For the second year running I attempted to brave the crowds and see the Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival, Tokyo’s most famous hanabitaikai. Last year I made it to the site and was in a halfway decent viewing spot, my body reverberating with the sound of the test shots, when the even louder din of thunder joined the chorus. A torrential – and I mean seriously biblical – downpour ensued, wiping out the festival and nearly me in the process, as my umbrella didn’t come close to surviving.
Surviving is always a key part of any fireworks festival in Tokyo, because they all draw massive crowds, but this one draws an average of a million people every year. Fortunately I know of a secret spot, across the street from Bandai headquarters near Kuramae Station south of Asakusa. It draws big crowds but relatively manageable ones compared to the main sites on the river, and you can see the explosions from the #2 launch site above the buildings on National Route 6. As a bonus, you’re close enough to enjoy a rain of spent gunpowder casings and feel every blast down to your marrow.
This is one hell of a bash, I’ll tell you. In the Japanese tradition it’s a contest between two sites trying to outdo the other – in the Edo Period it was the Tamaya vs. Kagiya guilds (which is where the “Tamaya!” and “Kagiya!” shouts originated) and now it’s two rival launch sites on the Sumida, one in Asakusa proper and one perhaps 100 meters from where I was standing. The view of the latter was obviously better (and much more visceral) but I could see both, which was an interesting effect. The display goes on for almost 90 minutes and it’s fireworks as I’ve rarely seen then before (an international competition I saw in Vancouver is the only time that comes close).
What I hope comes across in the videos is how loud this was – I’m not exaggerating when I guess the distance at about a football field away. You can smell the gunpowder and feel every blast throughout your entire body, and I really do have gunpowder in my hair. It’s an amazing sensory experience I heartily recommend if you ever make it to Tokyo on the last Saturday in July.