I attended the Edogawa Fireworks Festival in Tokyo a couple of years ago. This is my write up of the experience…
Slowly, it dawns on me that this might be a bigger event than I imagined. With every stop eastwards, the crowd in the sticky train carriage thickens, until at Shinozaki Station we spill out into a press of people that drifts slowly out and upwards.
We are a river, a flood. Surging quietly but urgently forwards.
Outside, the crowd is enormous. I’d spotted Edogawa fireworks festival mentioned in an events round-up and decided, about 30 minutes ago, to visit it on a whim. But the event is clearly much, much larger than I’d realised.
There are people everywhere. It feels as though I’m weaving my way through the entire population of Tokyo, following the crowd through streets that get smaller, narrower, more residential. I’m the only westerner I see. If other tourists are making their way to the festival, they are lost in the million-stong crowd.
Locals are selling food from trestle tables lining the streets, or beers from ice buckets. There’s a sense of tingling expectation, a party atmosphere murmuring from beneath the stereotypically calm, composed Japanese exterior I’m used to.
Not knowing where I am or where I’m going, I ignore Google Maps and allow myself to be swept forward to the crowd. A side street, a crossing, an alley beside a car park where a local family have laid out deckchairs to watch from the shadow of their home. We pass apartment buildings where kids lean out of the windows of the upper floors, and floodlit garages with the doors flung open to reveal groups of teens drinking beers and playing music. The bubbling anticipation thickens.
Finally, we spill out into a wide street running alongside the river bank. The crowd splits in two, and I pick left on a whim, following the snake of figures up the grassy verge.
At the crest of the hill, the view hits me with a hard slap. An ocean of people; a thick, teeming fog of bodies. Some 1.3 million of them, according to a source I spotted later. The hillside, the park, the riverside… all of it ripples with a mass of people, a crowd bigger than any I’ve seen before.
And now I panic inwardly, because everyone else seems to know where they’re going. There are sections, dividing ropes, men in hi-vis jackets with glow sticks and whistles directing the crowds. But all the designated sections are full. The only way I could sit down would be to join a family and obstinately plonk myself on their blanket. Not something I have the confidence for.
Later, I learnt that people go down early in the morning with their tarp sheets and picnic blankets to secure spaces – or even the day before. They wait twelve hours or more in the sun – or the rain on less fortunate summers – to reserve a spot.
Alone, unwitting, I don’t have the luxury of a spot, and instead, I hover on the outskirts, unsure of myself and awkward. Lonelier than I’ve felt in a long time. In the end, I line up at the edge of a path with a string of other latecomers. The Hi-Vis Men tell us off for sitting here, but they let us stand, as long as it’s in single file and as close to the bushes as possible.
Everyone else is celebrating, sharing food and drinks, laughing. I feel shyly voyeuristic, hovering between a young couple and a group of elderly women. But the feeling only lasts a minute or two, because then – with no discernible introduction or countdown, but bang on time – the fireworks start, and I am mesmerised.
I’ve always had a thing for fireworks. But this cacophony of noise and colour and flashing stardust makes our five minute long English bonfire night displays look like the flicker of a dying lighter. This is like nothing I’ve ever seen before.
Standing below a sky suddenly torn apart by joyous fire, I am five years old again, on the beach in earmuffs, holding my dad’s hand and feeling terrified and awed and overwhelmed.
These fireworks are more than explosions. There are shapes, colour schemes, choreography. There are fireworks that look like the Death Star blowing up, and others shaped like hearts or flowers. At one point, a looping bridge is painted in a colour-changing fire that looks like raining light.
The display lasts almost an hour and a half, with only the briefest pauses between each section. Over 12,000 fireworks go up in that time, and I’m stood so close that I can feel each boom juddering in my chest. Taking photos rapidly goes out the window as I stand, transfixed, staring at the sky until my eyes water.
And then, after a finale that feels like seems set to blow an actual hole in the sky, it’s all over.
Beneath a haze of grey ash and the smell of gunpowder, the crowd picks itself up as one and seethes back towards the station, carrying me with it. I don’t quite know what has happened to me, or what I’ve watched, or how I make it to the station and board a train in that insanity of bodies.
But somehow I stumble, shell-shocked and wide-eyed, back through the vivid night towards the centre of Tokyo. The neons and craziness of the city centre seem lessened, somehow, after what I’ve just witnessed.
A chance encounter in an online blog post led me to the Edogawa Fireworks Festival. There were no expectations, no research, no idea at all what I was about to see… and it was the most spectacular, adventurous surprise. Proof that wonderful things can happen when you stop planning and just follow a crowd to a fireworks festival on the edge of a city.
Have you ever been to the Edogawa Fireworks Festival in Japan – or anything like it?