Sanja Festival: A Photographer’s Guide

The Sanja Festival is one of Tokyo’s most vibrant and photographed events. This massive three-day event happens on the third weekend of May. It offers photographers a mix of culture, history, and artistic moments. Here’s my guide to help you make the most of this photographic opportunity.

Understanding the Sanja Festival

The Sanja Festival honors the three men who founded Senso-ji Temple. It’s renowned for its lively processions, elaborate floats, and mikoshi (portable shrines). The festival celebrates tradition, community, and the spirits enshrined at Asakusa Shrine. It provides endless visual inspiration.

Key Sanja Festival Events and Photographic Highlights

Daigyoretsu Parade (Friday)

What to Expect: This parade features priests, geisha, musicians, and dancers.

Photographic Tips: Arrive early to secure a good spot along the route. Look at my guide for this event.

Mikoshi Processions (Saturday and Sunday)

What to Expect: This is the heart of the festival. 100 mikoshi are carried through the streets. The energy and enthusiasm of the carriers are infectious and visually striking. Oh yeah, there will be crowds like you’ve never seen in your life.

Photographic Tip: Wide-angle lenses can capture the crowd’s intensity. Be careful as you don’t want to obstruct the mikoshi and cause safety issues. Don’t get too close.

Food stalls

What to Expect: Sensoji’s grounds are flooded with food stalls. They bring an amount of Shitamachi (old downtown) spirit to the event.

Photographic Tips: These can make good for portrait and food photography. Be careful as some of the stalls don’t like cameras. Look for the no photography sign.

Best Spots for Photography

Asakusa Tourist Information Center

Head to its eighth floor. It gives a good view of Kaminarimon, Nakamise, Hozomon, the Pagoda, and Sensoji Temple.

nakamise-dori omikoshi
An omikoshi on Nakamise-Dori.

Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate)

This is Sensoji’s main entrance. Its Sunday action can be intense.

Hozomon gate crowd
An omikoshi approaches the Hozomon gate.

Nakamise Shopping Street

Perfect for street photography and capturing the bustling festival atmosphere.

Hozomon (Hozo Gate)

This gate is between Sensoji temple and Nakamise. Catch the mikoshi as they pass through it and under its massive lanterns.

Asakusa Shrine and Senso-ji Temple Grounds

Ideal for capturing the central events and the architecture! You can also shoot from the stairs and verandah of the temple, but security might move you on at times.

sanja supporters Asakusa Shrine
The Sanja crowd in front of Asakusa Shrine.

Tips for Photographers

Respect the Culture

Always be mindful of the participants and the spectators. Avoid obstructing the procession and ask for permission when photographing individuals up close.

Blend In

Dress modestly and try to blend into the crowd. This helps in capturing more candid and natural shots.

Prepare for Crowds

The festival attracts thousands of visitors. Be prepared to navigate through dense crowds and keep your gear secure.

Lighting Challenges

The festival events span from bright daylight to evening, posing varying lighting conditions. Bring along a versatile lens and consider a mini-reflector for fill light. Don’t bring tripods as it will be too crowded.

Tell a Story

Aim to create a narrative with your photos. Capture wide shots to establish the scene. Mid-range shots are for context and close-ups for details.

Respect the security guards

The mikoshi are huge and weigh nearly a ton. If they fall, someone will get injured. Please listen to the police and security guards if they ask you to move. And be mindful that some don’t speak fluent English.

Post-Processing Tips

Enhance Colors

The festival is a riot of colors. Adjust the saturation and vibrance to make your images pop without overdoing it.

Highlight Details

Use selective sharpening to emphasize the intricate details of costumes and mikoshi.

Maintain Authenticity

While editing, strive to preserve the authenticity of the scenes. Avoid heavy filters that could detract from the cultural essence of the festival. Yes, I’ve been guilty of this in the past.

When is the Sanja Festival?

It happens on the third weekend in May. The Daigyoretsu kicks it off on Friday and ends two days later on Sunday.

Conclusion

The Sanja Festival is a treasure trove for photographers. It offers a dynamic blend of history, culture, and Japanese traditions. Prepare adequately and you’ll have a good chance of getting stunning images.

It doesn’t matter if you are a seasoned professional or an enthusiastic amateur. The Sanja Festival will enrich your photographic portfolio. You’ll leave it with great Tokyo travel memories. Happy shooting, and may your lenses capture its spirit in its glory!

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