Letters From Japan ~ Vol VII ~ Hanabi


Introduction: I recently began writing letters to send to my friends and family regarding my experiences here in Japan. I've received some encouragement to release the letters net-wide and am doing so in the hopes of providing some entertainment and maybe even some useful information...


Today's topic is "hanabi." You might recall that a couple months ago, I was talking about my ohanami experiences. Well, hanabi is different although the first character (letter) is the same. If you recall, ohanami is literally "flower + see", prefixed by an honorific "o." Altogether it means "flower viewing." Well, hanabi is literally "flower + fire" which means... (take a wild guess)... fireworks!

Anyway, the other weekend, I had my first fireworks experience in Japan. My ward (Setagaya) and Kawasaki City put on a joint fireworks display at Futako-Tamagawaen, along the Tama river. Since Japan is much closer to the birth place of fireworks I assumed the displays here in Japan would be better than those I had experienced previously, and I was right.

We (myself and two friends) met at the Futako-Tamagaen station an hour and a half before the fireworks were to start. We made our way across the bridge to the far side of the river. The path was lined with yatai selling the usual festival goodies such as yakitori (grilled, skewered chicken), takoyaki (grilled octopus dumplings), hot dogs, flavored ice, beer, etc. We found an open spot and spread out on my small tarp.

Hanabi festivities are similar to ohanami festivities in that groups of people get together, spread out tarps, drink lots of beer and generally have a carousing good time. There are also many couples out for a romantic evening. The only noticeable difference, besides the lack of flowering cherry trees, was that many of the girls were dressed up in yukata (summer kimonos). A few guys were dressed in yukata as well, but they were quite rare.

In order to "take care of business" before the fireworks started, I headed over to the porta-johns where there were lines 50 people long. I wouldn't even bother mentioning it except that it was first time that I ever saw a urinal portajohn. It was made even more remarkable by the fact that it had no door so that the back of the guy using it was visible by over 100 people. This didn't particularly bother me (I'm already accustomed to the unannounced entrance of the cleaning lady into the men's bathroom at work) but I thought it notable. It's not something that I've ever heard of in the U.S., that's for sure. The "regular" johns were the traditional Japanese "squatting style." (Maybe I'll explain these in further detail some other time.)

The fireworks started on schedule at 7 pm. Now, one would probably assume that a "joint display" between two municipalities would mean "one display put on jointly." What it actually meant was "two completely different displays put on simultaneously." The launch sites were maybe 1/2 mile or so apart along the river with the crowd settled in between. So, fireworks were fired almost non-stop for two hours to the left and to the right of us. It made me think of a tennis match as we looked to the left and right and back again, often having to choose one side or the other to watch. According to my ward's newsletter, they fired off 10,000 fireworks. It turned out to be the best display I've ever seen although not, apparently, the best Japan has to offer. (The Sumida River display in Tokyo is generally regarded as the biggest.)

I should mention that there seems to be no particular reason, like Independence Day for example, for shooting off fireworks. I think the Japanese just come to some kind of consensus like "it's damned hot, let's shoot off some fireworks." So, what this means is that there are firework displays going on all summer long and, if one was so inclined, could probably attend one every weekend and some weeknights as well.

The only downside to the whole thing were the crowds. Even thought we waited an hour after it was over, the crowds didn't seem to have abated much. We made the mistake of heading back across the bridge which took maybe 45 minutes. I didn't particularly mind as I was content to watch the scene; cops chasing people off the road, young girls in kimono, and whatnot. Anyway the whole thing was definitely worth the trip (particularly since it wasn't particularly far for me anyway).

(C)opyright 1994 Mike Chachich

This material may be freely copied and distributed for non-commercial uses provided this copyright information remains intact. Commercial uses are strictly prohibited without prior written consent. All stated opinions are solely the author's and do not represent those of any other person or organization.

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Created: August 8, 1994
Last Updated: Mar 30, 2005