Sunday 30 July 2017

Fireworks, Deceased Spirits, and Teruteru-bōzu

In the UK, fireworks are associated with autumn/winter, specifically Bonfire Night/Guy Fawkes Night on November 5th as well as some New Year's Eve events. However, in Japan they are, like ghost stories, firmly a summer thing and every weekend in July and August there will be a hana-bi (花火, literally "flower-fire") event going on somewhere. The oldest and most popular event, the Sumida River Fireworks Festival, was held last night and boasted 22,000 fireworks and, despite the rain, 748,000 attendees. I attended the smaller Tachikawa Showa-Kinen Park festival which went ahead despite a torrential downpour that left everyone soaked to the skin, including the many who turned up wearing yukata, a light cotton kimono (left). The conditions were so bad that the fireworks were barely visible at times (picture top right) and led to severe criticism of the organising committee (and gallons of unsold kaki-gōri shaved ice). See the video below for an idea of what it was like (note the smiley faces, hearts, and other images which illustrate the high-level of Japanese firework craftsmanship). Note to future self: don't pay ¥6,000 for a prime spot on a ground-sheet which is no better than sitting in a puddle if it rains. Second note to self: don't trust the traditional Japanese teruteru-bōzu (a hand-made white paper doll shaped like a Buddhist priest which children hang to pray for good weather: pictured right) - it most definitely doesn't work.

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In terms of history and cultural significance, the “Ryogoku Kawabiraki Fireworks” festival dates back to 1733, the precursor to today's Sumida River event. At that time it was a suijinsai (水神祭) or water-god festival to comfort the souls of the many people who had died of famine or plague during this period. Even today, there is a spiritual aspect to fireworks not surprising given the main religious festival in Japan in the summer is Obon (August 13th to 15th this year) whose focus is to honour the spirits of one's ancestors who are said to return to their earthly homes for a brief visit during this period. Thus, it is not uncommon to see white chrysanthemum (shiragiku =白菊) fireworks at festivals which in Japan are a symbolic flower of condolence (never take these as a gift when visiting someone in hospital in Japan!). People even attach special symbolic significance to the smaller fireworks which you can buy at convenience stores (pictured above) and light by yourself in parks or on the beach: this writer waxes lyrical about these kinds of sparklers as a "traditional symbol of the ephemerality of things in Japan." If she'd been at Tachikawa last night, I doubt she would have been quite as effervescent...