Summer is a time of great fun! But there is one thing that everyone in Japan look forward to:

H A N A B I

Traditionally, the root of fireworks display is attributed to the 1733 Ryōgoku Kawabiraki Hanabi (両国川開き花火; Ryōgoku River Opening Fireworks), comissioned by Tokugawa Yoshimune to pray for bountiful harvest and get rid of epidemics that killed many people the year before.

Painting showing the Ryōgoku River Opening Fireworks | Image source

Taken literally, hanabi means “flower” and “fire” = a flower expressed with fire.

The hanabishi (花火師; fireworks craftsman) painstakingly incorporate the art of flower arrangement with the deeply rooted Japanese aesthetics of wabi-sabi (侘寂) – a way of living that focuses on finding beauty within the imperfections of life and accepting peacefully the natural cycle of growth and decay. 

As such, each firework revolves around a flower theme, resulting in two forms that are suitable for large displays and personal enjoyment respectively:

Uchiage hanabi  (打上花火)

gatag-00013563Meaning “launching fireworks”, uchiage hanabi is suitable for huge, outdoor displays during festivals.

Each firework comprises of a shell (玉; tama) packed with gunpowder (星; hoshi), and is launched into the sky using cannons. Precise calculations ensure that the tama will explode at the right height, enabling the hoshi to radiate in the desired directions.

There is a variety of hoshi, which are grouped under 4 main categories:

  1. Warimono (割物) – spherical explosions
  2. Pokamono (ポカ物) – with trailing tails
  3. Hanwarimono (半割物) – multiple simultaneous explosions
  4. Katamono (型物) – drawings such as hears, smiley faces etc
Using the sky as a canvas | Image source

Omocha hanabi  (おもちゃ花火)

gatag-00013562Meaning “toy fireworks”, omocha hanabi comes in various styles, with the most popular being senko hanabi (線香花火; sparklers).

Amazingly, one can find traces of wabi-sabi in the way a sparkler burns, as each stage is akin to a different flower. The transient beauty embodied in the sparklers parallel our lives, with lessons drawn from each stage.

A deeper look at the exquisite Hanahana sparklers by Tsutsui Tokimasa Toy Fireworks Factory (筒井時正玩具花火製造所) shows the time and effort put into creating these high quality sparklers made from natural, local materials.

① 蕾 Tsubomi
② 牡丹 Botan
③ 松葉 Matsuba
④ 散り菊 Chirigiku
  1. 蕾 Tsubomi – The ignited fireball grows into a (flower) “bud” by breathing in the oxygen.
  2. 牡丹 Botan – The next moment, an explosion of a spark transforms the bud into a “peony”. This is a reminder to rash youths to deliberate upon their choices in life.
  3. 松葉 Matsuba – The spark gains momentum and becomes “pine needles”, pointing to the next phase of life – marriage and birth, the child’s growth…
  4. 散り菊 Chirigiku – Finally a single spark is left, the fireball has gone from red to yellow. This “scattered chrysanthemum” alludes to the life that is nearing its end.
The 14th and 15th generation masters of Kagiya | Image source

The two oldest producers of Japanese fireworks are 340 years old Kagiya (鍵屋) and its spin-off, Tamaya (玉屋). Over the years, both brands have tried to outdo one another with their magnificent displays. This competitive element continues to today, especially during the Sumida River Fireworks Display (隅田川花火大会), which evolved from the previously mentioned Ryōgoku River Opening Fireworks.

Tips to enjoy fireworks festival:

  • Reserve your spot with a blue plastic mat indicating your name.
  • Be like the locals and come dressed in a yukata (female) or jinbei!
  • Shout resulting in shouts of “Tamaya” and “Kagiya”, a custom stemmed from long ago!
  • Brings lots of sparklers for the after party!

隅田川花火大会

OR if you don’t wish to join the crowd, here are some alternatives!

Japanese Fireworks in Tokyo Bay 2015

  • Book a dinner on board a traditional “pleasure boat” (屋形船; yakatabune), with reservations at least a year in advance!
  • Enjoy the fireworks display in an expensive restaurant in the Asakusa area, where there are no high-rise buildings in order to preserve the view of the Asakusa Temple.
  • Get close to the fireworks on thrilling rides at an amusement park, Hanayashiki (花やしき).

DID YOU KNOW?

Katagai Festival (片貝祭) in Niigata uses the world’s largest firework – yon shakudama (四尺玉). The tama measures 121 cm across and weighs a hefty 420 kg! When it explodes, a beautiful ring measuring 800 m across splashes across the night sky.

*Header image by Jimmy

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