SKIES AGLOW WITH VIVID BRILLIANCE
Among Japan’s summer pastimes, none are quite as flashy as hanabi (fireworks). Every summer, throngs of people descend on beaches, rivers and other gathering spots to witness hanabi — literally “fire flowers” — explode in the night sky with vibrant brilliance.
Japan’s long history of hanabi has given form to a distinct culture centered on these fiery flowers. Hanabi were likely introduced to Japan via Dutch or Portuguese traders around 1600, coinciding with the first years of the Edo Period (1603–1868). With the availability of gun powder and the development of city culture, the Edo Period provided the perfect conditions for fireworks to evolve into a national pastime.
Though fireworks technically arrived in Japan in the early 17th century, it wasn’t until the 18th century that they began establishing themselves as a significant cultural force. In 1733, the shogun, in response to crop failures and a cholera epidemic that led to mass deaths the year prior, sanctioned a public display of fireworks on the Sumida River as an observance to pray for bountiful harvests and ward off disease. This display of hanabi coincided with the annual river opening festival, marking the first iteration of the Sumida River Fireworks Festival that continues to this day.
Hanabi are one facet of refined Japanese craftsmanship, with a long history of fireworks craftsmen developing new techniques and aesthetics to surpass their rivals. Many of these craftsmen came from two renowned manufacturers, Kagiya and Tamaya, that were both established in the Edo Period. The rivalry between these manufacturers spurred craftsmen to create new designs and improve their creations’ overall quality. This spirit of competition became such a central aspect to hanabi that, during fireworks displays on the Sumida River, spectators would shout “Kagiya!” or “Tamaya!” to encourage the artisans behind their favorite hanabi.
The first fireworks display along the Sumida River only featured about 20 fireworks, while today’s displays feature thousands. Whereas most fireworks, due to their cylindrical shells, explode into a fountain shape, Japanese fireworks explode into round shapes due to their round shells. Fireworks today feature bright explosions and dynamic colors, but Japan’s earliest fireworks were a duller red-orange monochrome. It wasn’t until chemical agents enabling various colors and levels of brightness were imported in the 19th century that hanabi started to resemble their modern counterparts. As demonstrated at fireworks displays every year, hanabi are still evolving, revealing various shapes — including hearts and cartoon characters — and refreshing hues.
Public hanabi displays are held nationwide from July to early September, and some attract hundreds of thousands of spectators every year. As illustrated by the use of the word “hana” — meaning “flower” — in “hanabi,” natural beauty is an important aspect of hanabi motifs. Hanabi, which explode with electrifying brilliance before quickly disappearing into the night sky, also symbolize impermanence. In summer, these fiery flowers captivate people nationwide with their fleeting beauty, similar to cherry blossoms in spring.
Many hanabi displays are free of charge and can be accessed via public transportation. However, visitors may be unable to find a place to sit if they don’t come hours before the shows start. Visitors often bring their own sheet or blanket to sit on and snack on seasonal staples such as yakisoba (stir-fried noodles) and shaved ice, which are sold at nearby food stalls. Hanabi displays are also the perfect setting to wear a yukata, or lightweight kimono, which provide cool comfort during Japan’s hot and humid summers.
There are countless hanabi displays and festivals held throughout Japan, and with their rich history and cultural significance, hanabi should be a part of any traveler’s summer experience in the country.
FESTIVALS, PARADES ALONGSIDE HANABI DISPLAYS
Japan is brimming with opportunities to see fireworks light up the summer night sky. Many venues are easily accessible via public transportation, but travelers are advised to arrive early in order to secure a nice spot. The fireworks displays are often parts of larger festivals, which means visitors can experience other festivities, including parades and processions. Quintessential fare, such as yakisoba (stir-fried noodles) and shaved ice, are sold at food stalls for festival goers to snack on while watching these explosive wonders burst into beautiful colors.
NOTE: All schedules and details are subject to change depending on various conditions such as weather.
① Nagaoka Matsuri Fireworks Festival
Every August, some 20,000 fireworks fill the night sky over the Shinano River in Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture, with a cascade of hues. The fireworks attract hundreds of thousands of visitors and come in a variety of shapes, including chrysanthemums, volcanoes and bouquets. On the day before the fireworks, Aug. 1, visitors can see parades, traditional dance processions and other exciting festivities.
Period: Aug. 2 and 3
② Naniwa Yodogawa Fireworks Festival
In August, an extravagant display of fireworks is held along the Yodo River that flows through Osaka, attracting an abundance of people each year. The festival evolved from a handmade fireworks festival that began in 1989. A barrage of fireworks launch into the air from the water and burst into bold colors, captivating spectators with their beauty.
Period: Aug. 10
③ Sumida River Fireworks Festival
The Sumida River Fireworks Festival is one of the most historically significant displays of Japan’s fiery flowers. During the festival, more than 20,000 fireworks are launched from locations near Sensoji Temple and Tokyo Skytree. The festival’s predecessor originated in 1733 when a festival with around 20 fireworks was held on the Sumida River to pray for bountiful harvests and ward off disease.
Period: July 27
④ Toyohashi Fire Festival
In 1996, the city of Toyohashi established a festival to commemorate the 90th anniversary of its founding. Tezutsu fireworks, which have a long history and tradition in the region, are the stars of this festival. These fireworks shoot showers of sparks, and comprise bamboo tubes stuffed with gunpowder and carried under the arm. During the festival, these fireworks burst into pillars of fire, accompanied by the energetic rhythms of Japanese drums.
Period: September 14 and 15
● Tenjin Matsuri Festival Dedication Fireworks Display
Period: July 25
● Minato Kobe Marine Fireworks Festival
Period: Aug. 3
● Nagahama & Kita-Biwako Great Fireworks
Period: Aug. 4
● Sendai Tanabata Fireworks Festival
Period: Aug 5.
● Jingu Gaien Fireworks Festival
Period: Aug. 10
● Lake Suwa Fireworks Festival
Period: Aug. 15
● Yoshinogawa Fireworks Display
Period: Aug. 15
● Miyazu Toro Nagashi Lantern and Fireworks Display
Period: Aug. 16
● Omagari Fireworks Festival
Period: Aug. 31
● Tsuchiura All Japan Fireworks Competition
Period: Oct. 26