Hanabi or fireworks are traditionally used across Japan to ward off evil spirits and are an integral part of summer in Japan with a long history of use. Every summer hundreds of fireworks displays are held across the country, mostly occurring during July and August. While the use of fireworks is an important part of Japanese culture they are not typically used in Japan to celebrate the New Year while the summer shows collectively attract hundreds of thousands of spectators.

The size of the firework shells

The size of the firework shells range in size considerably from relatively small up to the record breaking Yonshakudama shells which measure up to 1.2 metres in diameter and can weigh several hundred kilograms. The most commonly used fireworks are starmines. These are spherical in shape and have a variety of burst patterns. Other fireworks include Niagara sparklers that are usually set up beneath bridges to resemble waterfalls such as the fireworks namesake. There are formed shells that burst into shapes such as hearts, smiley faces and even famous cartoon characters.

Relaxed festival atmosphere

One of the biggest attractions of firework displays in Japan is the relaxed atmosphere these displays bring. People will arrive dressed in yukata and streets will be lined with food stalls and others with games. The show of fireworks will usually begin around sunset and typically last one or two hours. The longer shows are broken into shorter segments, the spaces between the segments are usually filled with announcements by sponsors. The shows will traditionally end in a grand finale with comprises of hundreds of firework shells being launched simultaneously. One of the concerns of the most popular shows is the number of people they attract which can lead to overcrowding at these events.

Competition for the best viewing spots

There is usually lots of competition for securing the best spots to view the shows with people arriving hours in advance of the event to secure their favoured spot. This is particularly relevant in cities with lots of tall buildings where spots with unobstructed views are limited. Several shows offer paid seating and tickets for these spots are sold well in advance so not available on the day of the show. Tickets can be difficult to secure from outside of Japan and some language skill in speaking or understanding Japanese is required.

Accommodation and Transportation

The bigger and most popular displays can pose serious concerns over accommodation and transportation. While the larger cities such as Osaka and Tokyo can easily accommodate the extra numbers of visitors through their transportation systems and hotel spaces available, this is often not the case in the smaller cities. The accommodation available in the smaller cities can become fully booked months in advance. This problem can be further increased if there are not enough late night trains or buses back to the larger cities once the show has ended.

Other problems are the inconvenience of crowded buses and trains, together with the traffic congestion as everyone is attempting to leave at the same time. It is often faster to walk back to a train station than attempt to take one of the heavily overcrowded shuttle buses. Additional trains and buses are usually laid on before and after the major shows but there is a tendency for these additional services to be very crowded.

The Advantages and Disadvantages of using Travel Agents

Travel agents can be both a solution and a cause to some of the accommodation and transportation problems arising from visiting Hanabi firework festivals. Collectively travel agents offer various tour packages to the firework events that can include transportation, accommodation and reserved seating. By offering these inclusive packages they block a large amount of these services to individual travelers. These packages offer an all-in-one solution to people wishing to visit a particular firework festival, these packages can be difficult to access from outside of Japan.

The History of Fireworks in Japan

The use of fireworks began in China as long ago as the Han Dynasty of 202- 225AD as a means of communication. Prototypes of the first fireworks began around the mid 12th century when the first firecrackers appeared. Gunpowder was exported to Europe via the Silk Road and made its way into Japan through the Portuguese in 1543. Later that century fireworks were a popular attraction among the shoguns and daimyos, eventually spreading to the townspeople of the Edo period. Okazaki City, close to the city of Nagoya became a famous site for producing fireworks under the Shogunate in Okazaki.

Fireworks became very popular but fires caused by their use led to a ban on fireworks. The use of fireworks was only permitted at Okawabata. This eventually led to the beginning of Shingokai. During the Meiji era coloured light agents were introduced into firework production which led to the spectacular light shows we see today. During the period of the Second World War the use of fireworks was cancelled until after the years of war. Later the production of these pyrotechnics recovered and by the late 1970’s many of the shows seen today were becoming attractions for large crowds of people across Japan.

Here is a list of some of the best and most famous Hanabi or firework shows to be found in Japan:

Sumida River Fireworks

This display takes place along the Sumida River at Asakusa on the last Saturday of July from 7pm and finishes around 8.30pm. This is recognized as one of Japan’s oldest and most famous fireworks displays taking place along the Sumida River in Tokyo’s Ryugoku and Asakusa districts. The fireworks are launched from barges anchored at various points along the river. The best places to watch the display of explosions are from the parks located alongside the river, although getting a seat is very unlikely as they are booked months in advance. Outside of the parks the displays are difficult to view because of the city’s tall buildings.

