Hanabi or fireworks are a large part of Japanese summers. While many countries celebrate with fireworks, none do it quite like Japan. Go anywhere in Japan and ask anyone about their favorite fireworks festival and they’ll have an opinion of where the best and brightest fireworks go off. I too have my own answer for that question; Suwa city in Nagano prefecture. Suwa city is home to two of the best fireworks shows Japan has to offer.
There is a Great fireworks festival in the middle of August which is huge. The small city of Suwa, with a population of roughly 50,000 people, often has an influx of 500,000 visitors during this festival. Then, in the beginning of September, there is the Shin-saku or “experimental” fireworks festival. The Shin-saku festival is my personal favorite of the two. You get to see many fireworks that may not show up in other festivals for a couple of years. It also draws a slightly smaller crowd than the normal festival in August. Both of the festivals occur over lake Suwa.
The Suwa fireworks festivals have been going on for quite some time. The main festival, celebrating its 67th festival this year, has been going since near the end of World War II. Whereas the Shin-saku festival has only been around half of that time; just celebrating its 33rd festival. I had the luxury of revisiting the latter festival the other week on September 5th.
The fireworks this year were nothing short of fantastic. The show started off around 7:00p.m. and lasted for about one and a half hours. There were people in the streets having a wonderful time as loud booms from the fireworks rang overhead and lights of every color shooting out. Sometimes the after effects looked like stars lighting up the night sky, other times dazzling orbs of light. Many of them often had a second stage; after an initial bright blast many other lights would shine around the first ones or trail off. Some even formed a second orb of lights. Finally there was the finale. An extravaganza of large bright orbs exploding one after another just over the lake. Truly a great sight.
￼But simply standing around and enjoying the vibrant variety of fireworks is not all there is to do. Oh no my friend. There are the food stalls. One thing I certainly love about Japan is the variety and uniqueness of food options and what better place than a festival to try a few.
It was not easy but I’ve picked out five must tries at street vendors during a festival. In no particular order.
- Yakitori. Usually chicken fried on sticks. The meat is usually prepared in a variety of ways but I’d recommend the skin. Yakitori is standard food you’ll find at most festivals and it is a great fall back.
- Yakisoba. Fried soba noodles with vegetables and, usually, an egg
- Gyukushiyaki. Fried beef on a stick. Usually one the more pricey items but it is totally worth it for the juicy, meaty goodness.
- Takoyaki. Fried octopus in balls of dough with mayo and takoyaki sauce topping. Though takoyaki is a common staple of Osaka it is readily available all over Japan. Also it’s great to pick up a set at a festival to share with friends.
- Ikayaki. Fried squid on a stick. Definitely chewy and it may not be for everyone but It’s quite tasty.
- Bring a tarp to sit on. This is common for most outdoor festivals/events in Japan. If no one remembers to bring one you’ll like end up sitting in dirt or mud, or just standing the whole time. They are readily available at 100 yen shops and grocery stores around festival times.
- ￼Show up early. While you can usually get a good view of the fireworks about anywhere, if you would like the “good” seats you should consider showing up an hour or so early. It’s also possible at some events to reserve spaces.
- Bring money for food. If you plan to indulge in the food stalls like I do, you’ll be glad to have that extra 2000 yen.
- Bring your own drinks. As opposed to the food, most of the drinks you’ll find at vendors at festivals are readily available at grocery stores for much less. Stock up before hand and save that money for the food!
- Be ready to clean up after yourself. Sometimes there are no bins for your trash and recyclables. So, be polite and respectable and prepared to take your rubbish with you.
- Make a plan of how you are arrive and leaving. In the case of big festivals, such as the ones in Suwa, traffic and parking both are problems. I highly recommend the train.
- Comfortable shoes. Sometimes you may have a bit of a walk from the station or you’ll end up standing for a while.
- Be prepared to wait on toilets. Often with so many people long lines are unavoidable.
- Bring an umbrella. Just in case. Summer often remains fairly rainy. While usually this won’t interfere with the fireworks you probably don’t want to be wet.
Visiting any fireworks festival in Japan is an amazing cultural experience. From the food to the Japan’s unique style of fireworks. I certainly hope, given the opportunity, you will check out one of Suwa city’s fireworks festivals.
Kami-suwa station.It’s about a ten minute walk from the station to the lake area where the festivals are held. Again I highly recommend the train, as parking and traffic are both issues.
At the end of the event you may find yourself waiting 20-30 minutes for the initial rush of people to get out on the trains.