The sounds of thunderous booms, crackles and pops might have evoked natural fear, but the spectacular flashes, sparkles, and fizzles of fireworks superimposed against a backdrop of billions of celestial stars had been well worth the risks of danger. So thought the Chinese who first invented fireworks solely for amusement. To this very day, fireworks have become traditional entertainment dazzling and mesmerizing millions of Japanese viewers throughout the country.
The Japanese considered hanabi (fireworks) as “flowers of fire” —
brilliant bursts in various forms and colors of poignant beauty. Like the
splendid cherry blossoms’ brief existence, fireworks flash in all their pomp and
glory for a fleeting moment only to vanish into thin air. Since fireworks
displays have become such popular events, it’s common to see many people
strolling in yukatas (cotton kimonos), drinking cold beer and carrying
uchiwas (round-shaped fans) — everyone from the neighborhood turned up
for the festivity on muggy summer nights.
In the past, firework performances were held as exclusive entertainment for
the privileged class. After wining and dining on a boat, the daimyos and their
lovely courtesans often watched fireworks hurled into air as they drifted along
the Sumida River. Hence, shooting fireworks along a river has become a
traditional practice. In fact, fireworks show over the Ryogoku Bridge on the
Sumida River marks the opening ceremony of the boating season.
Fireworks would not be what it is today without the contribution of two great
craftsmen — Kagiya and Tamaya. Not only did they elevate the art of fireworks
but also promote fireworks status as a popular diversion among the commoners.
Dexterous in pyrotechnics, Kagiya started a family business in 1659, which
rapidly expanded along with his fame and influence in society. As an apprentice
of Kagiya, Tamaya soon became a master in his own right, even surpassing the
wizardry of his former teacher. Trying to outdo his old master, the ambitious
Tamaya often challenged Kagiya to stunning fireworks performances in public. In
a twist of fate, Tamaya’s popularity came abruptly to an end when one of his
innovative experiments caused a disastrous fire that burned village houses to
the ground. Consequently, he was banished and his family heritage ruined, but
his legacy lives on. To this day, many of Tamaya’s exquisite fireworks
achievements engrained in ukiyoe (woodblock prints) are sold in souvenir
With the public’s obsession with fireworks, it’s not surprising that Japanese
fireworks have evolved into an art of its own. The Japanese created the fabulous
design of a three-dimensional global dispersion that resembles a chrysanthemum,
one of the most elegant presentations in pyrotechnics. The firework shell is
globular packed with several layers of different colors of powder to alter the
hue of illumination while burning in the air. When the casing explodes, each
star uniformly positioned around the core is strewn into space in equal distance
from the center of the blast.
The Japanese fireworks fall mainly under three categories based on different
scattering results: warimono, kowarimono, and pokamono. The
warimono bursts into sizzling stars distributed in equal distance from
the center to resemble petals of a chrysanthemum. The key to projecting a large
circular distribution effect lies in the balance of tension between the
thickness of the shell casing and the strength of the detonation. The
magnificence of this rupture stems from the diverse color coordination and
smaller additional cores in the center of the firework bloom. Instead of one
awesome floral blossom, the kowarimono ejects a multiple of tiny
chrysanthemums blooms all at once. Unlike the floral shower, the pokamono
splits into two hemispheres while in the air, casting stars in one direction as
sparks fly erratically and part as traces of smoke.
Fireworks with the state-of-the-art techniques are grabbing much attention
nationwide. The special effects of starmine, a succession of launches for speed
and rhythm, or the water-born fireworks, a fountain spraying out a shower of
sparks, have added a new dimension to the art of pyrotechnics. Even more
astounding, the daylight fireworks streak through the cloudless blue sky like
lightning bolts in Technicolor. The popularity of creative firework designs has
inspired replications of computer graphic designs of swirls and lines, as well
as fueled patterns of familiar figures in an assortment of colors, such as, a
butterfly, snail, hat, fish, and even a smiley face.
Over the years, the Japanese pyrotechnicians have consistently awed the
crowds with new designs and improved techniques for a more fantastic and
sophisticated display. In fact, the pyrotechnic artists exhibit their skill and
ability at the annual firework display competitions held throughout Japan. The
widely known contests draw thousands of spectators to the Starmine Concourse in
Ise City, Mie Prefecture, the Large and Consecutive Fireworks Contest in
Tsuchuira City, Ibaragi Prefecture, and the most stupendous one of them all, the
Original Fireworks Contest in Omagari City, Akita Prefecture.
Although fireworks performances can be seen almost anywhere in Japan, the
most celebrated ones will make you come back for more. The magnificent
sanjakudama, a single massive firework rising to the height of 600 meters
with a spread of 650 meters across the sky, will guarantee to enrapture you in
Nagaoka City of Niigata Prefecture. The artistic endeavors of sophisticated,
imaginative and fascinating fireworks will enthrall you at the Fireworks Art
Celebration at Perfect Liberty. The fireworks with a water theme will captivate
you at the renown lakes and seashores: the Fireworks Festival at Lake Suwa, the
Bayside Fireworks Display in Yokohama, the seaside Fireworks Display in
Kamakura, and the Waterborn Fireworks Display in Miyajima.
As a tradition, fireworks have evolved over hundreds of years, becoming
highly entertaining, enticing, and ever increasingly adored by the Japanese.
Emulating the beauty of nature, a spectacular hanabi is like a photo
worth a thousand words.
(First published on UniOrb.com, 2004)