One of the key highlights of summer in Japan would have to be the hanabi (花火) i.e. fireworks. Generally, there are two major categories of hanabi i.e. the uchiage hanabi (打ち上げ花火) and the omocha hanabi (おもちゃ花火 or 玩具花火). The uchiage hanabi is what you see at hanabi festivals where they are launched by specialists and companies that are required to have a license from the Japan Pyrotechnics Association (日本煙火協会) due to the need for in-depth knowledge and adequate safety measures to handle this kind of fireworks. On the other hand, the omocha hanabi is readily available in places like toy shops, home centers, and supermarkets, and can be used by anyone from children to adults. The Japan Pyrotechnics Association is tasked to check on the safety of the omocha hanabi products available to consumers and to give out the “SF mark” to those that fit the requirements.
Omocha hanabi was said to have appeared first in the form of gunpowder stuffed into straw tubes at Yamato no Kuni (大和の国) i.e. present-day Nara Prefecture and subsequently spread to Edo where it enjoyed immense popularity. Since then, there have been many types of omocha hanabi invented to meet the consumers’ ever-changing needs. After World War II, most of the omocha hanabi made in Japan were exported overseas, but over time, the amount of imported hanabi made in China has exceeded the exports from Japan.
Besides purchasing specific types of omocha hanabi as shown in the photo above, there are often mixed sets containing a combination of different types of hanabi sold at supermarkets. Big sets can have as many as 100 pieces in a single package. This is especially suitable for families or group gatherings since people can choose to play with what they fancy and the quantity is enough for them to enjoy themselves to their hearts’ content.
Here is an introduction to 7 common types of omocha hanabi which you can find in Japan:
This is a Japanese traditional firework which got its name from incense sticks. During the Edo era, the senkou hanabi was placed upright in an incense burner before it was lit and slowly fizzled out. Nowadays, it is mostly in handheld form as people light up the end containing the gunpowder and play with it until it burns out.
In western Japan, the handle of the senkou hanabi is called subote (すぼ手 or スボ手) which is made of bamboo strips or straw. However, in eastern Japan, the handle is called nagate (長手) which is usually made of kouzoshi, a type of Japanese paper. In the early days when the senkou hanabi was first invented, it was used by the nobles who admired the sparkles as it slowly burned out in the incense burner. In Edo, however, straw was hard to come by so it led to the use of the kouzoshi as the handle for the senkou hanabi until today.
This type of firework which erupts like a fountain is in the form of a paper cylinder and placed on the ground before the fuse is lit up. You may find this firework being sold under the more common name of “Dragon” and there are handheld versions which have been modified to control the force at which the fireworks are released.
This type of firework has to be launched in an open space, usually from an empty bottle, with no electrical wires and houses nearby due to the fact that it can fly as far as 20 meters. Some rocket hanabi may break upon launching while those that don’t have been modified to make loud sounds. Due to the fact that it is not possible to retrieve the burnt remnants from this type of hanabi, it is banned on some beaches so you should check the restrictions applied to the location before using this.
The uchiage hanabi and renpatsu hanabi are similar because they are both in the form of a cylinder and placed on the ground before launching. However, the uchiage hanabi goes off only once while the renpatsu version will go off multiple times so the latter will take a longer time to burn out.
The kaiten hanabi is not fixed to a specific location like the cylinder-type fireworks and will spin on its own once the fuse is lit. It is recommended that you stay away from the lit hanabi by at least 5 to 6 meters due to the sparks which are flying around with great force. It is also said that it is best to launch this on a flat surface without any obstructions. Besides the standard type with no attachments, there are variations which are linked to a launching board, stick, or string.
This type of hanabi is usually launched in the daytime where balls containing parachutes attached to nations’ flags or small toys break up in mid-air and fall to the ground. However, this should only be used in open spaces with no electrical wires as the parachutes can get caught on the lines and cause problems.
This type of hanabi takes a bit more time and effort to set up and can be hung up or held in your hands by attaching it to a stick or pole. Once it’s lit, the sparks from the fireworks will flow downwards to look like the Niagara Falls.
While using the omocha hanabi in Japan, especially if you are a foreigner who is experiencing this for the first time during your trip, it is important for you to take note of these points for the sake of your safety and to avoid breaking any laws:
- Prepare these items before you start using the hanabi: a bucket or pail filled with water, a trash bag, and a candle or a mosquito repellent incense. Use the candle or incense to light your hanabi while the pail of water is to ensure that the flame and residual sparks in the used fireworks are extinguished before they can be disposed of in the trash bag.
- Ensure that children are accompanied by adults when playing with the hanabi.
- Use the hanabi at open spaces where there are no nearby buildings and electrical wires hanging in the air. It is also important to check if the venue you are considering has any restrictions or bans pertaining to the launching of fireworks. Due to an increasing number of cases where people launch hanabi in the middle of the night or do not clean up after, many parks and beaches now have signages banning them.
- Be conscious of the direction where your hanabi is flying towards. In summer, many people open their windows at home so the hanabi remnants may get into the apartments or houses or break the glass windows. Smoke from the hanabi may also get into the homes due to the wind’s direction and its sound may cause disturbance to those living nearby.
- Follow the instructions mentioned on the packaging and do not direct the lit hanabi towards another person as the sparks can get onto the other person’s clothes which can lead to a fire and cause injury.
- Do not play with the hanabi when it is windy as the sparks may fly off in unexpected directions.
- Do not place the hanabi in your pockets.
- Do not remove the gunpowder mixture from the hanabi and play with it directly since it can be dangerous.
- In the event that you encounter an accident while playing with the hanabi, be sure to keep the remains of the hanabi which caused the incident and provide them to the Japan Pyrotechnics Association (*Japanese only) for investigation. If it is proven that the hanabi concerned did pass the association’s certification but there was a defect with the product, they can assist you in seeking compensation from the manufacturer or importer. However, if the accident was due to your misuse of the product or your carelessness, there will be no compensation paid out.
- Last but not least, try not to buy more hanabi than you need especially if you are a tourist who just wants to enjoy the experience during summer in Japan. You may have some leftover hanabi which you would want to bring back home, but note that you are not allowed to bring such items onto planes, be it in your carry-on or check-in luggage. It is also an offense to send hanabi products by post. Usually, the hanabi bought at least a year ago can still be used in the current year but this is subjected to how well the hanabi is stored and if there is any problem or defect in the hanabi’s fuse or outer casing. Thus, it is highly recommended that you buy only what you need so that you don’t have to store any leftover fireworks.
After reading so much about the omocha hanabi, I hope that this helps you to be better-prepared for this unique summer activity and enjoy the visual feast it has to offer!