The adverse comments that followed the virtual fireworks in the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony would have never been uttered in Japan if only for one reason: the Japanese wouldn’t even contemplate the idea of not using real fireworks! Even though the invention of fireworks is credited to their dearest foe, China, the Japanese school of firework manufacturing (although it should be more accurate to say “creation”) has managed to distance itself so much from the source that the Japanese have every reason to feel fireworks are rightfully theirs. And this is the reason that they have connected them not just with one festive day but with a whole season: it’s impossible to spend a summer anywhere in Japan without attending at least one “hanabi taikai” (花火大会) i.e. fireworks festival.
In the beginning of fireworks we find the exorcism of bad spirits; this is also how the Japanese adopted them and related them to the O-Bon period and various good-luck ceremonies. (This was particularly necessary in the Edo period when disasters of all kinds hit the city in an almost annual basis). The Edo firework legacy, evident even in some of the most famous ukiyo-e woodblock prints is still alive today: the most celebrated hanabi taikai is in the Sumida river, at the east side of Tokyo and gathers about a million spectators. Although the name “kawa biraki” (川開き) i.e. “river opening” (for fishing, cruising with the floating restaurants etc.) is rarely used, for most people the summer hasn’t reached its peak until the fire flowers have lit up over Asakusa and Ryogoku.
Like other summer events, hanabi taikai are an opportunity for a stroll wearing yukata (i.e. summer kimono), for an evening picnic accompanied by generous doses of alcohol, for a romantic rendezvous, for a meet with friends or for a family outing. Even more, it is an opportunity to see something miraculous, something that no matter how many times they have seen if before, it never seizes to amaze: the night sky getting torn by the light and the screeching of the rising firework, staying silent for a moment and then filling with colored fire expanding endlessly before it starts is downward way to the ground. At that time no one can remain unmoved and not cry of surprise and joy; anyone searching the Buddhist enlightenment, they will find it in this very joy that for a brief moment overwhelms all senses.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.