Every now and then in my sleepy little town the quiet reverie and still countryside air is pierced with an almighty thump, like a cannon ball being launched headlong into the mountainside. It can happen day or night; I’ll be in my apartment, walking to the shops, in the office, in my classroom and from nowhere will come a sound like thunder, without a drop of rain in sight, without even a hint of that audible crackle in the air that precedes a colossal downpour.
Because there is nothing natural about this deafening rumble that echoes off the mountain chains, it comes instead from a local addiction. A pastime and hobby the local folk hold close to heir hearts. Well not too close…because their hobby is explosive. Their addiction is to the fire flower, the rather beautiful literal translation of hanabi or in English fireworks.
No you didn’t misread the first paragraph nor did I mistype. They do have an odd tendency here for performing test runs on their fireworks during the day even. One such test scaring the crap out of me when set off in a back garden I was just twenty-fifty feet from whilst enjoying a lazy stroll to the local bakers one sunny afternoon. A plume of barely visible smoke and a faint ringing in my ears being the tell tale signs of a local individual indulging somewhat too early in the day in their chosen explosive fun.
For me, fireworks conjure up thoughts of crisp, cold nights in a park somewhere, neck craned up at the clear night sky, ears frozen and mug of plastic tea in hand. An effigy of Guy Fawkes should preferably be burning on a bonfire nearby and the smell of fried onions and cheap burgers ought to fill the air.
However, in Nagano, it’s a little different. Fireworks are generally part of the summer festival season and so a cold beer on a warm summer night is the more likely accompaniment to a quite epic display of explosive beauty.
Towards the end of this season I was lucky enough to be invited along to my student’s local area festival, a short thirty minute drive from my place, to take in what is known as the naked festival due to a single representative of each village wearing virtually nothing but a piece of cloth to cover a hint of his modesty while holding above his head a rather heavy 25kg weight.
This chap was soon followed by men of all ages, in groups of two or four, holding onto a large barrel or piece of wood launching all their effort into pushing the guy holding onto the other end of said block as far backwards as possible. In the course of this traditional outburst of locally cultivated, shrine located violence a little old lady or two were knocked over, some grown men picked up some scraped knees and a collection of elderly bespectacled salary men got very drunk indeed behind the event’s announcer, leading to some fairly amusing drunken background noise.
Yet, as amusing as watching grown men fling themselves about with no apparent thought for their safety can be, it wasn’t what had brought out the majority of the crowd that night. No, that would be the fireworks. Which would be a simple enough incentive one might think, but there was an added twist. Each of the six, yes six, individual displays had been bought and paid for by different neighbouring villages as something of a friendly competition to outdo one another.
Each village began their display with some firework writing that would reveal the name of their villages in Kanji. After that they did as they pleased… and it kind of showed.
One very cool feature of Japanese fireworks displays is the kind of mousetrap-esque way they set off fireworks. One firework will run along a path, ignite the next and so on. One such firework launches vertically up a pole on its own steam and then explodes dramatically upon reaching the top of said pole, a safe distance from the crowd. That night, four of these fireworks exploded prematurely at around head height. Safe we all were, but rather deafened for a moment each time. More and more I began to see how precarious these celebrations could be and perhaps why so many people in Nagano are volunteer firefighters.
The finale at these events always looks amazing and this little festival was no different, one of the dramatic yet dangerous poles was lit once more and this time went off without a hitch. The danger entirely understood and quite gleefully ignored as men danced, waved flags and generally displayed just how tough or insane they are beneath fiery rain.
It did look incredible though.