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In Japan, summer means the onset of festivals also called natsu matsuri in Japanese. And the grand finale is often a fireworks show at the end. There are even festivals and competitions solely centered on the fireworks around the country, each boasting a brilliant display of light and colors.
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Many people in Japan look forward to 夏祭り (natsu matsuri - summer festivals) and 花火大会 (hanabi taikai - fireworks festivals) as a yearly ritual and symbol of summer. It's an ongoing tradition and celebration in the country regarded as something fun to be enjoyed with family, friends, couples and loved ones. So how did this all begin?
Fireworks festivals are believed to have started in the Edo Period when fireworks were set off around the Sumida River to honor the people who lost lives due to poverty, disease and starvation. This particular public display of fireworks was not only the start of the Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival, but also launched similar displays around the country to honor people’s deaths as well as ward off evil spirits.
The same culture and tradition are now followed in various parts of the country, of course with a few tweaks of the new generation.
Many fireworks festivals are held in July and August, as they are often tied with summer, but some are also held in the fall months. Some are simply fireworks shows as the highlight and closing of a natsu matsuri (summer festival) but sometimes they are the main event.
People enjoy summer and fireworks festivals today by dressing up in yukata, traditional summer clothing similar to kimono but made up of different fabrics, usually, cotton or other light fabrics, which are perfect for the humid Japanese summers. You will see lots of people dressed up in yukata on the train in the summer headed to these festivals.
Various food and game stalls are set up near where people gather to see the fireworks. Japanese people eat typical festival food and play festival games at the stalls before heading for a good spot to watch the fireworks.
While many people may attend and watch the festivals from the ground level, depending on the location, people also watch from their homes, restaurants and rented spaces that have a good view of the fireworks.
Fireworks festivals are held all over the country, many often near rivers, lakes and harbors. We have listed a few of the popular ones here for you. Many of these are also a competition between fireworks makers to make the most impressive fireworks
This is the fireworks festival said to have started them all. It is normally held on the last Saturday in July in Tokyo. They light more than 20,000 fireworks of all colors and shapes. You can reach Sumidagawa by various stations near the river including Asakusa, Kuramae, (and although a bit of a walk) Tokyo Skytree Station. You could even choose to watch from Skytree if you’re able to get a spot!
Nagaoka Fireworks Festival is one of the biggest fireworks festivals in Japan as well as Niigata Prefecture. They are known for their giant fireworks. It is held at Shinano River during the first week of August. The nearest station is Nagaoka Station and an additional roughly 20 minute walk to the venue.
Kumano Fireworks Festival is famous for its fireworks which are launched from boats. It is celebrated on August 17 every year off the coast of Kumano in southern Mie Prefecture. You can get here via Kumanoshi Station and a ten or so minute walk to the beach.
Not only that, but there are what are known as 日本三大花火大会 (Nihon Sandai Hanabi Taikai) - Japan’s Three Great Fireworks Festivals which are also known as “competitions”. These are highly regarded by experts as the best in quality. The three are (in no particular order:
Nagaoka Fireworks Festival (Niigata) which is also mentioned above
Omagari National Fireworks Competition (Akita)
Tsuchiura National Fireworks Competition (Ibaraki)
And in terms of competitions, Ise Shrine Fireworks Festival in Mie, as well as the brand new Sanriku Fireworks Competition, are highly regarded as well by both the public and pyrotechnic experts and firework companies.
First, if you want to have the very best seats, you will most likely have to pay for them. These have to be reserved in advance so make sure to look them up beforehand for the festival you wish to attend. But it’s free to watch from areas outside of the paid seating areas. Some people will arrive way in advance on the day of the reserve the best free viewing areas.
While nothing is mandatory, you may enjoy it better if you carry a seating mat or picnic blanket if you will be sitting on the ground, some food or snacks (you can also often buy food at the stands but expect it to be crowded), water bottles (and alcohol if you wish) and wear comfortable clothes (How about trying out a yukata?). Also make sure to bring cash to pay for food and games.
It usually lasts between one to two hours depending on the show, but it varies from location to location. There is often an intermission between the first half and second half, especially for the larger more famous shows.
If you are a visitor or resident in Japan in the months of summer then you must keep fireworks on your list. They are regarded as a perfect place to be enjoyed with friends in the summer. Again, we only mentioned a few so make sure to check out the best ones in your area...or try to see as many as you can in one summer!
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