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 assauly 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.
I missed the grand festival in Tokyo’s western city of Hahicoji that took place last weekend. It is one of my favorite festivals so I am a little miffed that I could not go. Instead I dug around among the photos I took of last year’s festival and found these, of the giant dashi right during the magic blue hour! The red light of the lanterns to the wooden browns of the costumes and the dashi look great contrasted with the rich blue of that time of the early evening. Of course seeing the real thing is best photos will have to do in this for this blog!
If you are in Tokyo over the weekend and want to see or do something special there is nothing I would recommend more than the famous Hachioji Matsuri, one of the biggest festival in Western Tokyo. It is a little bit of a train ride from central Tokyo but less than an hour from most points in the city I think. The festival is scattered all over central Hachioji, but the main action is on the main road near the station, where the giant Dashi are being pulled back and forth throughout the day and the evening. Apart from the there are also plenty of Hayashi (traditional live festival music), omikoshi, dances, rituals, geisha, etc. This festival is easily one of the most “complete” of the big summer festivals in Tokyo! I took these in the scorching hot festival last year but this year looks to be even hotter!
The festival floats at the annual summer festival in Sawara City in northern Chiba is something special, famous for their huge top decorations, some lifelike images of Gods and heroes, others are more stylistic (and moving!) representations of animals and spirits. There are two major festivals in Sawara City, both drawing thousands of tourists and participants. Each of the two festivals are sponsored by one of the two shrines separated by the Onogawa River. The summer festival is traditionally under the domain of the eastern Yasaka Shrine, in the Honjuku part of town. Note the solid wooden wheels of the wagons, or dashi, as they are called, and the painted poles used to maneuver them. The pole in the close up looks almost unused, which you can tell from the fact that the end looks flat and neat. When the wagons have been maneuvered around the narrow streets and bridges of the town the poles look more like massive and badly sharpened pencils and there are splinters all over town! More photos of this fantastic festival to come!