The Sumida River Fireworks Festival

Fire Flowers over Eastern Tokyo

No summertime spent in Japan, as either resident or tourist, is complete without taking in at least one of the many thousands of fireworks festivals held around the country. Most are held near riverbanks or waterfront areas, in large part to provide space for tens, if not hundreds of thousands to gather together to gaze skywards into the summer night at the fire-flowers (‘hanabi’ in Japanese) exploding above their heads. And none are bigger than the festivities held each year on the banks of Tokyo’s Sumida River in the east of the Japanese capital.

Officially dating back to 1733, although for several decades before the late 70s it fell out of favor, the so-called Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival actually started off as a competition between two neighboring areas on the banks of the river. Both were intent on showing themselves as masters of pyrotechnics capable of outdoing the other, by putting on a better show.

Whilst much of the sense of early-years competition has faded, today, the roughly 25,000 pyrotechnics let off are still released in two close, but slightly different areas, offering a chance for those fortunate enough to have secured a place on one of the many traditional wooden craft atop the river itself to take in both. For most though it will be a case of choosing a location on shore close to the water and with an open view of the night sky to see all of the action.

A million or so people from all over Japan arrive on the day of the event, many arriving as early as lunchtime, seven full hours before the first fireworks light up the sky and the lazily flowing river below. You should plan on doing the same, but once your place is reserved, head off for a walk and check out the local area. Nobody will intrude on your claimed space such is the Japanese sense of politeness.

Boats on the river provide the perfect place to enjoy the festivities.

Boats on the river provide the perfect place to enjoy the festivities.

Speaking of reservations, for first timers the easiest spot in which to reserve a small slice of Japanese earth for the evening is in Sumida Park. The park on the west bank of the river near Azuma Bridge; the ornate red bridge that crosses the river to the Tokyo Skytree which towers 2,080 feet into the air.

So, with your spot selected, turn east – away from the river – an walk a stone’s throw from the park to where one of Tokyo’s main Buddhist temples, Senso-ji in Asakusa lies. As the temple protecting Tokyo, formerly known as Edo before 1868, from bad spirits approaching from the northeast, Senso-ji attracts up to two million worshippers at New Year. The temple is also one of the most popular sightseeing destinations in Tokyo. Hundreds of thousands visit year-round and take pictures in front of the huge gate and giant red paper lantern on the path leading to the temple.

After the temple is seen and snapped, explore any and all of the many back streets and main approaches between the temple and the park area where hundreds of mini stalls offer drinks and snacks for those intent on seeing he fireworks. Get in line, pick up a beer or some Japanese sake, and a snack of some roasted corn or perhaps octopus balls then settle in for the wait. Don’t be afraid to fill the wait time by chatting with your seating neighbors and enjoying the happy festival atmosphere. Then along with your new friends prepare to be blow away by the fireworks show.

This year, 2013, the Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival will be held on the evening of July 27th. Be there and the memory will stay with you for a lifetime.

photo credit: kawabek via photopin cc