They say in Japan:
- Fall – Koyo (red leaves)
- Winter – Onsen (hot springs) in snow
- Spring – Sakura (cherry blossoms)
- Summer – Matsuri (festivals)
In Vancouver, the annual Festival of Lights takes place in August. It’s a packed week of shows from countries around the world and I used to watch from across bay either at the beach or on the mountain. The one time I did go to the beach, the excitement was nonetheless matched with equal chaos (Vancouver isn’t very good at dealing with crowds). I was excited to see how Koto-ku’s ‘small’ event as part of many throughout Tokyo would be.
I first found out about it through our neighbourhood poster. It felt like our festival, not in a possessive way, but something that Koto-ku is throwing for itself. Whether it was my imagination or not, framed my minset.
The Neighbourhood Gathering
I decided to make my way to the waterfront about an hour before the scheduled start. In the mornings, it is a 5-minute bike ride to that same area where I do a morning loop.
The first thing I noticed was the cars. On our little street, we had a mini neighbourhood traffic jam – as in, there was a lineup of cars on a road that has an occasional car every minute or two.
Then, the trickle of people converged into the road leading up to the staircase that would be a shortcut to the riverside park. The streets I’m so used to cycling past empty were covered with food stalls in proper matsuri fashion. The best thing, though, was the contained size. There was a stall for Hiroshima okonomiyaki stall, takoyaki stall, kakigori shaved ice, sausages, yakisoba, fried cheese, butter potatoes, chicken steak, and yakitori. A few had a small line, and most just served the people that stopped by every minute.
I expected to be able to take a seat somewhere along the wide grass steps, but they were all covered by the time we arrived. Blue tarps were neatly set up for the public to use – free of charge. Normally, there are only dog walkers and a handful of friends hanging out on these steps during the day, watching the cyclists and runners go by. One of the things I like about Koto-ku is how quiet and manageable the streets are. But for a festival like this, I’m glad the parents with babies, elderly, and salary men have all shown up.
Even though the police were at strategic spots to help the traffic along, once you got to the park area, everything was open. Most people already had their picnic spreads out. Kids were running around. Late-comers were on their phones, carrying last-minute plastic bags of provisions. It took all of 5 minutes to spot several openings and walk right up to the rope ‘fence’ at the edge of the grass.
I’m used to seeing this view in the early morning. The Tozai Line races by every few minutes. At night, it’s even better as a stream of light hovering over the dark waters of the river. Tonight, the cool steady breeze from Tokyo Bay sweeps in. The temperature still hovers around a comfortable 25 degrees Celcius.
The dark rain clouds still hovered in the West and over Tokyo Bay. Above us is a patch of blue sky – just for us. The predicted showers had come early, during the afternoon.
The Big Bangs
A series of formalities and speeches from those involved followed. They were said slowly with long, practiced pauses. Their analogue voices were still difficult to follow, but we got the important part: the show is about to start! Countdown!
Roku (6), go (5), yon, san, ni, ichi!
The dark long boat right in front of us erupted.
Once the show began, the only noise was the steady rhythm of crackles in the sky.
Before the show, announcer’s crackling voice was the cutest. Carried by megaphone, it rang clearly above the excited din, but sounded like it dropped off a cliff some 10 metres after (rather than faded, or echoed). She kept the jovial crowd going and spouted useful soundbites.
‘Please keep moving. There are no Pokemon here.’
A few minutes later, she said two kids were waiting for their parents. After several minutes of repeating this, she finally said, ‘Your precious children are waiting for you.’
This venerable woman was on point.
Some moments are to be savoured, without the distraction of a camera. Too often we focus only on our screens and not on the real thing. But for shots like these, I’m glad I kept pressing the button even as I tilted my head upwards towards the night sky. Looking back, I see so many details I missed in that one-second display of art.
Those Side Things
I have a habit of focusing on minor details. Usually, some ‘unrelated’ aspect catches my eye and becomes a highlight. Mine tonight was the river patrol dude that was right in front of us. In such a large crowd, he was needed. But once the fireworks began, he just took a seat and enjoyed the closest view of all of us.
He sat so still during the entire show. What was he thinking? I don’t know, but I spent a lot of time trying to get his silhouette against the split-second flashes. He’ll always be a reminder of how close we were.
The themes became self-explanatory after we got the hang of the first one or two. There were no explanations in between, but the segments usually began with single shots, followed by a small pause and a rapid-fire climax that illuminated the field of smiles.
The themes included showers, bubbles, shapes, split meteors, and traditional ones that had a second fizzle. I’ve caught some of them below.
Those Shared Moments
The funny thing is that the Koto-Ku fireworks festival is Tokyo’s second smallest. Nonetheless, the display runs a full 40 minutes and lights off 4000 firecrackers. The shots were paced well, allowing each crack to fade before the next one sailed up. I imagine the bigger events have even more elaborate choreography, but this was perfect for me.
I liked this size because it attracted the right ambiance. These are the people I want to enjoy my fireworks with: families and friends who wanted to spend quality together without too much fuss. People just had to show up to enjoy this free event. There were no grand operations for hordeing spots. The lineups into the park moved at a steady pace. No-one was in a rush or shoving. People who come to this taikai (big show) aren’t looking for the ‘absolute best’; they are just looking to have a good time.
One of the segments had recognisable images. Ichigo! Strawberry! You could hear someone gasp. Beside us, a father asked his son what each successive bang revealed. Below are some of the ones I caught.
Koto-ku is an area filled with elderly. Sometimes, seeing the quiet shops, it is a bit discouraging. Yet, more often I recall the genki, healthy and energetic, grandpas and grandmas that cycle through the alleys, do the groceries, sweep their storefronts, catching up at the parks, and – as with nights like this – know how to enjoy life.
The venerable announcer came back on at 8:30 to tell us it was time and the fireworks had ended People started getting up. Still, the last one didn’t quite have the ‘bang’ we were anticipating and the way she said it somehow sounded more like a warning than a closing.
Sure enough, there was one final hurrah!
Then, she came on and said, with that tone of finality, Koto-Ku Hanabi Matsuri 2016 has ended! (Go home!) There was a loud, supportive applause and cheer.
People started cleaning up and the grass patches were quickly revealed as groups folded up the mats. Still, no-one was in a hurry. The early people to depart took their time and followed directions. Many still hung around catching up, eating, joking, playing.
As we were leaving, the announcement granny (her raspy voice and tone was unmistakable) was listing the things they had picked up: a PASMO, Suica, bicycle helmet with turtles.
For hanami, cherry blossom viewing, it seems acceptable to trek across town to enjoy a full day under your favourite spot in your favourite park. The emphasis is on the view, which you can enjoy the entire day.
In contrast, I believe the secret charm of hanabi, the fireworks, is the crowd you spend it with. I don’t think I’d have enjoyed watching as much in neighbouring Sumida-Ku aftering wrestling with the crowds for a view of Tokyo’s largest fireworks festival (with 20,000 lit!).
Hanabi at home in this large forgotten corner of Tokyo has brought out all the people that fill the seemingly grey concrete grid with life. This large, cozy turnout has made Tokyo much smaller. Here they are, just like you, ambling slowly home.