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The Biggest New ‘Festival’ in Tokyo: Shibuya Halloween

Shibuya Halloween

A weekend of mayhem and then some

What’s the biggest festival in Tokyo? Is is the three-day-long Sanja Matsuri in Asakusa? Maybe. Could it be the Kanda Matsuri or one of the many fireworks festivals during the summer? Perhaps. But after last weekend I am pressed to say it might actually be Halloween. Now of course Halloween is hardly a ‘festival’ and certainly not a Japanese tradition, but the turn out this year was enormous and it lasted over 4 days.

In fact, just over a decade ago you would have only seen a few expats in costumes on Halloween. Over the last few years Halloween has become a craze in Tokyo with costume parties going all through October and culminating in a weekend-long party on the streets of Shibuya and Roppongi. In fact, this year the partying spilled onto Monday as it was October 31st, making it the official Halloween.

Shibuya Halloween

An ‘adult’ holiday

To be clear, Halloween is not about kids trick-or-treating with their parents dressed in classic costumes. On the contrary, Halloween in Japan is a nocturnal extravaganza perpetrated by guys and gals mostly in their 20s and 30s. Costumes range from classic monsters to cliche Harley Quinns to hilarious Donald Trump impressions to overtly sexualized bunny girls. Above all many Tokyo-ites do on Halloween what they always do well: party hard.

Shibuya Halloween

Police Presence

Despite the chaos, the Japanese police did a commendable job of keeping order and safety in the streets of Shibuya. Though their presence at times looked a bit authoritarian, they were a welcome sight. I witnessed a few altercations between police and drunk Halloweeners, but nothing that led to violence. It was amusing, to say the least, seeing hoards of real police officers mixed in with costumed sexy police girls. Despite the humorous scenes, the cops stayed focused. Overall, the real (and fake) police did a great job keeping everyone safe during this amazing new Tokyo festival.

Shibuya Halloween

Shooting Halloween

The bulk of the festivities on Halloween happen at night of course, going well into the wee hours and finishing after dawn. Tokyo, and specifically Shibuya, are somewhat well lit with all the neon signs and billboards in addition to large street lights of all kinds. However, as the night progresses a lot of this signage turns off. Also, the revelers do not tend to stay in well lit areas but move in streams between the many bars and convenience stores and the station. So, relying on ambient night is not ideal.

The solution then, is to bring your own light: use flash.

Shibuya Halloween

Flash like paparazzi

Shooting with flash, up close, in the streets might be frowned upon most of the time, but on Halloween it’s not a problem for anyone. But you can’t just go shooting flash all willy-nilly. We don’t want to lose the little ambient light that there is in the background. How we set our camera is crucial. The way I did it for the photos in this article is as follows: ISO 3200, f/8, 1/200. I set the ISO high so that the ambient light would come through as much as possible. The aperture was set to f/8 in order to maximize depth of field and make focusing easier in the manic crowds. The shutter speed was 1/200 in order to maintain flash sync but also give a speed fast enough to freeze the action.

The other benefit of the high ISO is that the flash did not have to do a lot of work to light the scene. It was mainly acting as a fill light, while the camera was doing the heavy work of getting an even exposure. This means the flash did not have to fire at high power which has two benefits: 1) the batteries last longer and 2) the recycle time between shots is not very long.

Shibuya Halloween

The final decision to make with the flash was how to actually orient it. I went out on two of the nights this Halloween season: Saturday and Monday. On Saturday I used a sync cable to keep the flash off the camera. I often held it at arms length away from myself and aimed either directly at the subjects or a bit off in order to get interesting lighting. But in the end, I found this technique to be a bit cumbersome and inconsistent, so on Monday I kept the flash on camera with the head flipped straight up and the little built-in bounce card extended. This gave me great consistent results and was much easier to work with in the chaos of the night.

All in all, it was blast photographing the madness, and chatting and connecting with people.

Shibuya Halloween

The Future of Halloween

Hopefully this new Tokyo tradition will continue without issue into the coming years. It seems that each year gets a bit crazier and therefore a bit more fun. I personally plan to go out next year on even more nights and continue to capture the crazy characters. Also, next year we’re thinking about doing a special street photography workshop on Halloween specifically detailing how to work with flash in such a chaotic environment. So, stay tuned!