Happiness can be celebrated by many ways. Often, it is celebrated by going out, attending parties, drinking alcohol, and essentially just having fun. It can be done either by just a number of people, but it is usually more fun and enjoyable when celebrated by a crowd. There is just something different with the vibe and energy when there are more people sharing the joy. Different countries have their own distinct way of celebrating, but probably one of the most beautiful ways is done by Japan. The Land of the Sun celebrates all year-round by holding festivals – both local and national – all over the country, which is one of the main attractions in Japan that boost their tourism industry. Among the most famous festivals that they hold every year are the summer fireworks festivals. It is so popular that tourists from all over the world actually take the time to plan to visit Japan just to be able to witness the spectacular fireworks display that Japan has to offer every summer season.
Japanese Fireworks: Where It All Began
The Japanese people definitely have a great love for fireworks and this is why they hold fireworks festivals every year. There are many theories as to when this fascination started in Japan, but the most agreed one is that it began in the year 1549. It was during this time that guns and gunpowder were first presented by Lusitanians, people from the ancient Iberian Roman province. The first shogun of the Edo government that ruled over Japan from the year 1603 to 1867, Tokugawa Ieyasu, was first able to view fireworks in August of the year 1613. A British envoy of King James I and a Chinese merchant visited Ieyasu and showed him his first view of fireworks at Sunpu Castle, also known as Shizoka Prefecture of today.
Since then, fascination for fireworks grew among the lords of Edo. They began to display fireworks along the Sumida River as a means to get relief from the heat of the scorching sun during the summer season. Over time, this love for fireworks displays became widespread even among the general public. From the year 1604 to 1868, manufacturers of fireworks enhanced their skills in making fireworks until these became a summer entertainment for the Japanese people in the 18th century.
In the year 1733, one of the oldest fireworks festivals, the Water God Festival was held by the eighth shogun of the Edo period, Tokugawa Yoshimune. Fireworks were launched in this festival to honor and commemorate the souls of the people amounting around a million who passed away the previous year due to famine. From then on, this festival became a summer event to be held annually and later on became known as the Sumida River Fireworks Festival.
The art of making fireworks continued to progress over time until it evolved to pyrotechnics. During the Meiji period from the year 1868 to 1912, Japanese fireworks manufacturers utilized imported chemical to craft fireworks. Continuously improving their technique was the key to making the most spectacular and colorful fireworks displays. However, manufacturing of fireworks ceased to continue during the war; hence, the night sky was dark and gloomy during this era. Thankfully, the manufacture of fireworks began again the year 1946 when the Allied Occupation forces wanted to celebrate the Fourth of July by launching a fireworks display to be enjoyed by many.
Things to Know About Fireworks Festivals in Japan
Now fireworks are being displayed all over the world to celebrate different events. However, in Japan, there are certain distinctions that definitely separate Japanese fireworks from the rest. For one, as stated in the booklet “Hanabi Nyumon,” which stands for “Introduction to Fireworks” as published by the Japan Pyrotechnics Association, one of the key characteristics of several Japanese fireworks is their shape. Unlike fireworks made by the West that are usually packed in cylindrical shells, Japanese fireworks are packed in round shells. Some Japanese fireworks are even manufactured so that it can appear as concentric circles that alter colors while expanding. The round shells of these fireworks are lined with “stars” on the inside, which stand for pellets that were created out of dried explosive paste.
Fireworks in Japan are generally correlated to summer nights. Not only that, but Japanese fireworks are also usually named based on their effects. There are actually fireworks named after flowers, such as kiku or chrysanthemum, botan or tree peony, and yanagi or willow. There are also basic patterns for Japanese fireworks, also manufacturers try to create unique variations to make the fireworks display spectacular. These variations include not just the effects that can be seen by the eyes, but also the sound that the fireworks make when they are launched in the air. Designing fireworks can now be done using computers, but the casings and the stars of these Japanese fireworks are still made completely by hand.
To be able to fully enjoy a fireworks festival, there are also a few things that one needs to know. First of all, there are thousands of fireworks festivals held all over Japan. Hence, it is imperative to choose wisely. This is because there are certain things to consider depending on the fireworks festival such as the location and the crowd. While there are huge festivals that would definitely be amazing to travel to, there are also smaller fireworks festivals that are just as great. This is depending on how huge the festival is, the trains will definitely be packed and it will take some time to get on the train.
The next point is to arrive early. Most fireworks festivals, if not all, are jam-packed with tons of people excited to experience the amazing event. Because of this, it might be a challenge to find a good spot where one would be able to fully see and enjoy the fireworks display. Also, because most people would be traveling by train, it is suggested that one arrive a few hours early to be able to look for a good spot and relax before the festival officially starts. As for relaxing, one might opt to bring his or her own food to the festival. While there would be food stalls, a long queue is to be expected. Hence, bringing one’s own bento boxes and snacks would probably be better to avoid the hassle of falling in a long line just to get food.
