When translated literally, Hanabi, the Japanese word for fireworks, means flower-fire, and you haven’t lived until you’ve seen fireworks in Japan. On warm evenings throughout the summer season, along the banks of Japan’s rivers, the night sky explodes in bursts of fiery color. In fact, these fireworks displays are named for the riverbanks from which they are launched: Tamagawa Hanabi, Kanagawa Hanabi, Sumidagawa Hanabi.
By mid afternoon on the day of the fireworks, the rivers are already dotted with sailboats, motorboats and rowboats, all vying for the best location from which to view the spectacle. Rooftops are a popular spot for those lucky spectators with access to a place above the crowd. But mostly, the streets are jam-packed with common folk who have come to enjoy the festivities.
Along its length, as it winds its way through rural Japan and the suburbs of Tokyo, the Sumida River is crossed by many bridges, some of which are quite close together. The Sumidagawa Hanabi are launched over two such bridges, creating a doubly dazzling spectacle. On the day that I was fortunate enough to attend this fireworks display, my companion and I headed for the Sumida River after work and arrived with little time to spare. Having been offered no invitation to a private rooftop party, we were clueless as to where to view the display, and therefore had to rely on our intuition. We followed the general migration of the crowd toward what we guessed were the banks of the river. Block by block, as we drew nearer, the crowds became progressively thicker, moving more and more slowly, until we finally reached a standstill, packed like the proverbial sardines, unable to move in any direction.
Ordinarily, I would have worked myself into a state of panic over the closeness of the crowd, but at that moment, there was a deafening boom. The fireworks had begun. The world around me disappeared as I turned my gaze heavenward. It seems that, as we were propelled along by the crowds, we had somehow magically landed in the epicenter of the event. For the next 90 minutes, we were cascaded with shower after shower of brilliantly sparkling bursts of flower-fire on our upturned faces: an experience that defies description with mere words. But imagine, if you will, the biggest, grandest finale of a fireworks show you’ve ever seen. Multiply that by an hour and a half of non-stop pyrotechnics, and you might come close to picturing the explosive grandeur of the Sumidagawa Hanabi.