Hanabi (Japanese writing: 花火) is among my favorite words. It means fireworks, but literally translated it actually means flowers of fire. When they say Japanese words are ideograms, images that render an object or action, hanabi is the perfect example to bring up.
The Japanese love their fireworks. I guess, as many pointed out, it all has to do with the concept of ephemeral, temporary which teaches to enjoy the moment as it will quickly pass and never return. It also must have something to do with the beauty of the crackling, the sudden lights that fill up the night sky, the shapes and colors, the boom factor...
Fireworks are THE biggest summer events in Japan. Every prefecture, ward, and city has their own pyrotechnics show, and if I could take a bird's eye look at the country I imagine it would look like colorful explosions in sequence all over. Often there will be more than one on the same day, in different places.
People prepare for fireworks, they make sure they have reserved a spot with a good view by spreading a picnic sheet on the ground hours before the event starts, drinking and eating food bought at the nearby stalls while waiting for the starting time. Most of them, men and women, wear the traditional summer "uniform" yukata, and the tradition has extended to foreign residents and visitors as well. Personally, I do like seeing people in their colorful outfit this time around, I like the many variants of knots and ribbons tied at the girls' backs, the bright patterns, the hair pins and accessories all women seem to wear so naturally!
On a side note, I have worn yukata as well, on several occasions, but I still feel rather awkward, not to mention the challenge in keeping it on in the Japanese summer weather...how do people manage not to drip sweat when squeezed and wrapped in a tight dress? It will remain a mystery to me.
But what's the meaning and the history for fireworks in Japan? In all cultures, they are associated to celebrations. Here, they became summer entertainment only around 18th century, when a terrible famine had decimated the population so that the fireworks were seen as a means to cheer up people for their losses. Since then, the Japanese art of preparing the explosive mixtures has evolved, perfected and is among the top in the world.
From early June to late September, many are the occasions to see fireworks. In the Kanto area, probably the most famous ones are:
Sumida river fireworks, which is the absolutely most famous (and the first summer fireworks display, historically) biggest in terms of boom factor (20,000 this year) and attendance, it is among the first of the season in the second half of July. Already spectacular per se, with multiple shooting points from along the river, the newly acquired city landmark of Tokyo Sky Tree gifts spectators with a unique show. This year it was on July 25, said to have attracted more than 1/2 million people!!!
Yokohama bay fireworks followed on August 4, offering magnificent views of the bay area, and the biggest ball of light shot up in the sky, with a half metre diameter!! This year the boom factor was 15,000 and expectations were very high. The fact that it was a weekday means the crowd can be a bit thinner, but don't expect it to be that thin. Estimates put the participation to 200,000 people.
Tokyo Bay fireworks are the capital's most famous event, next up on schedule after Yokohama's on August 8, and all the best viewing spots tend to be booked-out very early for this event. You know, the bay, the city skyline, the bridge...hard to find urban settings as good as this one. And all is because the display here is a fireworks competition. The best is if you can go earlier in the day and conquer a square of the beach, so that you can suntan during the day and from the same spot watch the show at night.
I can warmly recommend to get on a boat, if you don't suffer sea sickness, and watch the fireworks from the sea, unblocked view, while partying with friends. I did that for the Yokohama bay event, and I can assure you it was the best spot!
If you happen to be away just when the biggest fireworks displays are on, fear not because many others await near and far. Just have a look at your favorite events listing pages and make your move.
Some of my favorite are at Enoshima beach, south of Tokyo, and Shirahama beach in Izu, but if you don't like heading that far south, you can always try the Tama river: lights will be on at Futakotamagawa and Kawasaki on August 22, just to mention a couple of viewing spots.
One thing to keep in mind is that each and every fireworks display attracts lots and lots of people. While they can reach the venue at different times in the hours before the starting time, they all tend to return to the nearest station in flocks at the end. if you are one of those who don't like to be pushed around in the crowd, you have two options: leave before the grand finale and watch it on your way back, or wait some time more before making it back home.
Either way, wear your best yukata, grab some ice cold drinks, sit down, look up and enjoy the show.