A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

One of Japan`s GREATEST Fireworks Events- The Tsuchiura Hanabi Taikai- Will Be Held This Coming Saturday Night (Oct. 1st) – Here is it`s surprising history

The Jinryu ji Temple in Tsuchiura

Akimoto Baiho – the priest who is credited with establishing The Tsuchiura Fireworks Competition. Tsuchiura City does not publicize the fact that Yamamoto Isoroku, the mastermind behind the attack on Pearl Harbor is the annual event co-founder.

By Avi Landau

Jinryu-Ji (神龍寺), in Tsuchiura, is a Soto Sect Zen Temple which was founded in 1530. Within its precincts stands a memorial stone dedicated to consoling  the spirits of pilots who lost their lives training on, over, and around Lake Kasumigaura, along whose shores once lay the Naval-Air Force, and later the YOKAREN (予科練) flight training schools.  In the early years of Japanese aviation, accidents took a heavy toll on student (and experienced) pilots. Yamamoto Isoroku, who would later go on to become an Admiral in the Imperial Navy and the planner of the attack on Pearl Harbour, was brought in to think of ways of reducing these accidents. Then a 40 year-old captain, he lived just next to the old temple in Tsuchiura for a year and three months (beginning in 1924) and became closely acquainted with Jinryu-Ji`s priest, Akimoto Baiho. The two often discussed the matter of the training accidents and pilots` deaths.

 Yamamoto approached the job of reducing trainee fatalities (and the loss of valuable aircraft) by applying both scientific and  non-scientific methods. First, each accident was analysed in detail and causes were determined. Doctors and psychologists were hired to test potential pilots and crew in order to  exclude those who might be more accident prone.

It should be a blast - 20,000 blasts, to be exact, at this year`s (2015) Tsuchiura Fireworks Competition ( its the 84th time it will be held). Starting time will be 6 pm on Saturday Oct. 3rd - the finale at 8 pm.

It should be a blast – 20,000 blasts, to be exact, at this year`s (2016) Tsuchiura Fireworks Competition ( its the 85th time it will be held). Starting time will be 6 pm on Saturday Oct. 1st – the finale at 8 pm.

In addition, Yamamoto had all these same men checked by a palm-reader and phrenologist- since the accidents did not seem to be decreasing and the captain suspected that FATE was a possible factor in the continuing series of aerial mishaps.

And then in an idea which has an impact on our lives in Tsukuba today, Yamamoto suggested holding a fire-works event – something he was very familiar with from his home-town of Nagaoka in Niigata Prefecture (still one of Japan`s greatest pyrotechnical events) as a prayer for no further accidents and as an act of consolation for the spirits of those who had already died. This way of thinking was right up Priest Baiho`s alley – and he used all of his influence to turn this dream of Yamamoto`s into a reality.

Local authorities readily agreed to the plan – though probably more in the hope that it would act as a stimulus to revive the sluggish local economy than as a tribute and consolation to pilots killed in training accidents.

The event was held in 1925- and it turned out to be a big – and long-lasting hit! The first of what has become the famous Tsuchiura National Fireworks Competitions which still draws (in its 84 “shows”, hundreds of thousands of viewers every October.

Considering the proposed purpose, it is surprising that the competition is held NOT by the lake, but along the Sakura River. This might be because, traditionally, the great fireworks events of Japan have been associated with rivers, especially the great Sumida River event (in Tokyo) which has been held almost every year since 1733.

A monument dedicated to consoling the spirits of trainee pilots who died over and around Lake Kasumigaura

Except for a pause during the war years, the Tsuchiura Fireworks Competition has been taking place every year (since 1925) and it seems to be getting more and more popular with each coming year. One reason for this is that most fireworks events in Japan are held in summer, while this one is in autumn. Thus there are no similar events(in summer there are thousands!) to compete with. Of course, there is also the quality of the event. Each year, fireworks fans can get a glimpse of each master’s latest creation. It is a two hour state-of-the-art HANABI extravaganza, and the pyrotechnist who takes first place has received the highest honor in his field.

Hanabi, literally means FIRE-FLOWERS, and in Japan that is traditionally what you got: whiiiiiiiiiiiiish- POW -cherry blossom, whiiiiiiiish-POW- chrysanthemum, whiiiiiiiiiish-POW- plum blossom.The connection with blossoms is strong. In fact, fireworks viewing is considered by many Japanese to be a LIFE-CYCLE MARKER, along with cherry blossom viewing. By that I mean that many Japanese, every year of their lives, from childhood through old age experience these seasonal VIEWING EVENTS. In this way they measure the years as they pass by.
Fireworks are also linked to cherry blossoms in that they both burst out in a fleeting moment of beauty which quickly fades away, symbolizing MUJO (the ephemeral nature of all things). In recent years, however, with the popularity of star mines, the competition has started reminding me more of the BIGNESS of an American 4th of July style firework bombardment. A barrage, as opposed to the dainty and delicate HANABI of the past.
It is interesting to note that as part of the mysterious way culture flows through the world over the ages, fireworks, now linked so stongly with traditional Japanese culture were actually introduced to Japan by Europeans. The Portuguese brought them here in the 1500s along with Western firearms. The first recorded instance of a HANABI event took place in 1613 and was sponsored by Tokugawa Ieyasu himself.
Today I went to check out the preparations for this weekend’s festivities. Laborers (including women and children!!!!) were hard at work putting up unsightly plywood boards to prevent viewers from crowding the bridge or occupying any roadside knolls. Things look very bad indeed, but they say it’s safer this way. The reserved seats (sajiki) have been set up, but alas,  the forecast says that the weather will be fine- but there is a typhoon approaching the Japanese archipelgo and there is no telling what will happen. Since the AEON Shopping Mall was built, and has agreed to close-down for the day of the fireworks each year, there has always been a problem postponing the event for weather. Closing the mall for a day involves huge financial losses and those who run it do NOT want to do it again on the following Saturday. That is why last years event was held under very unfavorable conditions-  and the fireworks were all but impossible to see.
If extremely crowded and noisy conditions are not your thing, you might want to enjoy the event from afar (as so many Tsukubans do). One place I would recommend for that is the Kamitakatsu Shell Mound Park. There on the expansive lawn you can spread your legs, picnic, and enjoy the occasional firework that emerges from behind the trees. There is usually some good music to be heard there too.
Of course if you dont get up close you cant experience the pungent smell of the powder and the tumbling ash,
See you there!
Here is a report on past years Hanabi Taikai: