’ Anime Expo attracted more people. But Baltimore and Otakon will soon be parting company. At the end of last year’s Otakon, organizers, citing uncertainty over the convention center’s future and noting the facility “has not aged gracefully,” announced that the convention would be moving to Washington, D.C., in 2017.

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-To see a photo gallery of the best costumes of Otakon through the years, click here.

-To see a photo gallery of the colorful personalities to look out for this year at Otakon, click here.