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A photography blog about Tokyo, run by Australian photographer Rohan Gillett

Falconry at Hama Rikyu Gardens

One of the events I’ve always wanted to photograph is Tokyo is the falconry at Hama Rikyu Gardens over the New Year’s holiday.  It usually happens on January 2 every year, twice a day, at 11 am and 2 pm. I think it was cancelled once or twice due to bird flu, and I’ve been sick on the occasion a few times myself which obviously prevented me from going.  But finally, in 2019, I finally got my chance. Me and about 2000 other people!! We were not disappointed.

The falcons being walked around the exhibition area

And you couldn’t find a better place for falconry in Tokyo than Hama Rikyu, as the birds were used there when it was the shoguns’ personal hunting ground.  Even now you can easily find some of that history as the blinds from that period for the hunters to hide behind still exist around the ponds. It was so good to see the trainers keeping alive an old tradition at such a historical place.

One of the volunteers about to have a falcon land on her arm

This event enjoyed spectacular weather, not too cold and the skies were perfect for flying, not a cloud in sight.  I don’t know how the birds felt about it though, but I feel safe in saying that they probably enjoyed it too.

After an Aikido display, the falconry exhibit began.  The birds’ owners put on a great show. They started off with a walk around, showing the birds to the crowd and that was followed by them sending birds to each other’s arms.  A few volunteers were also pulled from the crowd and taught a few basic skills too. The highlight of the exhibit was one bird had been carried to the upper floors of a ten-storey building about five hundred meters away, over a road out of the park.  A trainer signalled it, and then it flew to a simulated target in front of the crowd to carry out a perfect kill! I thought it was quite incredible.

This bird was signalled from over 500 meters away to hit this simulated bird target

As for photographing the birds, it’s quite easy, as long as they are on their trainer’s arm, or on a perch and standing still!  When they are in flight it is an entirely different matter, because they are quite fast and small. I used my 55-200 mm lens in continuous focus and high-speed burst mode to get as many pictures as possible in the hope of getting some nice pictures.  

That worked out quite nicely, but it wasn’t ideal.  A lens longer than the one I had, combined with some more experience with this type of photography would have been nice.  Maybe if I’m good all this year, Santa might be kind to me next Christmas.

One thing I found quite interesting, was that most of the falcon trainers seemed to be women.  To be honest, I quite wrongly assumed it was going to be more of a man’s sport. Wrong again Rohan!

Falconry at Hama Rikyu Gardens was an incredible even I enjoyed it immensely.  I’m already looking forward to my next chance to photograph them at some time in the future.  You can read more about Hama Rikyu Gardens in my article here.