The great summer festival atmosphere is very appealing along the streets of Asakusa, particularly close to the Sensoji Temple. In this entertainment district you can enjoy a meal at the outdoor tables while watching what you can of the firework display.

Omagari National Fireworks Competition

Considered by many to be the top show of fireworks held in Japan, only the best pyrotechnic teams are invited to the banks of the Marukogawa River in Omagari, Akita Prefecture. The event takes place on the fourth Saturday in August from 5.15pm. Thousands of explosions take place during this event as teams compete for titles in categories for both day and night events. Paid seating is available as are shinkansen (bullet trains) from Tokyo and Akita. One potential problem is there are no connections back to Tokyo once the show has ended and hotels are in short supply in Omagari and surrounding cities. Tour packages are usually the best way to see this show.

 

Tsuchiura National Fireworks Competition

This display is usually held on the first Saturday in October on the Sakuragawa River. It is a 30 minute walk from Tsuchiura Station in Ibaraki Prefecture. This is one of Japan’s top three firework displays and held in October it is one of the last major shows of the year. Several pyrotechnic companies use this show to show off their latest and best designs to brokers that are shopping for the next years displays. The fireworks can be seen across the city although the best views are from the free or paid seating from various spots along the river. Visitors are advised to arrive by mid afternoon to secure a spot and a tarp or similar waterproof cover is advisable as several viewing spots are located in freshly cut fields. There are shuttle buses in operation costing 240 yen to transport visitors to and from Tsuchiura Station where trains are available back to Tokyo once the show has ended.

Nagaoka Fireworks

The Nagaoka Fireworks display is held over two nights at the beginning of August along the Shinano River. This location is a 20 minute walk from Nagaoka Station in Niigata Prefecture. On the two nights of the display there are almost two hours of fireworks including some of the biggest fireworks on display in Japan, the Sanjakudama shells! The show also features the Phoenix shell which is seen as a sign of recovery after the Niigata Earthquake of 2004. The finale of the show covers almost 2 kilometres of riverbank and is the world’s widest span of fireworks.

On the riverbank opposite the show there is lots of free seating and early arrival is required to secure a seat. Paid seating is also available and should be purchased in advance. There are bullet trains from Toyko and Niigata City, but travel back to Tokyo after the show is not a viable option and a package including travel and accommodation is advisable. This show is considered one of the best three shows in Niigata Prefecture along with shows in the coastal city of Kashiwazaki and the inland mountainous location of Katakai.

Osaka Tenjin Fireworks

Osaka’s Tenjin Festival is considered to be one of Japan’s Three Great Festivals. It takes place in late July along the Ogawa River and can be reached from the Osakajo Kutazume, Osaka Tenmangu, Tenmabashi and Sakuranomiya Stations. One the second night of the festival 4000 fireworks are launched in addition to a procession of ships bearing portable shrines and people dressed in period costume travel along the Ogawa River. The best viewing locations are at Minami Tenma and Kema Sakuranomiya Parks.

Miyajima Fireworks

This display takes place in mid to late August just off the north Shore of Miyajima Island close to the Itsukushima Shrine. The display of around 5000 fireworks takes place from boats anchored offshore. When photographed to include shrine’s torii gate it is one the most iconic firework scenes in Japan. This venue is a sought after location for several of Japan’s photographers. The fireworks are best viewed from the shrine, the town or from boat tours that arranged for the display.

Chichibu Night Festival Fireworks

This is one of Japan’s rare winter fireworks festivals and takes place in early December close to Seibu Chichibu and Chichibu Stations. The display on the second night of the festival is longer and continues from 7.30pm until 10pm. Paid seating is available, with additional free viewing in the town obscured by tall buildings. There are enough late night train connections back to Tokyo that staying over is not really required.

Lake Toyako Fireworks

This fireworks display is not as spectacular as the others mentioned and only lasts 20 minutes but it does continue daily from late April until the end of October, weather permitting. The displays on Hokkaido’s Lake Toyako are launched from a ship that passes the large resort hotels on the lakes shore. The display can be viewed from hotel rooms that face onto the lake or from the lakeside park.