You’re in the middle of a crowded street, with lanterns hung overhead, food vendors calling out their sales, and bright lights exploding in the night sky. You could be at a summertime festival in Japan at any time during the last 400 years, enjoying the well-loved tradition of firework shows.
From the time Tokugawa Ieyasu first observed fireworks in 1613, they’ve been popular with Japanese people of all ages. There are toy fireworks for small children, pyrotechnic competitions for experts, and shows for everyone in between. Today, it’s a common part of big summer festivals, as well as events in the winter. One show has been running for almost 300 years over the Sumida River in Tokyo, and the competition to get a good spot to view it is fierce. Firework shows are so popular that it can be hard to find a hotel in the area, let alone a seat in the park to watch them.
So are Japanese fireworks more special or more exciting than those in other parts of the world? Some say yes. The shape of the cartridge that is launched into the sky is different, for one. Western fireworks are usually shaped like cylinders, whereas Japanese ones are usually round. Shaped fireworks are also more popular in Japan. They explode into an image, of a heart or Hello Kitty or even words, rather than just a burst of lights. And a firework shaped like a cartoon character is immediately superior to anything else on the market.
The unshaped bursts are often named after flowers. This describes pretty well how they look, like chrysanthemums and willow trees. The name for fireworks in Japanese is 花火(hanabi), which literally means “fire flower,” so there’s definitely a theme going on. Appreciation of fireworks, which bloom and fade in a matter of seconds, is similar to the appreciation of sakura blossoms. The two-ish weeks that sakura hang on to the tree actually seem long by comparison.
You don’t have to go to Tokyo to see great fireworks. There are several shows in Shiga prefecture, and you can buy smaller ones at stores. These are also called toy fireworks, because there’s no age limit on buying them in Japan, and they’re often marketed to children. Be careful with the hand-held ones, though—there are certain areas where you aren’t allowed to set them off. Watch out for signs with 禁止 (kinshi), meaning “prohibited.”
Also, because you may not be able to read the Japanese instructions on the box, be even more careful than you would be in the US. Keep a bucket of water nearby and watch your fingers! Also, in Japan, people usually just hold their sparklers upside down and watch them burn, rather than waving them around. So practice writing kanji another time.
If handheld fireworks aren’t enough, there are three well-known shows that take place in the summer above Lake Biwa. The lake is like a mirror that reflects the bursts of light so everyone can see them. One show is best viewed from Hikone, another from Nagahama, and the last from Otsu. The Hikone show is actually centered around the beach right next to JCMU! It’s held on August 1st and is a truly unmissable experience.
So, as fireworks begin to go on sale ahead of Independence day, see it as another similarity between Japan and the US. There must be something about the heat of summer that makes us want to set things on fire in splendid, beautiful ways.