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Enchanting Edo: Centuries-old Tokyo fireworks business ignites hope with elaborate craft

A scene of the 44th Edogawa Fireworks Festival in 2019 is shown in this image provided by Tokyo's Edogawa Ward. In this display, some of the fireworks were attached to wire suspended in the air at a height of 50 meters to create a waterfall effect to portray Mount Fuji. Above this, at a height of 220 meters, large fireworks went off across a range spanning about 300 meters, in sync with the music that played in the background. The 2019 Edogawa Fireworks Festival can be watched via the link https://youtu.be/o19fMOZ9zp4

TOKYO -- Fireworks are a charming feature of Japan's muggy summer, as they vividly color the night sky and offer a refreshing sensation for brief moments.

    While many fireworks events have been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, alternative surprise fireworks shows have taken place across the country and the displays have continued to brighten people's moods, even during these hard times.

    Akiko Amano, 50, a pyrotechnician and 15th-generation chief of Sohke Hanabi Kagiya Co. in Tokyo's Edogawa Ward, commented, "The famous fireworks show of Ryogoku, now known as the Sumida River Fireworks Festival, originally began during the Edo period (1603-1867) to pray for the end of an epidemic." Amano expressed her hope that the current pandemic would also be contained as soon as possible.

    A traditional "happi" coat and replicas of firework shells are seen at Sohke Hanabi Kagiya Co. in Tokyo's Edogawa Ward on Aug. 4, 2020. (Mainichi/Kota Yoshida) =Click/tap photo for more images.

    Kagiya was founded in 1659 during the early Edo period in the Nihombashi area near the Sumida River. It is the oldest trade name for pyrotechnicians in Japan. The business started with sales of handheld fireworks -- reed tubes containing kneaded balls of black powder. Summer fireworks shows are said to have their origins in the launching of fireworks at an event at Sumida River held in 1733 -- a period that saw numerous deaths due to a severe famine -- to console the spirits of the dead and pray for the end of diseases.

    Pyrotechnicians later began to compete with one another to produce beautiful spectacles, while locals chanted the establishments' names, including "Kagiya." Such scenes were portrayed in traditional ukiyo-e woodblock prints during the Edo period. Fireworks during the Edo period were limited to the color orange, while a wider selection of red, blue, green, yellow, purple, gold and silver -- seen in Western fireworks -- became employed once metal compounds were imported into Japan from the Meiji period (1868-1912).

    Akiko Amano, the 15th-generation head of Sohke Hanabi Kagiya Co., is seen in Tokyo's Edogawa Ward on Aug. 4, 2020. (Mainichi/Kota Yoshida) =Click/tap photo for more images.

    Although Tokyo has deep ties with fireworks, the urbanized land currently poses difficulties for launching them. As buildings are closely packed in the capital, there are also limitations on the sizes and locations of the fireworks. Furthermore, there is an abundance of city lights in the capital. Kagiya has brushed up on its techniques in terms of both safety and the beauty of its fireworks.

    "One such initiative is the development of technology to control them remotely," said Amano. In order to launch fireworks more safely, the business has engaged in improving an electric ignition system that can set off fireworks at the push of a button.

    Kagiya is currently in charge of the general production of fireworks shows, including the Edogawa Fireworks Festival -- one of Tokyo's major fireworks shows that gathered 1.39 million spectators in 2019. The fireworks show lasted for an hour and 15 minutes.

    What kind of fireworks should be shown to the audience? Everything starts from this question. Sketches consisting of eight scenes contain elaborate details of the fireworks' appearance, changing by the second. Kagiya collaborates with fireworks manufacturers in accordance with these images to create the shells in preparation for the show.

    On the day of the fireworks show, Amano is stationed at the riverbed where tubes for launching the fireworks are lined up in a row. Amid an environment valuing safety, she supervises about 100 pyrotechnicians who work in the field. When the fireworks begin to be launched, her role is to provide instructions on the exact moment to set them off while surveying the overall flow.

    "What's important is the time in between each firework. We make subtle changes to the rhythm of the fireworks' launch, based on the day's weather and the season, and bring out feelings of excitement among the spectators," she said.

    "Star" pellets are made by mixing particles in a large pot at Saiki Enka Honten in Ichikawamisato, Yamanashi Prefecture, on Aug. 5, 2020. (Mainichi/Tomoko Sudo) =Click/tap photo for more images.

    The lingering sensation following the thrill of the fireworks' booming sounds and bursts of light cannot be described in words. Amano describes fireworks as "a composite art made through the collaboration of the four elements of color, shape, light and sound."

