While Japan is a county of many small things (bento boxes, cars, apartments) there is one thing that they make very big – fireworks displays. Perhaps it is the vast openness of the sky staring down at the cramped land below which gives the Japanese the encouragement and desire to do something on a such a grand scale. Whatever the reason, there is no doubt that if you want to see fireworks – massive pyrotechnic displays – then Japan is the place to see them.
This month you will be spoilt for choice, with festivals happening almost every weekend. Thousands of shells will pound through the constant whir of cicadas, announcing to one and all that rainy season has ended and that summer is in full swing. For Japanese and foreigners alike it is the time to let loose and party. Not only will the sky be full of activity, river banks, parks and city streets will be pulsing with throngs of spectators decked out in their summer yukatas, swilling beer and eating dodgy food at any one of the many celebrations taking place around Nagoya.
Fireworks in Japan are rarely out-classed. The fire in the sky anywhere else almost never compares to the sheer scale of displays that you can witness on any given summer night throughout Japan. Even in America where bigger is always better, and July 4th celebrations are a national tradition, the yearly Independence day sparklers are almost puny by comparison to those you can see here. It is not uncommon for a summer festival in Japan to launch over 10,000 rockets. The Tokoname Yaki Matsuri Evening Fireworks which take place on August 20 will have over 41,000! That’s a lot of gunpowder.
A round of fireworks at a summer festival can last over an hour and sometimes longer. As you might imagine these displays don’t come cheap. A single 15 cm shell can cost over ¥8,000 each and larger 30 cm shells can cost ¥50,000 or more. The Japanese are literally shelling out a lot of yen for their passion.
As with many things, fireworks were not originally invented in Japan, they were an improvement on an import from abroad. Originally invented during China’s Tang Dynasty (618-907), they made it here through a circuitous route, first making their way to Europe via the silk road before arriving in Japan.
It is widely assumed that the first fireworks to be seen here came via an emissary of the British monarchy in 1613, who presented them to the Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa – reputedly the first Japanese to witness their awesome power. Initially fireworks were a great luxury, afforded only to the landholding military lords and wealthy merchants of the time. It was not until 1733 when Shogun Yoshimune organized a fireworks display along the Sumida river that they caught the eye of the general populace. This began the annual Ryogoku river festival which still delights crowds every summer.
And while the original fireworks were brought to Japan by foreigners, the Japanese naturally had their own way of doing things and created three basic “round shell” designs that are still in use today. The difference in these three designs lies in the structure and in the way the shells break.
In the “warimono” design the casing is broken into pieces and scatters stars equally far and wide. The warimono shell places stars closely inside a paper ball with an explosive charge in the center. This creates bursts reminiscent of a chrysanthemum or peony. When you see a warimono shell explode it creates a distinct circular shape when it explodes.
In the pokamono design the casing divides into two hemispheres and disperses burts along an equatorial line. Because pokamono shells divide into two distinct parts their blooms are smaller and more delicate. These shells are more versatile and the contents can be more easily changed to create many different designs.
The third type of design is called kowarimono. This type of shell combines elements of both the warimono and pokamono designs. These fireworks consist of many smaller round shells inside the paper casing which explode in all directions and give off the appearance of many small flowers blooming. While visually awe-inspiring, these shells produce less of an explosive thunder.
The main thing to remember when approaching fireworks and fireworks festivals this summer is patience. Be prepared for a throng and plan accordingly. It is not unusual for Japanese to stake out prime viewing locations hours if not a day in advance in some instances. Access can also be a problem as trains and streets are usually quite congested. Plan ahead and give yourself ample time to get where you are going so you can enjoy a the fire in the sky!