Japan lights up the sky

Japan lights up the sky

by Takahiro Takiguchi
Stripes Okinawa

Most people may associate summertime in Japan with traditional “bon odori” dances or climbing Mount Fuji, but there’s one thing that no summer here would be complete without – “hanabi,” or fireworks.

Mainstays of Fourth of July celebrations in the U.S., fireworks are a year-round feature in Japan, especially on New Year’s and other holidays. Come summer, however, they occur nearly every weekend. In fact, a cursory glance shows more than 50 fireworks festivals nationwide in July and August, alone. 

Fireworks are often the crescendo of a city or town’s summer festival, but they are also often the focus of the festival itself. Some have their own local flavor or tradition. They range from viewing displays along a river, aboard a “yakatabune” (houseboat) or against the backdrop of the 2,080-foot Skytree in Tokyo, to taking them in as a follow-up to an Okinawa sunset at Emerald Beach where light refracted off the aquamarine water and white sands enhance the pyrotechnics.

While in full swing in mainland Japan, fireworks season actually kicks off in April and May on Okinawa. But it resumes again in July and August with about a half-dozen more major displays, including the island’s biggest at the Ocean Expo Okinawa Summer Festival on July 13.

The tradition dates back to 1733 when the Edo Period Shogun, Tokugawa Yoshimune, ordered a fireworks display at a festival on Sumida River to ward off an evil spirit thought to be behind epidemics and poor harvests. The Sumida River Firework Festival (near Tokyo’s Asakusa Station on July 27 this year) remains one of Japan’s oldest and most popular fireworks events.

During this particular event, you may hear people shout “Tamaya!” or “Kagiya!” These are the names of two famous pyrotechnists who competed against each other during the festival in 1810. Their competition was such a sensation that it became an annual event. Today, Hosoya and Marutamaya pyrotechnists companies launch their fireworks from two different barges anchored along the river, just like Tamaya and Kagiya did 200 years ago. 

Japanese fireworks have since become renowned worldwide for their artistic qualities – perfect shapes, exquisite colorings and enormous sizes, as well as the poetic sense of ephemerality they produce. In many cases, a single firework changes colors two to three times after it is launched. Local pyrotechnists take great pride in their work, choreographing legendary displays, like Okinawa’s annual Ryukyu Kaien (Ocean Fire) Festival in April in Ginowan, which touts a computer-driven “fireworks illusion” in synch with folksongs and The Beetles tunes.

While some, like the Sumida’s 22,500 fireworks over Tokyo’s cityscape, awe with sheer size, others like Atsugi Ayu Festival Fireworks (near Tokyo’s Hon-Atsugi Station Aug. 3-4), dazzle with brilliance. This well-known display features 10,000 sequenced fireworks that form shapes like a chrysanthemum and peony, with a dramatic finale of a 656-foot-high “Niagara Falls” fireworks cascade.

So this summer don’t limit your fireworks enjoyment to just the Fourth of July. Get off base and take in some local hanabi – and don’t hesitate to shout “Tamaya!” or “Kagiya!” either.

Get the biggest bang out of hanabi

  • Traffic at and around fireworks events is usually heavily congested. Take public transportation or, if possible, walk. It is also often faster to walk back to the nearest train station than to use shuttle buses. Expect nearby trains to be crowded.
  • Arrive at the venue at least two hours in advance to find a good spot to watch the fireworks – expect stiff competition for the best spots. Some venues offer paid seating, but tickets are usually sold out by the day of performance.  
  • Sit near an exit. Leaving as the crowd disperses will be much easier.
  • Bring a seat, cushion or blanket to sit on.
  • Purchase your food and drink early. 
  • Avoid rendezvous at the festival site. It will be crowded, hard to find people and it may be too loud to use a cell phone effectively. Meet up with people before arriving to the site.

Dressing for the occasion

To get the most out of your fireworks festival experience, why not dress the part? Try wearing a “yukata,” or casual summer kimono that’s usually made of cotton, linen or synthetic fabric.

You can buy a set with yukata, obi and “geta” (traditional wooden sandals) for less than $100, and you won’t regret it. It will make for good summer wear at festivals you attend in Japan – and a great souvenir to take back home.

Traditionally yukata were mostly made of indigo-dyed cotton but today a wide variety of colors and designs are available. Men usually wear solid dark colors. Don’t forget to bring “uchiwa” (bamboo and paper fan) with you to match your traditional attire. 

This traditional attire may not be as common in Okinawa, but many women, still wear yukata at summer fireworks festivals.

This story originally ran on Stripes Okinawa on July 2, 2013.

Schedule of fireworks events in Okinawa 2014

July 12, 8:45 p.m.; fireworks at Ishigaki City Shinei Koen as part of annual beer festival that features factory-outlet beer, food booths, traditional taiko (Japanese drum), live music by Diamantes, Isamu Shimoji, Kaori Nakata and more; free; 098-877-5050.

July 19; 10,000 fireworks 8-9 p.m. at the Emerald Beach, plus a concert 4 p.m.; Motobu, Kunikami-gun, two-hour drive north of Naha; free entrance to the Ocean Expo Park; 0980-48-2741.

July 19 & 20; more than 1,000 fireworks 8:40-9 p.m. at Urasoe Athletic Park, along with taiko drum, eisa dance, harii dragon race and more; 098-876-1234.

July 26-27, 8-8:15 p.m.; about 1,000 fireworks display will be held at Nago Port; five-minute walk from Nago City Hall-mae bus stop after taking 90-minute bus ride from Naha Airport; 0980-52-4243. 

July 27, 8:45-9 p.m., 350 firework display at a finale during the Yonabaru Giant Tug-Of-War Festival at Gotenyama Youth Square (Seishonen Hiroba); 20-minute ride from Naha Airport; 098-945-5323. 

Aug. 2-3, 9-9:15 p.m., 1,800 fireworks display at Ginowan City Kaihin Koen Multi-purpose Square as a finale of the Ginowan Hagoromo Festival each day, featuring parade, children’s eisa dance, Taiko (Japanese drum) and live performance on Saturday, youth’s eisa dance and varieties of live performance on Sunday; 15-minute bus ride from Mashiki bus stop after taking a bus from Naha Bus Terminal; 098-897-2764.

Aug. 2-3, 9:20-9:30 p.m., during the Kumejima Matsuri (festival), eisa dance and live concert before launching 730 fireworks display at Kumejima Fureai Park; 30-minute flight from Okinawa Naha Airport and another 10-minute ride from Kumejima Airport; 098-985-7134.


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