Matsumoto Bon Bon

When you think of Japan, what are the first things that come to mind?  Politeness, sushi, Tokyo, temples, cleanliness, Mt. Fuji — yes, all accurate. But what about delicious street food, throngs of revelers, and costumed people singing and dancing in the streets for hours?  Not your image of Japan?  Let me explain…

It’s true that life in Japan is quite contained, both physically (in offices, trains, and tiny apartments) and psychologically (in a fairly rigid set of customs and hierarchies). In my experience, most raucousness occurs in the guise of office parties or gatherings at karaoke bars and smoky izakayas.

However, this all changes when the weather warms. Summer in Japan is the season of matsuri, or festivals. These can take many forms, from elaborate processions of portable shrines to gorgeous fireworks displays and taiko drumming performances. Sometimes, mountainsides are set on fire, as in Kyoto’s famous Gozan no Okuribi, and boats are hauled over long distances by festival participants, as in Suwa’s amazing O-fune (boat) matsuri. Japanese festivals are lively, ebullient, and often awe-inspiring events. As it happens, they’re also great places to eat.

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Last weekend, I saw some spectacular fireworks in Toda city, which is located outside of Tokyo in Saitama prefecture.  (This is apparently one of the biggest fireworks displays in the country.)  I had seen the event advertised on the Tokyo CouchSurfing page and decided to tag along.  In our little group we had representatives from South Korea, Turkey, Taiwan, Switzerland, Germany, Japan, the U.S., and Thailand.  No doubt I’ve forgotten a few countries, too.  We must’ve been quite a sight!

The Japanese word for fireworks is hanabi (花火), which translates to “fire (火) flower (花).”  This is actually a very accurate description.  As Steven has pointed out, Japanese fireworks are a much more subtle and artistic affair than their flashier American and Chinese counterparts. The colors seem to change much more gradually, and the light from the explosions seems to dissipate more slowly as well.  This doesn’t mean they’re any less breathtaking, though.  In fact, these fireworks were far more beautiful than anything I’d ever seen back home.  Plus, the show lasted for a full two hours!  How can you beat that?

So, I shall leave you with a video of these “fire flowers.” The quality isn’t great, but I hope you’ll find them just as mesmerizing as I did.  (Warning: there is a considerable amount of silly laughter in this movie.  Yeah, that’s me.  Sorry.  I don’t even remember what was so funny.  I believe it had to do with popcorn…  Anyway!)

Pssst: You can also view photos of the fireworks on my Flickr page.