Set your sights on the colourful world of Japanese fireworks past and present.

If you’re in Japan in the thick of summer, you’re likely to hear this weirdly counterintuitive piece of advice: on hot days, drink hot liquids. There’s actually a scientific logic to this madness, but—if you’re anything like me—in the sticky swelter of July and August you’ll take a chilled glass of barley tea over a piping hot cuppa. Well, here’s one sizzling summer treat you won’t want to turn down: fireworks.

While North Americans are no strangers to summer pyrotechnics, the Japanese take fireworks to  a whole new level. Hanabi (花火)—which translates poetically into English as “fire flowers” range from hand-held sparklers to dazzling airborne displays. And in Japan, fireworks are an integral part of beating the heat. Hundreds of shows are held across the country, usually during traditional festivals. These bright-hot flowers are a merry accompaniment to local celebrations, which are chock full of yukata-clad revellers and yum-inducing food stands. The fireworks begin not long after sunset, and crowds start to gather early, gazing up in anticipation as they angle for the best seat in the house.

Then, finally, countless fiery flora burst into awe inspiring shapes and shades as the spectators crane their necks, the light glinting in their eyes. After a particularly stunning set of hanabi, you might hear delighted shouts of “Tamayaaaa!” or “Kagiyaaa!” The performance is as carefully crafted as a piece of music, with four main types of fireworks punctuating the rhythm. The rich visual narrative of each show ends with a grand finale, with many shows launching hundreds of spectacular shells before the sky finally returns to its original darkness.

While the show lasts but a short summer night, the history of the hanabi is long and storied. Hanabi appeared in Japan after the introduction of gunpowder in 1549, and a century later fireworks had become a major form of summer entertainment, with firework factories producing more and more gorgeous hanabi and passing down the art from generation to generation. In fact, the exclamations of “Tamaya” and “Kagiya” have a historical legacy: the longest-running hanabi factory is called Kagiya. Centuries ago, a former Kagiya employee created a new factory called Tamaya and challenged its powerful predecessor. Their rivalry led to great hanabi battles, with supporters on either side crying out their names after each impressive explosion.

Hanabi weren’t just for fun and profit, however. The oldest running show, the Sumida River Fireworks Festival, was set up as a special event in 1733, after a nationwide spate of epidemics and famine wiped out a million people. The Sumida fireworks were launched in an effort to dispel evil spirits and comfort the souls of the dead, a display that continues in modern-day Tokyo.

 


 Make sure you know the DOs and DON’Ts of viewing fireworks

 

ENJOY HANABI IN STYLE

Here are some tips to make sure you’re the cool cat who knows how to make the most of a big explosion.

Hanabi_4_FDO get there early or buy tickets in advance

That goes double at a big-city show, where glitter on the ground—those enormous skyscrapers—might block your view of the glitter in the sky.

Hanabi_1DON’T be a packhorse

Firework shows can get very crowded, and you don’t want to be the one getting glowered at for all your bulky bags.

Hanabi_3

DO wear a jinbei or yukata

Japan’s traditional, lightweight summer garb is part of enjoying a summer festival. These gorgeous threads will add a special touch to your viewing experience.


Illustrations by Chieko Watanabe