The Japanese Festival at Missouri Botanical Garden

The land of the rising sun in the city of St. Louis

Not that you need an excuse to do so, but photography is one of the best reasons to get yourself out there to experience new things. Sometimes I love just hopping in the car without a plan and drive around randomly to see what I find, and found interesting places I have. But the most interesting things need not be so secret and hidden, for they may be well announced or publicized. So if you’re a St. Louis resident looking to experience something cultural this summer, let’s get ready to travel all the way to…the Missouri Botanical Garden. Hey, I never said we were leaving town.

Japanese Festival

Where: Missouri Botanical Garden
When: Once a year, typically over Labor Day weekend

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The coming of the annual Japanese Festival on Labor Day weekend is kind of bittersweet for me: I look forward to the event but it also symbolizes what is effectively the last hurrah of summer before the fall.

The festival is usually held from Saturday through Monday of the holiday weekend. Unlike some events that require several days to see and do everything, I feel that you can get most of the experience of the Japanese Festival in just one. With the exception of a few events that happen only once, most of the other events are repeated throughout the weekend. Keep in mind that if you choose to go on Labor Day Monday, that is the final day of the event and runs on a shorter schedule that cuts out right before the evening.

What you bring along in your camera bag greatly depends on what you’re planning to do at the festival. The Missouri Botanical Gardens is overwhelmingly beautiful and you can waste hours alone simply walking around and shooting flora and scenery. However, you can do that on any weekend of the year unlike the Japanese Festival (only once a year), so I would personally simply stick with the event and save garden exploration for another day (with the exception of the Japanese Garden and events involved).

For the festival I’d personally go with the combination of a 24-70mm and 70-200mm as the former will let you get both wide and mid range shots in crowds, and the latter will get you further out onto stages and presentations at longer distances. I’ve also shot this event in the past with a single 100mm macro lens which ended up being very versatile between the garden fauna and the ongoing events.

Unless you get lucky and it’s an overcast day, believe me, you are going to be battling a lot of bright, harsh sunlight for a number of outdoor events. Use your best judgment call on a flash: while a number of indoor events won’t allow them, the flash will still be useful outdoors as fill flash against the harsh light.

Parking is loaded and so don’t expect to find spaces in the MoBot parking lot if the lot is full (the parking attendants will shoo you away, anyway), but I usually find space in the auxiliary parking at the nearby school and church across Shaw just adjacent to MoBot and it’s not a very far walk.

Parked and there in one piece? Good. While the Japanese Festival changes up some events year to year (particularly music and performances), there are consistent mainstays.

Opening Ceremony

Starting with a Shinto Shrine parade 7V1B9050and precession that ends at the opening ceremony, this event is what you’d expect: officials and dignitaries giving remarks and kicking off this year’s festivities. The ritual of kagamiwari – breaking the sake barrel – is performed and you can buy your own wooden cup for a Hamilton. There is a performance by Osuwa Taiko drummers but the harsh sunlight, crowds and dancers getting in the way make photography a bit challenging. Don’t worry though…you’ll have a much better opportunity to photograph the drummers later on in the day.

By the way, make sure to give a wide berth to the individuals carrying the shrine during the parade preceding the opening ceremony. One time I was photographing them as they were stopped, positioning myself in a spot I thought was clear of their route. When they made the call to move forward, it turned out I was right in their way after all and I looked quite the fool as I had all of three seconds to hightail it before getting charged. Trying my best to be a non-invasive photographer, it was not my proudest moment.

Sumo Demonstration

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It’s always good to see these guys. Former sumo wrestlers Kamikiiwa, Koryu and Sunahama demonstrate the sport of sumo and the demonstration usually runs all three days. The format is typically the same each year: Kamikiiwa begins by explaining the significance of sumo while Koryu and Sunahama stretch. Kids are invited up on stage to participate in warm-up exercises with them (watch for funny photo opportunities from wide eyed children intimidated by the wrestlers). Koryu and Sunahama face off against one another for a few rounds, then two male volunteers from the audience don the gear and spar with both wrestlers consecutively.

Dial your camera settings in for action, but the sumo do not move at the pace of other high action sports so you can relax your shutter speed a bit. The nice thing about this event (and others held at the same spot) is that it’s shaded with a stage canopy that evens out the lighting, so your exposure should be pretty consistent.

7V1B7390Candyman

Unless you are somehow indoors all day, Candyman is hard to miss. Neither a forgotten 90’s horror movie or a Christina Aguilera song, Candyman is a traveling street performer who does various things like spinning sculptures out of sugar, teasing people with costumes and doing various other tricks and acts.

Candyman can be difficult to photograph for three reasons. The first is that he gathers quite the crowd so you’re going to have to get up close. Second, he’s constantly moving around his cart in circles and you don’t have much leeway with the crowd to move with him, so expect him to be out of view or blocked by the cart quite a bit. Finally, his performances are during the harshest part of the day. His show is repeated constantly in different locations throughout the day, so I would try and catch him when he moves to the shade.

Cosplay Fashion Show

While anime and cosplay is here, don’t go to the Japanese Festival expecting the same experience you would get from dedicated anime and sci-fi conventions. (Try other options.) And unlike those events which are usually held inside temperature-controlled convention centers, this event is outside during a hotter-than-hell weekend and not much fun for someone walking around in a Gundam suit.

Photographers may be more interested in the costumes walking around, and most of them can be seen in the Cosplay Fashion Show. The most amusing part of the show isn’t always the costumes but those in the general audience unfamiliar with anime: most are lost on most of the characters but will give a standing ovation when they see something recognizable like a Pikachu.

The lines to enter the auditorium get quite long for this show, so I would probably get there early to get a better seat. Make sure to position yourself opposite of where the participants walk out. The lighting is very ugly in here so do something about your white balance, and no flash is initially allowed. Unlike other events held in the same venue, the cosplayers may be brought out again at the end for an opportunity for flash photography.

Osuwa Taiko drummers

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I mentioned earlier not to sweat it if you missed out on the drummers during the opening ceremony, because they put on a more formal outdoor performance later in the evening. As it’s typically one of the last events of the night and the temperature is cooling off, absolutely expect the event to draw a major turnout. You don’t want to be shooting over the backs of heads, so I highly suggest getting to the location at least a half-hour in advance in order to grab a front spot in the lawn area.

I like the timing of the evening performance because the stage lighting is more compelling than the flatness of the sunlight and overhead canopy during the day. On the other hand, you will need to either open the aperture or dial up the ISO. I would recommend using as much shutter speed as you can, because the drummers and performers move quickly at certain times in the show. Listen carefully to the beats and rhythm of their performance, for you can predict and feel when big photo moments are about to come up.

These events I mentioned are only just a mere handful of what is at the Japanese Festival, and there is much more to see and do such as origami, cooking, bonsai demonstrations, music performances, kimono fashion shows and martial arts.

After having attended the festival over the last few years, I’m sorry to say that I’m going to be bowing out of this year’s event. Not only because I’m choosing to take a break for this year as I’ve been to the last several, but also because this year I will be at an event of a different nature held in an even hotter climate: Burning Man. If you do choose to go to this year’s Japanese Festival, take care to protect yourself from the sun, have a cup of sake for me and don’t forget to take some good pictures.

Patrick Shannon

About Patrick Shannon

A creative professional, photographer and design+technology advocate based in St. Louis, I have worked with a number of businesses, agencies and clients on design, production and marketing for everyday brands. In my spare time, I enjoy woodworking and am still attempting to build a life-sized replica of Optimus Prime out of wood.