“Tamaya!”: Top Five Fireworks Festivals near Tokyo
It's summer in Japan! And that means many things - festivals, cold beers, mosquitoes and oppressive heat to name a few–but it is also the season of fireworks! All across the country the humid night skies fill with multi-colored flowers of fire, accompanied by the traditional call of “Tamaya!” from the locals whenever a firework explodes. So slip into your kimono or “jinbei”, grab an uchiwa fan and check out these five fireworks festivals in the Kanto region (the region being the prefectures Tokyo, Gunma, Ibaraki, Kanagawa, Tochigi, Saitama, and Chiba)...
Tamamura (July 15th, 19:50–21:30)
This unassuming town in Gunma Prefecture, up in the northern reaches of Kanto, comes to life in the middle of July. 10,000 fireworks are thrown over the farming fields, and as a spectator, this is one of the rare occasions where you can get right up close and personal with the fireworks, so close you're practically standing underneath them. Just be prepared for a rain of firework debris if you do!
ACCESS: The nearest train station is Shinmachi on the Takasaki Line, approximately 1h 30 mins from Ikebukuro on the Shonan-Shinjuku. Shinmachi isn't especially close to the fireworks area, so be sure to make extra time to walk or organize further transport. This festival also finishes quite late, so organizing accommodation in nearby Takasaki is recommended.
Sumidagawa (July 29th, 19:00–20:30)
Sumidagawa is the fireworks festival of Tokyo. The vast Sumida River threading through Tokyo’s east side, normally a heaving dark mass of water at night, suddenly glitters with the reflection of 22,000 fireworks, made all the more dramatic with the backdrop of Tokyo Sky Tree. The Sumidagawa Fireworks festival is arguably the most prolific in the Kanto region, regularly getting its own TV coverage. Crowds at this festival make an average street in Tokyo look sparse! So if you plan to get a good vantage point, leave early and don't expect to leave the area for some time after it is finished. Or you can just watch it on TV!
ACCESS: Asakusa Station on the end of the Tokyo Metro Ginza Line is closest to the Sumidagawa, but if the crowds are overwhelming, you can get off at Ueno Station and walk 20 mins eastwards. Doing likewise on your return route is also recommended, as you can avoid the worst of the crowds as they pack into the Metro.
Toda (August 5th 19:00–20:30)
Another fireworks festival that takes advantage of a picturesque river, the Toda Fireworks festival is a surprisingly intense show. 12,000 fireworks may seem quite average, but the showtime is shorter. It makes for a fast-paced spectacle, and the setting over the Arakawa River is a more spacious backdrop than the Sumidagawa. Be sure to get there early to get a riverside seat, or you'll be stuck watching from the backstreets (as I did!)
ACCESS: The nearest train stations are either Ukimafunado or Toda Koen, both on the Saikyo Line, about 20 minutes from Ikebukuro. From there, make your way to the Arakawa riverside. If you're not sure which way that is, follow the crowds!
Kumagaya (August 12th 19:00–21:00)
Set further upstream on the Arakawa River, the Kumagaya Fireworks Festival is huge. The modest number of fireworks (10,000) are used effectively, breaking up the whole show into a series of mini-displays, allowing you to take breathers, toilet breaks and fully enjoy each and every firework. Moreover, the seating area is set around a vast field, so there's plenty of space. After the fireworks are done, there's a mini-town of festival stalls at the edges of the field to enjoy until the crowds thin out.
ACCESS: If you take a Takasaki Line rapid train from Ikebukuro you’ll be in Kumagaya in 60 minutes. From the station, take the south exit and keep walking until you get to the river. The seating area in the middle of the field is usually reserved for paid customers, but fear not as there’s plenty of space to be had along the riverside.
Tsuchiura (October 7th, 18:00–20:30)
Not every fireworks festival happens in the summer! If you're around Japan in the autumn and want to enjoy the sparks without the heat and humidity, Tsuchiura City in Ibaraki prefecture has you covered. It is regarded as one of the Three Great Fireworks Shows of Japan, with a whopping 20,000 fireworks. It also has an interesting history, having started in 1925 as a competition between local firefighters. The competitive element remains to this day, with hopeful pyrotechnics all vying for glory in a mini display of their own.
ACCESS: Get on the Joban Line from Ueno and you’ll be there in 70 minutes. From there it is a 30 minute walk from the West Exit (a long trek, but you’re better off walking than joining the long queues for a bus or taxi. Eventually you’ll come to the Sakura River, the opposite bank of which is the staging area for the fireworks.
Fireworks are an essential part of the Japanese summer, and if you get the chance to see one, don't miss it!