by Magdalene Teo Yong
I have been wanting to visit Japan for a long time but never got around to doing it until about 2 years ago, starting with a brief visit to Tokyo. It was love at first sight for me in Japan, although it was burning a hole through my pocket with every visit. A lot of the money went down to food (exquisite and super fresh seafood) and travel (payments for train rides will depend on the distance and number of stops) and of course the beautiful souvenirs. Who can resist the lovingly packed sweets and treats that you see everywhere?
My most recent visits to Japan landed me in two parts of the country for one special reason, Fireworks! For those not in the know, Japan has one of the most vibrant fireworks scenes in the world, with summer fireworks going on almost every weekend in various parts of Japan and a few being held in autumn.
Fireworks (花火, Hanabi or flowers of fire) have a long history in Japan and were originally used to ward off evil spirits. According to this article, Japanese fireworks are the world’s richest in color and subtlest in expression. Starting from the 17th century onwards, fireworks became a popular entertainment, which was encouraged by the daimyos, feudal lords who had great political and economic power. All Japanese fireworks are spherical, whereas those in other countries are round, and thought to have been developed to enhance the roundness and beauty of the fireworks as they blossom like huge flowers in the night sky.
The daimyos spent huge sums of money on firework displays, encouraging firework makers to develop their skills. The beauty and richness of expression we see in Japanese fireworks today is a direct result of the technical and artistic competition that continues to the present day. They are an integral part of Japanese summers in July and August, when hundreds of firework shows are held across the country. My own suspicion about the summer fireworks is that they are done to let everyone withstand the unbearable heat of that season ;).
For the summer fireworks season of 2018, I chose to attend the festival that occurs on the last weekend of July of every year in Nagasaki, called “Minato Matsuri”. Nagasaki is the capital and the largest city of Nagasaki Prefecture on the island of Kyushu in Japan. The city’s name, 長崎, means “long cape” in Japanese. It is also well-known for its sad role in the end of World War II. After landing in Fukuoka, I took an express bus ride lasting some 2.5 hours from Fukuoka airport to Nagasaki Main Station.
I arrived in Nagasaki the day before the actual event for reconnoitering the area. I had the idea of shooting the fireworks from the observatory area at Mount Inasa. Getting to Mount Inasa required the handling of a few transport options that include the bus (depending on your starting point) and a short cable car ride (¥1230 for a round trip ticket) from the base of the mountain to the peak.
The view of Nagasaki city from the peak of Mount Inasa was breathtaking. I personally like to take a slow pace to enjoy my time at a location and time my visit to be as close to sunset as possible. So that’s what I did at Mount Inasa, although I’d say one (max 1.5) hours will be enough for anyone, once you reach the observatory area.
The journey from the peak back to the ground level and back to the hotel unfortunately took an extremely long time that day with 30 to 45 mins spent just waiting for a 5 minutes cable car ride down. I think this was compounded by the fact that there were only a few cable cars operating at any given time and the large number of human traffic waiting to get down. It also didn’t help that I had my camera gear and tripod to add to the weight of waiting. Given the practicalities and the fact that I am not inclined to come down from the peak at an ungodly hour after the fireworks show, I decided to look for an alternative location that required a dizzy taxi ride up the mountains on the other side.
The fireworks festival of Nagasaki (one of the largest fireworks display in Kyushu) did not disappoint in its abundance and vibrancy. As the weather was somewhat unpredictable, the organizers decided to combine all 10,000 fireworks into the single night on 28 July 2018 and gave a solid 1-hour performance. My first fireworks festival went off without a hitch and was as beautiful, spectacular as I imagined and beyond. Here is a composite of a panoramic shot of the Fireworks against the background of the Nagasaki harbor.
My 2nd Fireworks event in Japan was surprisingly one of the few held in the Autumn (specifically 23 November 2018). This fireworks festival is held in the prefecture of Nagano, which is actually better known for its mountain resorts and hot springs. For me, it is the site of the Ebisuko Fireworks Festival that is held along the Sai River in Nagano on November 23 of every year.
To get to Nagano, a prefecture located in the Chūbu region of Japan, I took a 80-minute Shinkansen (Japan’s famous bullet train) journey from Tokyo. For this Autumn fireworks festival that has been held in Nagano for the past 30 years, I joined the local tour group for a day trip that included a visit to the world-famous Snow Monkeys and included an allocated reserved seat in the spectator area for the fireworks.
It was certainly a different experience from my summer fireworks trip, weather-wise. I much preferred the colder weather (which was 1 to 10 degrees Celsius in Nagano as compared to the summer temperatures of Nagasaki which were between 30 and 36 degrees Celsius) and secondly, I watched the fireworks display up close and personal in my comfy spectator area.
It was lovely watching the 2-hour long fireworks display harmonizing with the accompanying music and enjoying tasty snacks and drinks from the endless avenues of stalls set up outside the spectator area, compared to my summer fireworks, watched up in the mountains braving the wind. This alternative way of enjoying the display of colors in the sky is certainly enjoyable and perfect for anyone who decides to take a trip to Japan to savor the authentic Japanese experience of a fireworks festival.
I enjoyed both 2018 fireworks festivals in Japan and will take more of such trips in a heartbeat as they only bring me joy. Both trips also showcased the beauty of Japan and its people’s warm welcoming and quiet nature.
Coming to Japan, despite the language barriers, can be a breeze as the Japanese are very willing to help and the use of translation apps, like ‘Google Translate’, is very useful in facilitating communication. I look forward to taking many more fireworks trips around the world!
A good sturdy tripod, shutter release, low ISO like 100 with F13 or more are all key ingredients to successful fireworks shooting. Shutter speeds generally depend on how brilliant the Fireworks are although 5 seconds works for me as a good rule of thumb.
About the Author
Magdalene picked up her first DSLR in 2010 in a trip to Bhutan and since then, she has traveled to places around the world such as Iceland and Alaska (Northern Lights), Japan (Fireworks), Malaysia (Heritage and Culture), Indonesia, Inner Mongolia and China (Solar Eclipse and Milky Way), Italy (Venice Carnival) accompanied by her trusted cameras, Nikon, Fuji or Sony. She likes to dabble in photo competitions and recently bagged a Gold Winner at the Tokyo International Foto Awards 2018 and Merit Award for Nikon Photo Fiesta 2019. You can see her various works at www.magty-photography.com.