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Craftsmanship in the Sky
Hanabi: Firework Festivals in Japan

For most Americans, fireworks are a symbol of celebration associated with events like the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve.  However, in Japan the meaning behind them is slightly different. Literally translated as “fire of flowers,” hanabi (fireworks) are often a symbol of consolation for the deceased, like as in many other Japanese summer festivals. They are closely related to the Bon Festival that celebrates ancestors’ spirits during a certain period in summer. Therefore, summer festivals in Japan often come with hanabi and toro-nagashi, the custom of sending off the spirits of the dead on lanterns floating on a river or in the sea.

Dynamic yet elegant, powerful yet ephemeral, the hanabi enjoyed in Japan represent Japanese craftsmanship and aesthetic sense, as well as the never-ending exploration of perfection. Here Chopsticks NY introduces select upscale firework festivals rich in history which you should definitely visit.

“Phoenix” is an extra wide star mine hanabi created as a prayer for recovery from a series of natural disasters that occurred in Niigata in 2004 and 2005.  Various types of hanabi are set off in line with a total width 2.8 kilometers (1.74 miles), just like a phoenix.

Nagaoka Matsuri Hanabi Taikai
(Nagaoka Fireworks Festival)

(Niigata Prefecture)
August 2 and 3

Attracting 960,000 visitors in two days (2013), the Nagaoka Matsuri Hanabi Taikai is one of the most popular and prestigious firework festivals in Japan.  20,000 hanabi are set off over the Shinano River, the longest river in Japan.  The widest set of hanabi (Wide Star Mine) encompasses about 2.8 kilometers (1.74 miles) and the single biggest hanabi (Sho Sanjaku-dama) is 650 meters (711 yards) in diameter when opening in the sky.  In addition to standard styles of hanabi, several creative ones are also set off.

The origin of the festival is rather sad.  It started in 1946 as a one-year memorial of the Nagaoka air raid that took the lives of 1484 citizens in the city on August 1st in 1945 at the end of World War II. The festival’s features have shifted more toward tourist attractions, but it still maintains the original spirit behind it.  On the eve of the two day festival on August 1, only three hanabi are set off for a memorial of the deceased and a prayer for peace.

Official website: www.nagaokamatsuri.com
(Japanese only)

The actual size of the biggest hanabi in this festival is 90 centimeters (2.9 feet) in diameter and 300 kilograms (661 pounds) in weight. Once set off in the sky, it blooms 650 meters wide (711 yards wide) fires at 600 meters (656 yards) above ground.

 

One of the creative hanabi was inspired by the epic drama Ten-Chi-Jin, which depicted local late 16th century hero, Kanetsugu Naoe.

 

Memorial hanabi set off on the eve of the festival on August 1.  Every year, three white hanabi are set off at the time when the air raid in 1945 started.

 

 

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“It’s like a parachute of lights falling down on me.”
I left Nagaoka a long time ago, but I remember the hanabi festival being the highlight of my summer since I was a little child.   The hanabi there are not just technically sophisticated, but also overwhelming.  The colors, sounds and coordination really permeated into my body, and it’s like a parachute made of lights falling down on me.  When I was a child, we could walk toward the riverbank and enjoy watching hanabi while eating o-bento.  But I heard that is impossible now and it’s hard to buy a ticket for the balcony, even for locals.  I haven’t seen the Nagaoka hanabi for decades now, but I do want to see it again with my naked eyes.

– Rie Otsubo, New Jersey resident and Nagaoka native

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15,000-20,000 hanabi are set off every year in this hanabi competition.  Top level hanabi creators participate and display their masterpieces made by incorporating various techniques of hanabi making and artistic sense.

Oomagari no Hanabi
(All Japan Fireworks Competition)

(Akita Prefecture)
August 23 (Fourth Saturday in August)

Named after the location where it’s held, Oomagari no Hanabi (as it’s commonly known) is not only a festival but more importantly a competition where major hanabi craftspeople from all over Japan gather and showcase their creations.  Among several hanabi competitions in Japan, Oomagari no Hanabi is considered to be particularly prestigious, in the sense that the hanabi are lit by the hanabi creators themselves and important prizes are awarded, including the Prime Minister Prize.

The competition consists of several categories such as “Day-time Hanabi”, “10-go dama” (compulsory and free sections) as well as “Creative Hanabi” that was launched at 1964′s Oomagari no Hanabi.  The hanabi entered in this last category tell a story by displaying light and music, and they are judged on how well they present the story from various aspects such as style, color, rhythm, and more.

Originally Omagari no Hanabi began as a competition between hanabi producers in the Tohoku region in 1910, and it has developed into an event attracting participants nationwide.  There has been record attendance of 760,000 people visiting this one-day event to see the highest level of hanabi craftsmanship.

