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Aug 28, 2018

Asakusa Samba Carnival 2018: Faces and costumes of the 37th parade


Gallery - Asakusa Samba Carnival 2018


The Asakusa Samba Carnival 2018 (浅草サンバカーニバル) swung into the old-skool streets of Tokyo’s erstwhile good-time district of Asakusa, Taito Ward, on Saturday for an event considered by many to be the final curtain call for summer in the Japan capital.


Asakusa Samba Carnival 2018:  Faces and costumes of the 37th parade photo


While many people across Japan might welcome the end to another summer of oppressive, and sometimes deadly, temperatures, Saturday’s carnival parade was played out amidst Asakusa’s atmospheric waves that rippled in the post-typhoon sticky heat, leaving onlookers to seek air-conditioned shelter between parade groups.


This was the 37th edition of Asakusa’s samba shindig, an event which has grown to become the largest samba carnival held in the northern hemisphere, regularly drawing onlooker numbers that top 500,000. It’s an impressive feat for somewhere seemingly so far removed from samba’s Brazilian heartland. But then the Brazilian diaspora is the largest in Japan outside of those from Asian countries.


The history of the Asakusa Samba Carnival Parade Contest traces a different thread back to the early 1980s when it was conjured up as a way to reverse the fortunes of an Asakusa losing its appeal as a center for shopping and entertainment in the face of Tokyo’s more glitzy, neon-doused districts like Shinjuku. After a “pre-carnival” held in 1980, the carnival and samba contest proper got into its swing the following year.


Despite the event being well-represented by expats from the Latin American giant we are still a long way from the Sambodromo in Rio de Janeiro, the purpose built runway for the Rio Carnival.  


Here in eastern Tokyo, the watchful gaze of Christ the Redeemer is replaced by the eyes of oglers up there in the lofty heights of Tokyo Skytree’s observation decks. And Rio’s verdant, precipitous hills are swapped for the “golden turd” atop the offices of Asahi.


Asakusa Samba Carnival 2018:  Faces and costumes of the 37th parade photo


18 teams from samba schools from as far away as Osaka and Tochigi competed in the Asakusa Samba Carnival Parade Contest 2018, taking off at staggered intervals along a parade route that took the teams past the iconic Kaminarimon Gate before making a final flourish in front of the panel of judges.  


As in previous year’s the samba carnival put on a riot of sweat, sound, color, wobbling flesh, hallucinogenic floats, and eye-popping costumes all carried along by the rhythms of samba, sex, and straight-up good times.  


Yes, this maybe a contest but ultimately, everyone’s a winner.


Still, congratulations should go out to G.R.E.S Nakamise Barbaros (G.R.E.S.仲見世バルバロス), the samba collective that has been present at every one of the Asakusa Samba Carnival, who claimed top spot in the main S1 League contest for the third consecutive year. The “Barbaros” seemed to have dedicated their float and performance to master of the samba genre, the Brazilian musician Paulinho da Viola.


Asakusa Samba Carnival 2018:  Faces and costumes of the 37th parade photo

( Performers from G.R.E.S Nakamise Barbaros on their festival float)


Photographing an event like the Asakusa Samba Carnival, at any level, one is presented with three primary challenges -- the searing heat and dramatic differences between light and shade, the crowds, and the constant movement of the paraders.


Not being one to enjoy standing / sitting still at the best of times, the waits (of no more than about five minutes) between parading teams are particularly challenging for me if I get caught on a side of the street in the direct glare of the sun. If you’ve found a good spot, then you’ll be faced with the choice to endure or to vacate and ultimately give up the spot. If you’re choosing the former, you really will need to stock up on fluids, slap on the sun block, and bring a hat.  


Asakusa Samba Carnival 2018:  Faces and costumes of the 37th parade photo


Shooting the Asakusa Samba Carnival guerilla style can be as fun as it can be frustrating. I enjoy it more, simply because I can’t stand to stay put. That said, sections of sidewalk can get particularly crowded, especially at the exact point where the parade float is, as some people insist on trying to follow it, filming it as they go. It’s psychotically annoying especially when you just can’t seem to get ahead of the float in order to set up a shot.  


For a person of average height, there are always gaps in the forest of heads and hair through which you can poke a lense and get some good shots of the parade. Without doubt though, if you want to guarantee a street-level spot, you’ll need to be in place early doors.  


If you’re floating around though, sections of sidewalk across the road from Kaminarimon often have a few gaps one can take advantage of and there is typically a movement of people between parade teams when things clear out a little and spaces become available. 


Of course, while shooting guerilla style is fun, at some point you’ll need to get settled, if only for a few minutes. The Asakusa Samba Carnival, despite seeming to display the carefree rhythms of Latin American beach life, runs on a tight schedule. Consequently there is little time for performers to take pause and so you need to be ready to shoot, otherwise the opportunity will be gone (unless you can get through the crowds quick enough to get back in front of the parade -- not entirely unlikely, but far from guaranteed). 




Have you got any tips for enjoying or photographing the Asakusa Samba Carnival? Were you there in 2018? Let us know in the comments.




For more about international and ethnic festivals in Tokyo and across Japan: 


International, ethnic festivals across Japan celebrate expat community



Past carnival coverage: 


Why the Asakusa Samba Carnival is one of the best events in Tokyo, nay all of Japan




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