When I told Japanese friends that, for the long weekend at the end of November, I planned to head to Nagano for a huge fireworks display, they looked at me as if I had gone, not just off my rocker, but that I had swayed so violently that the rocker had in fact capsized with the upended chair cracking me on the skull, leaving me in a state of temporary delirium.
Mark, you are mistaken, they kindly informed me. Firework festivals are in the summer, of course, not at the frozen arse end of the autumn. It was my turn to give them the rocker-enquiring look.
You see, for we Brits there is something traditional about freezing your nuts off, clutching a can of beer in a gloved hand, and watching stuff blow up in the ice cold air above your head. It feels like home. It feels like nostalgia. It feels like Guy Fawkes night. It also feels like you should be keeping an eye over your shoulder to make sure that some little bastard isn’t trying to fire a bottle rocket at you, but then that’s probably more to do with my hometown than a national trend.
Although nowhere in Japan do they remember, remember the fifth of November, and nor do they have reason for gunpowder treason to be recalled in any way, the eleventh month does in fact see one of the most dramatic displays of fireworks in the country: the Ebisuko Enka Taikai display in Saigawa-ryokuchi Koen park, Nagano.
It’s been going off, literally, since the Edo period, and is a proud November tradition round Nagano parts. As we arrived it seemed like the whole of the city was streaming towards the park from the central station, the trains clogged with winter jackets and condensation, the roads littered with dropped gloves and scarves that would be sorely missed in the hours to come.
We arrived at the park a little after 5:30, half an hour before kick off, and wandered amongst the food stalls, cherry-picking the best and fattiest foods: a steaming baked potato covered in a pound of salt and butter; takoyaki, claiming the largest pieces of octopus in town; the ubiquitous and ever excellent karaage fried chicken, natch. Precariously balancing plastic trays and grasping cups of hot mulled wine we scrambled up a rapidly filling grassy embankment, finding enough space on the damp ground for the pair of us to sit in relative comfort in front of a vacant tarpaulin amongst the many other revelers bundled up in blankets and kairo to watch the spectacle, shivering with cold and anticipation.
The clock was nearing six and eyes turning skywards, when the inhabitants of the empty blue sheet behind us turned up and informed us that they had reserved the whole area, and we were sitting on the brown parcel tape used to mark out their territory. My partner, apologizing for the intrusion in her politely Japanese way began to vacate the spot, but I refused to budge. I will follow many Japanese customs I find strange: removing shoes in the home, bowing rather than shaking hands, eating using what are essentially two sticks, however I refuse to agree with the concept that it is acceptable to turn up many hours before an event, stake a claim and bugger off, returning minutes before the start. If you want to mark your territory, you should be prepared to sit it out for the duration, you should be prepared to protect it.
Having gruffly ascertained that, no the land hoggers had not paid for their spot, no they had not reserved it through official channels, and no they were not yakuza who were likely to cut me in half with a katana blade, I resolutely stood (or sat) my ground, and looked to the heavens as the group behind us parked themselves with tuts and mumbles.
With one explosion avoided, another one began, and the sky burst into colour. The event itself is a firework competition, and the competitors fell into two camps: shock, huge explosions that seemed to split the heavens, a paroxysm of sound ricocheting from the sky into our chests and throats; and awe, glorious patterns of physics-defying ostentation dancing across the darkness in a Technicolor frenzy.
There was a brief interlude to proceedings as the wind caused a rogue projectile to go astray, sparking an immense blaze, but it gave the awaiting fire engines something to do, and it briefly gave me some hope that it was in fact a bonfire, the only thing missing from these Fawkes-esque celebrations.
Fortunately the flames were soon under control and the fireworks began in earnest once more. The continual cacophony of shock and awe were intermittently interspersed with staggering demonstrations put to music: the odd Disney tune, a fitting touch of Wagner, an incongruous ABBA medley (there are many events that the Swedish pop-behemoths are suitable for, a fireworks display is not one), each growing in exponential stature and magnificence until finally, two spell-binding hours later, the last display crashed in, a superlative fanfare of pyrotechnics more suitably shared with Arthur Dent and Zaphod Beeblebrox at The Restaurant at the End of the Universe than a chilly group of Naganoans on a crowded grassy verge.
Ooohs were ooohed, aaahs were aaahed and gobs were well and truly smacked until the final embers of the final rocket disappeared into the inky black and we were left spellbound before rapturous applause. Then, as the clapping fizzled out like the last of the explosions we turned on our icy heels and headed for a cold beer in the nearest warm bar. Yet another November tradition that reminds me of home.
Where and When?
Getting to the Saigawa-ryokuchi Koen park in Nagano is easy. It’s about a thirty minute walk from Nagano station (served by the JR East, Nagaden and Shinano Railway lines), just follow the hordes out of the east exit.
If you don’t feel like walking there are plenty of shuttle buses to and fro, though these can get pretty packed. The event is held on November 23rd annually and it kicks off between 6-8pm.