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Bang Bang

A survival guide the BIG THREE fireworks festivals in Japan…and a whole lot more!

A few hundred years ago, some bloke in China looked at gunpowder and thought, “Hey, let’s make this bugger really explode!” In the 17th century, hanabi (fireworks) came to Japan’s shores and the art of pyrotechnics here reaches dazzling levels year after year.

Hanabi, literally translated means “fire flower,” and fireworks celebrations are one of Japan’s most popular summer pastimes. It’s an opportunity to kick back with some mates and have a few beers or share a romantic evening with your partner. There are more than 200 fireworks exhibitions and festivals each summer in Japan – more than one every day – and every year overwhelming numbers flock to see the amazing displays of light.

Here’s a survival guide to the three biggest fireworks festivals in Japan.

Tsuchiura Fireworks Festival
Where? Tsuchiura, Ibaraki
When? Oct. 4, 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
How do I get there? Shuttle Bus from JR Tsuchiura St., 1 hour from Tokyo.
Are tickets available? Yes. 1.7m by 1.7m space: ¥18,000; 0.85m by 1.7m: ¥9,000. Free viewing available from the riverside.
What am I getting into? The superb Tsuchiura Fireworks Competition has blazed the banks of the Sakura River since 1925 and doubles as a hanabi competition and a trade show. You can be sure vendors will be shooting their masterpieces into the air. Around 20,000 fired off in less 2 ½ hours.

Survival Tips: The closest major competition near Tokyo, Tsuchiura gets flooded with roughly 800,000 spectators. The actual population of Tsuchiura is only 140,000, so the city is poorly equipped to deal with the sudden influx of cars. Parking is often far from the competition and space runs out quickly in the afternoon. Do not drive unless four-hour traffic jams are your thing.. Instead, take the JR Joban Line train from Ueno to Tsuchiura Station. It takes an hour, and there is a constant stream of shuttle buses to take you to the viewing area.
Securing a patch of grass on the banks of the river is free but it’s a good idea to line up by about 11 a.m. to get a good spot, as the area opens to the public at noon. By 2 or 3 p.m. it becomes difficult to find a free space. Tickets for viewing platforms constructed on the riverbanks are available on the day, but be prepared to line up early, as they sell out almost immediately.

Omagari Fireworks Festival
Where? Omagari, Akita
When? Aug. 23, 5 p.m. (afternoon display), 7 p.m. (evening display)
How do I get there? Thirty-minute walk from Omagari Station., three and a half hours from Tokyo by Shinkansen.
Are tickets available? Yes. A seats: ¥19,000, B seats: ¥10,000, P (pair) seats, ¥5,000

What am I getting into? The Omagari All Japan Fireworks Competition dates back to 1910 and is one of the most prestigious in Japan. The looming mountains surrounding the city provide a perfect dark backdrop for the fireworks and serve to magnify the thunderclap of the exploding shells. Omagari is special in that it has an afternoon session, which has its own romance as you watch the sunset along with the dazzling pyrotechnics. Approximately 15,000 rockets are used in this festival.

Survival Tips: Far and away the best method of transport to Omagari is by the Komachi Shinkansen to Omagari Station. From there it’s a 30-minute walk to the Omono River Sports Stadium, where it is held. However if you are serious about getting a good viewing spot, consider arriving the previous night and camping out. For the duration of the festival, the station car park rents out plots to campers for a small fee and there are other areas to camp. Heading to the area before noon should score you a good place from which to watch. Again, don’t drive; there are horrendous traffic jams after the festival ends. Omagari is a small town of 40,000 and receives nearly 800,000 visitors every year for the festival.

Nagaoka Fireworks Festival
Where? Nagaoka, Niigata
When? Aug. 1-3
How do I get there? Joetsu Shinkansen to Nagaoka Station. There is a shuttle bus from the station.
Are tickets available? No.

What am I getting into? The Nagaoka Festival is an extravaganza spanning three days, with a massive fireworks festival on the last day to top it off. If you like a party with drumming, dancing, food and fireworks, you’ll love this one. Of special interest is the “Phoenix” fireworks display, which is said to signify the rejuvenation of Niigata after the devastating earthquake of 2004.
Survival Tips: According to the Nagaoka Festival Planning Committee, there are people crazy enough to hang out in line all night for this one. Last year the free viewing areas were opened to the public at 2 p.m., but this year the festival planners are keeping it under wraps until closer to the date.
Needless to say, take the train. A Toki Shinkansen from Tokyo Station will get you straight there in less than two hours, and then you can enjoy all the alcohol you want. Get off at Nagaoka Station, and it’s a 20-minute walk straight out from the Ote Exit. Follow the crowds to the river.
Tickets for the paid viewing areas went on sale on May 1. Be prepared to wade through some tricky Japanese if you are determined to lay your hands on these – for interested parties visit http://nagaokahanabi.jp/ or call (0258) 35-9366.

HANABI CHECKLIST

The almighty big blue tarp. OK, green, orange or yellow will work too. It’s home base and you need it to mark your territory.
Mosquito Repellant. You’d think all the explosions would keep them away – think again.
At least one towel. One of your friends will undoubtedly spill a drink on the tarp.
A flashlight. So you can find your keys/camera/wallet…
A garbage bag. Pack in what you pack out. Leave only…uh…footprints.
Proper shoes. The portaloos can get pretty darn filthy. And remember to take them off before you get on the tarp.
Don’t forget your camera.

HANABI SURVIVAL TIPS

Get there early. In some areas people will nail down their tarp weeks in advance.
Go local. Run down to Uniqlo and get yourself a jimbe or summer kimono.
Get there early.
Go to the toilet before the fireworks start.
Don’t drive. Finding parking is a pain, the roads are crazy and you may want to have a drink (Japan has a zero tolerance drinking and driving policy).
Get there early.
Be nice to your neighbors.
Moderation is a virtue. You don’t want to be that guy everyone is making fun of who’s passed out on the tarp.
Stick together. It can sometimes be hard to get reception during the festivities.
Leave early…or leave late. There is no middle ground unless you like feeling like a steer at a cattle drive.
Did we mention getting there early?

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