Official website: www.oomagari-hanabi.com/index.php
(Japanese only)

Hanabi does not have to be circular, it can be triangular and square. The hanabi in the Creative Hanabi category maximize the creativity of hanabi craftspeople and show off artwork in the sky within 2 and a half minutes. This year marks the celebration of half a century since the Creative Hanabi category was launched at Oomagari no Hanabi.

 

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Basic Styles of Hanabi (rocket style hanabi only)
Rocket-style hanabi is divided into two types in terms of structure, the “spread type” and the “split type”. The former represents a style whose sparks spread centrifugally in the sky like a flower.  The latter is a type where its container splits in the sky and sparks fall down to the ground.

(Spread type)
Kiku (Chrysanthemum): Traditional-style hanabi where elegant strings of sparks spread like a chrysanthemum.

Botan (Peony): Tiny dots of sparks spread like a peony.  The light of the sparks shines more powerfully, making it look gorgeous.

Mangekyo (Kaleidoscope): Small chunks of hanabi powder wrapped in washi paper are laid out in the hanabi ball.  When set off in the sky, it gives off kaleidoscope-like sparks.

Kamuro (Crown): The sparks last for a long time in this type.  Naturally the sparks open wider, fall down slowly and the light tapers in the area close to the ground.

Katamono (Various shapes): Lines and dots composed of sparks create certain shapes such as smiley faces, hearts, butterflies and stars.

Senrin (Thousand Rings): A hanabi container consisting of a bunch of smaller hanabi balls with hanabi powder creates many small flower shape sparks in the sky.

(Split type)
Yanagi (Willow): When a hanabi ball of this type splits in the sky, thin lines of sparks fall to the ground.

Hiyusei (Flying Stars): Cylinders of hanabi powder inside a hanabi ball create sparks with irregular movement.

Hachi (Bees): Like the Hiyusei style of hanabi, this type creates sparks with irregular movement, but only quick circular movement as if bees are flying.

Hanarai (Flower Lightning): this gives off the strong light of sparks along with banging sounds, just like lightning.

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Suwa-ko Matsuri Kojo Hanabi Taikai
(Suwa Lake Fireworks Festival)

(Nagano Prefecture)
August 15


Suwa Lake in Nagano Prefecture is located on a high elevation (760 meters) surrounded by mountains.  This hanabi festival that sets off about 40,000 fireworks from the man-made island in the lake is one of the most upscale in Japan.  Beautiful reflections on the lake make the show even more striking.  Viewers can see the hanabi not only from the lakeside, but also from sightseeing boats on the lake.

It started in 1949 in hopes of recovering from the devastation after World War II, and it helped to boost the local economy.  Suwa City also holds a Summer Night Fire Festival every night from late July to the end of August and sets off about 800 hanabi per night.

Official website: www.suwako-hanabi.com
(Japanese only)

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Miyajima Suichu Hanabi Taikai
(Miyajima Water Fireworks Display)

(Hiroshima Prefecture)
August 11


Held in the World Heritage Site, of Miyajima, this festival is known for suichu hanabi (a type of hanabi shot underwater).  Suichu hanabi explode in the shallow water and exhibit hemisphere sparks above the water.  The festival shoots both standard rocket style hanabi and suichu hanabi 400 meters (437 yards) offshore to create striking views of Miyajima’s grand torii gate silhouetted by the illumination of the hanabi.  The number of hanabi used is about 5000 and not as many as major hanabi festivals, but thanks to the incomparable scenery, the festival attracts numerous photo enthusiasts.

Official website: www.miyajima.or.jp/english/index.html
(Japanese only)

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Sumida-gawa Hanabi Taikai
(Sumida River Fireworks Festival)

(Tokyo Metropolis)
July 26


This hanabi festival is the traditional summer night event in Tokyo, and it is well-known overseas due to the beautiful hanabi show with the city of Tokyo as a backdrop.  The view of big-size hanabi along with Tokyo Skytree (2,080 feet tall) is particularly stunning.

The origin of the current Sumida-gawa Hanabi Taikai was “Ryogoku no Kawabiraki” in the Edo Period.  Back in 1732, there was a huge famine and many people in Edo (currently Tokyo) died from starvation and epidemics.  In the following year, the Tokugawa Shogunate held a Shinto style memorial service at Sumida River, where hanabi were set off at Ryogoku, the banks of Sumida River. Hanabi became a summer pastime of the people in Edo.

Tokyo also hosts upscale events like the Tokyo-wan Dai Hanabi Taikai (Tokyo Bay Big Fireworks Festival) and the Edogawa-ku Hanabi Taikai (Edogawa-ward Fireworks Festival).

Official website: www.sumidagawa-hanabi.com/index_eg.html
(Japanese only)