Last weekend was the stylish (and quite tiny) Miraitoterasu festival at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine and on both the Friday that saw the torrential rains and the mild Sunday there was a display of Tetzutsu Hanabi, handheld fireworks. I wrote a little on the history and art of Tetzutsu fireworks in this blog, so please have look! The Yasukuni event had I think 100 bundles, quite large. One person waited to pick it up while the other one lit it. After a good fire had started it would be picked up and pointed to the sky before going out in a big bang and a final burst of fire directed downwards. Few festivals are as colorful, loud and smelly as this one!
The big Shibuya festival has started, which means that most (all?) shrines in Shibuya will be pooling their resources and manpower to create one huge festival in the center of town. The main even is on the Sunday but there will be plenty of performances, omikoshi, traditional stage plays and music all over the Shibuya area starting… last week. If you are in town and want to see a little bit of a modern traditional festival, I recommend coming down to Shibuya!
A few weeks ago I visited the city of Mishima in eastern Shizuoka Prefecture to the west of Tokyo just to enjoy their big summer festival. It was a three day event full of performances and culture but this time I could only take part in the first two days of events. This festival too has as one of its main features the giant dash, huge festival platforms pulled about by towns people. In Mishima City most of the townspeople seems to take turns being on top of the floats, with lots of flutes and drums to try and outperform each other! It is great fun to watch and enthusiasm and energy is really heart warming. The dashi are also unusually decorated with masses of lanterns hanging up front, making it a bright and colorful festival.
If you are in the area or feel like getting out of Tokyo for a couple of days I can really recommend Mishima, with maybe a day tour to Numazu City nearby or even as far as Kakegawa City or Atami City. They are good even when there are no festivals!
Fireworks started being produced in Japan in the 16th century, soon after the introduction of gunpowder. Naturally they were used like we use them today, but it is said that in 1613, at a fireworks performance inside Edo Castle, the handheld fireworks had the Tokugawa shogun especially impressed and they spread in popularity from that point. Usually fireworks in Japan were made only by specially licensed masters but these handheld fireworks were made by hand by groups of young men who would together go out to gather bamboo, hollow them out into tubes and stuff them with gunpowder before taking them to the local shrine to show of their courage and skills. After lighting the tube, they start pouring a fountain of sparks that depending on the size of the fireworks can reach over ten meters in height. Between 10 and 60 seconds after the fountain of sparks (the roar) comes the bottom explosion, where the sparks fly out underneath to symbolize the wings of the beast, along with a loud bang and plenty of smoke.
These Tetzutsu Hanabi can be found here and there across Japan but are most common in the Mikawa-Enshu area (Aichi and Shizuoka prefectures) where there are several famous festivals featuring this tradition. I visited the summer festival in Shizuoka Prefecture’s Mishima City, at the Mishima Taisha grand shrine where a group of local young men fired hundreds of these hand held fireworks during a 30 minute inferno. The men will walk around a set perimeter holding tubes up. There are a few different sizes of tubes as well as color fireworks and they get progressively bigger as the performance advances.
Few festivals are such an assault on the senses as this one. The noise is spectacular, with explosions every few seconds, the constant roar of the tubes, the flashes of light and fountains of lighted sparks and smoke. But most lasting is the smell! I was lucky not to be standing in the direction of the wind and still my hair, my skin, my camera and my clothes were covered in a light film of greasy gunpowder residue. I don’t think I have ever smelled so bad in my life! Still it was absolutely worth seeing it.