And to fully experience the summer fireworks festival in Japan, don a yukata while attending the event. A yukata is basically a casual version of kimono and is made of cotton. Not everyone wears yukata during festivals, but it is customary to do so. Worry not, as these yukatas are comfortable to wear while sitting on a picnic blanket and watching the fireworks display.
Fireworks Festivals in Japan: Summer Season Over New Year
Unlike in other countries, fireworks, or hanabi in Japanese, are displayed during festivals in the summer season instead of New Years. Back in the day, fireworks were launched for a number of reasons, one being to ward off evil spirits. Today, there are thousands of hanabi festivals all across Japan that are mostly held during the summer holidays, which are in July and August. Hanabi festivals in Japan are so popular that hundreds and thousands of visitors travel every year just to witness this beauty.
One of the first official fireworks festivals in all of Japan is the Sumida River Fireworks Festival, which is held along the Sumida River and Asakusa Station in the city of Tokyo on the last Saturday of July from 7:05 pm to 8:30 pm every year. Among the most famous fireworks displays in the country, the fireworks are best viewed from the many parks along the river. From a child to an adult, several Japanese people join the festival dressed in yukatas and stroll the busy streets of the city. This festival is definitely to be enjoyed with good food and a cold bottle of beer to relieve the summer heat.
Another famous fireworks festival that one should not pass up on is the Omagari National Fireworks Competition. Held along the Marukogawa River every fourth Saturday of August from 5:30pm onwards, the Omagari National Fireworks Competition is considered as the best firework show in the country. It is so top notch that only the best pyrotechnic teams are invited to join the competition. While it may be challenging to book a hotel where this competition takes place, it is arguably going to be worth it. Pyrotechnic teams compete in day and night categories, so the fireworks display would surely be amazing and unforgettable.
Just approx. a 20-minute walk from Nagaoka Station in Niigita Prefecture is where the Nagaoka Fireworks Festival is held. Held in the 2nd and 3rd night of August from 7:25 pm to 9:10pm, the Nagaoka Fireworks can be viewed along the Shinano River. This festival features some of the largest shells in the country like Sanjakudama shells for almost 2 hours every night. The signature shell of this hanabi festival is the Phoenix Shell, which now also symbolizes the prefecture’s recovery from the 2004 Niigata Earthquake. Couples can definitely go on a date to this festival as its show’s finale covers the widest span of fireworks in the world, which is almost two kilometers of the riverbank. With fireworks spread widely on the night sky and specks of gold twinkling with the stars, that would definitely be romantic!
Among the Three Great Festivals of Japan is Osaka’s Tenjin Festival. While this festival has a lot of features such as the boat processions and illuminated bridges, one of its most sought-after features is the Osaka Tenjin Fireworks. Best viewed from the Minami Tenma and Kema Sakuranomiya Parks along the river, these fireworks amounting to 4,000 are launched every 25th of July, which is the second night of the festival, from 7 pm to 9 pm. Words are just not enough to comment how beautiful the display; hence, it is definitely a must-see on the list.
While most fireworks festivals are held for only a night every year, the Lake Toyako Fireworks Festival launch fireworks everyday from late April to October from 8:45 pm to 9:05 pm. These firework performances are held in Toyako, Hokkaido and can be seen even from hotel rooms that face the lake or from the lakeside park itself. Yes, it is not as spectacular as the previous hanabi festivals mentioned, but the Toyako Fireworks Festival lasts for days so spectators can feast their eyes of the festival’s beautiful fireworks display for days on end.
Other hanabi festivals that are just as amazing are the Minato Kobe Fireworks Festival held in the Port of Kobe in Kobe City that launch almost 10,000 fireworks over the sea and the Toro Nagashi and Great Exhibition of Fireworks held in Kehi no Matsubara beach in Tsuruga City that set almost 6,000 lanterns afloat to the sea while launching fireworks in the night sky, surely to give a breathtaking view.
Buying Fireworks in Japan: Is It Legal?
While fireworks festivals in Japan are very popular, buying and setting off one’s own set of fireworks is not entirely legal in the country. Most people just opt to buy handheld fireworks, but even that has its own conditions depending on the location. To give a brief example, using fireworks in the Kanagawa Prefecture is prohibited from 10 pm to 6 am. Also, there are certain types of fireworks that are also not allowed along the Kamo River in Kyoto Prefecture due to the loud noise that some fireworks make. There are also specific places where one can play with handheld fireworks. In the city of Tokyo, there are some wards where handheld fireworks are prohibited, such as in the Chuo and Minato ward.
Now there are many stores that sell handheld fireworks, but for a limited time only. Most stores sell handheld fireworks from early May to late August as it is the summer season wherein there are hanabi festivals. Some toy fireworks that can be bought are susuki hanabi, senko hanabi, nezumi hanabi, and hisho hanabi. Before playing with these fireworks, just take note of the location and make sure to find information about whether or not it is banned to play fireworks there. There are some websites and posts that offer information on these. Also, make some preparations such as preparing a bucket of water, not playing late at night, and not setting fireworks near flammable things.