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Peaceful Pyrotechnics2010.08.03

    One of the great things about living in Japan is the ability to enjoy slices of living history in each season. All you need to know is where to look for it. Summer is the season of fireworks festivals, and the oldest one in Japan is the Sumida River Fireworks Festival, a tradition thriving since it started in 1733. Held on the last Saturday of July, this festival features 20,000 different kinds of fireworks, and attracts around one million people each year.


    If you are hoping to spread out on a blanket and enjoy an unbroken view, this is one festival you can forget about. However, if you don’t mind the crowds, and do enjoy the shitamachi downtown Tokyo atmosphere, it is one of the summer festivals you should not miss.


    What makes the Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival special is not just the display of world class fireworks artistry. There is also the potential for people watching. You will seldom get a chance to see so many people, Japanese and foreign, dressed in colorful yukata with folding fans, and traditional Japanese footwear, which makes people walk and gesture in a more Japanese fashion. Japanese clothing is a great way to relax and beat the summer heat. It makes you wonder why they have virtually abandoned it in daily life.


    Both the festival and summer vacation encourage comfort and fashion, even among those dressed in Western style. On a crowded train I was not able to find two people dressed alike among men or women, and that degree of variety is quite refreshing in a culture known for conformity.


    This festival has been celebrated for 277 years, more than 8 generations, and it is interesting to imagine what it must have been like in the past, without tall buildings, electricity, iPhones, or indeed foreign faces. By 1810 the festival had become a major showcase and competitive venue for two rival fireworks makers, Tamaya and Kagiya, and people would shout out these names as they do today in sports competitions. You can get a glimpse of the view through Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, which celebrated scenes of Edo, including of this same festival on the Sumida River, in the print by Utagawa Hiroshige called Fireworks at Ryogoku,


    One of the best ways to view this festival is on a Yakatabune (traditional roofed boat) river cruise, enjoying food and drink along with the fireworks. These cruises are available throughout the year.

    But the common way is to enjoy the festival on foot, and once you resign yourself to the flow of the crowds, the urban landscape views, and your own way of beating the Tokyo summer heat, then the magic of the fireworks on the night sky canvas transports you to another world.


    With the event attracting from 900,000 to 1,000,000 people each year, you can understand why foot traffic over the bridge for the finale has to be closely directed by police, who encourage the crowd in friendly tones to keep moving so that other people can also get a chance to see it. Groups of people are sectioned off to cross the bridge in an orderly fashion, and the crowd is totally cooperative.


    Massive crowds, but no pickpockets or fights. A million people on a hot summer night, and people are courteous and friendly. Festival food and drink, and lots of lucky views if you keep moving. This is Japan, and the scene below calmly reflects the peaceful pyrotechnics that decorate the night sky above.


    The Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival has a website with English information on the history of the Festival, and descriptions of how various types of fireworks are made and brilliant colors produced, Last year I captured some great views of the floating world of people on the side streets, and Fireworks seen from Sensoji Temple, with a video at


    If you missed it this year, or even if you made it and want another point of view, I filmed it again in High Definition, so be sure to select viewing mode in HD, and check out the clip of this year’s fireworks finale on YouTube at,


    William Reed


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    Article Writer

    William Reed

    William Reed is a renowned author-speaker who coaches physical finesse and flexible focus for a creative career path. A certified Master Trainer in Guerrilla Marketing and 7th-dan in Aikido, he combines practical wisdom of East and West to help you learn personal branding at the Entrepreneurs Creative Edge.

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