Aug 28, 2017

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

Saturday August 26 saw the 2017 edition of the annual Asakusa Samba Carnival (浅草サンバカーニバル) heat up the already stifling streets of “old skool” Tokyo. It was the 36th outing for an event that has grown over the years to bring in some 500,000 visitors and firmly cement its place on the Tokyo “knees up” calendar as one of the best.  

Swapping Rio’s celebrated Sambódromo (which is actually in a pretty drab part of the Brazilian city - except for the mountain backdrop) Asakusa Samba Carnival paraders jiggle their hips, bums and boobs around a course that doglegs past Kaminarimon and is lined thick with wide-eyed, straining, craning and almost-as-sweaty spectators. The finishing stretch is flanked by the usual elderly dignitaries that frequent such events in Japan who are afforded the most heart pounding close ups of the wobbling flesh. It’s in these latter stretches also, that a panel of judges cast their eyes on the 18 parade groups vying to top the lists for the carnival’s best procession. 2017’s victors were local heavyweights and carnival regulars G.R.E.S BARBAROS (the Nakamise Barbarians) who upped the already present “wow factor” with a burlesque interpretation of the Brazilian samba carnival. 

Quite why this expat had waited until 2017 to take their first look at the Asakusa Samba Carnival, upon reflection, has taken on the form of a pretty stupid mystery - it must be hands down one of the best events the capital has to offer.

And here’s why … 

... the Asakusa Samba Carnival offers up such a hallucinogenic contrast to the traditional Japanese festival as to seem, well, almost unreal.

The first thing that springs to mind is that the Asakusa Samba Carnival offers up such a hallucinogenic contrast to the traditional Japanese festival as to seem, well, almost unreal. The slow and considered gestures of the bon odori, typically displayed by ladies of an older vintage, while not without their charms, seem almost ridiculous by comparison. Or should that be the other way round? Whatever. The whirling limbs, wobbling flesh, high heels, heavy camp, raucous drums, beaming grins, sweat, six packs, fluorescent thongs, mad wigs, madder head pieces and the overwhelming sense of a carnal unleashing of the banalities of everyday life make the samba carnival intoxicating.  

As an an expat in Japan who isn’t from Brazil I’m filled with envy that my own country of birth doesn’t host a similarly proud and passionate event in Tokyo, or anywhere in Japan for that matter. Not that it could (without wanting to go into the details). But in a sense, it doesn’t really matter. The Asakusa Samba Carnival seems to attract a pretty cosmopolitan mob and the sentiment of celebrating the culture of the motherland is easily shared, neigh infectious, as is the sight of locals embracing it. It just so happens that the motherland in question is Brazil, a land that really knows how to throw a decent party.  

The Japan / Brazil coupling (along with the samba parade / shitamachi Asakusa coupling) may look incongruous but maybe it makes perfect sense ...

Human ties between Brazil and Japan have long seemed a bit of an oddity (in this expat’s eyes at least) - just the distance between the two lands would make them unlikely. But they are strong, with each nation home to sizeable diaspora. The Asakusa Samba Carnival then is testament to the human ability to embrace difference and create something capable of really unleashing the human condition - the desire for pleasures, to be happy, to feel love, to be in the company of others, to move in rhythm … to get drunk (on life, of course). The Japan / Brazil coupling (along with the samba parade / shitamachi Asakusa coupling) may look incongruous but maybe it makes perfect sense - Brazilian joie de vivre organized by Japanese attention to detail and safety. Sounds like a win - win situation. Is a win - win situation!

Whatever the roots and whoever the winners Asakusa Samba Carnival is surely up there with Halloween as a feast for the eyes in Japan. Not in a leering, salacious way (although there are probably those that get this kind of a kick - Just what are all those super long camera lenses pointed at?) but just in the kind of way that jars the spectator out of the office grays, the tired post-work meals, crap TV, and incessant train ads. The carnival brings the color, emphatically slapping it up in flamboyant form to present something that really is a sight for sore eyes.

Ultimately the Asakusa Samba Carnival is all of the above and more and maybe for the long-term, Japan-bashing expat it might bring a little light, just as for the wide-eyed newbie it might widen the eyes even more. Either way, it’s been scratched into this expat’s 2018 schedule.  

If you can’t wait for 2018 or you couldn’t make 2017 take a look at our images of Asakusa Samba Carnival 2017 (浅草サンバカーニバル).

*NB - we took hundreds images and it turned out to be a huge task to filter them down hence if this “image gallery” seem a bit large, well, shouganai has they say in Japan!

Have you ever been to the Asakusa Samba Carnival?  Think it might be the best event in Tokyo?  Like our carnival images?  Got an favorite events in Japan?  Let us know in the comments.

Asakusa Samba Carnival official page

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1 Comment

  • genkidesu

    on Aug 31

    Awesome pictures - I can't believe I didn't know this festival existed until now! Hopefully one to see before my time in Japan draws to a close in a few years.