    Twenty years have passed since Amano became the 15th-generation head of Kagiya. Although she is responsible for carrying on the weight of the shop's tradition, she said she values her "sensibility that wells up from within."

    She added, "When you look up at the sky, you feel uplifted and encouraged, right? I think that fireworks have mysterious power. I'd like for people to see these real fireworks and receive energy from them."

    (Japanese original by Tadahiko Mori, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

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    The 2019 Edogawa Fireworks Festival can be watched via the link https://youtu.be/o19fMOZ9zp4

    The Japanese version of this article was originally published on Aug. 25, 2020.

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    How firework shells are created:

    Saiki Enka Honten, located in a mountainous area in the Yamanashi Prefecture town of Ichikawamisato, which is famous for its fireworks, is the manufacturer behind Kagiya's fireworks. Amano said that the shop's fireworks have various colors. Pyrotechnician Hiroshi Sasaki, 32 (at the time of the interview), showed us how the fireworks are created.

    1) First, a compound is made by mixing and sifting various powders that change the flames' colors and the way they burn. By adjusting the types and amounts of powders, there arise differences in the colors, light and sound of the fireworks.

    "Star" pellets are dried in the sun at Saiki Enka Honten in Ichikawamisato, Yamanashi Prefecture, on Aug. 5, 2020. (Mainichi/Tomoko Sudo) =Click/tap photo for more images.

    2) Next, "star" pellets are created by coating clay particles measuring around 2 millimeters in diameter with the compound and water. When ignited, these stars create sparks. The pellets are mixed in a large pot, and when they have become larger, they are dried out in the sun. After repeating this process five times a day, the pellets' diameter grows by about 0.5 millimeters.

    Adjustments are made during this process to create fireworks that change color. According to Sasaki, the work is difficult as they can test out whether the fireworks are made as envisioned only after they are completed.

    3) The shell is now filled in the following order:

    "Star" pellets are packed inside one half of a firework shell at Saiki Enka Honten in Ichikawamisato, Yamanashi Prefecture, on Aug. 5, 2020. (Mainichi/Tomoko Sudo) =Click/tap photo for more images.
    A burst charge of black powder for splitting the firework shell is placed inside the shell on top of the "washi" paper, at Saiki Enka Honten in Ichikawamisato, Yamanashi Prefecture, on Aug. 5, 2020. (Mainichi/Tomoko Sudo) =Click/tap photo for more images.

    a. The fuse is attached to one hemisphere of the shell.

    b. The star pellets are placed inside the half sphere, along with the "tamagawa," or thick paper casing, so that they are tightly packed.

    c. Japanese "washi" paper is spread out on top of this.

    d. A burst charge of black powder that splits the firework shell and sends the stars flying outward, called "warikayaku," is placed inside on top of the washi paper.

    e. The two hemispheres created in this way are combined.

    f. The part of the washi paper that sticks out is cut, and the hemispheres are fastened together with tape.

    The pyrotechnician checks the condition of the powder stuffed inside the shell by its sound.

    Two halves that make up a firework shell are seen at Saiki Enka Honten in Ichikawamisato, Yamanashi Prefecture, on Aug. 5, 2020. (Mainichi/Tomoko Sudo) =Click/tap photo for more images.
    A pyrotechnician combines the two hemispheres of a firework shell, while making sure that the black powder doesn't spill out, at Saiki Enka Honten in Ichikawamisato, Yamanashi Prefecture, on Aug. 5, 2020. (Mainichi/Tomoko Sudo) =Click/tap photo for more images.

    4) Finally, layers of kraft paper are glued onto the shell, and dried out in the sun. The process of pasting and drying is repeated, and the firmness is adjusted, based on the desired size of the firework.

    The balance between the burst charge and the amount of kraft paper attached to the shell determines the beauty of the firework's round shape in the air.

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    Sohke Hanabi Kagiya Co. is located at 2-28-21 Higashikomatsugawa in Tokyo's Edogawa Ward.

    The establishment was given the name "Kagiya" as a fox that served the family's guardian deity held a key ("kagi" in Japanese) in its mouth. Amano is the first female head of Kagiya.

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    Enchanting Edo

    The "Enchanting Edo" series highlights traditions, crafts, artisanal techniques and culture that date back several hundred years. Stories offer a glimpse into old shops in Japan's capital, which are all searching for ways to protect long-established skills and talent, while also keeping them alive in the modern day.

    The original Japanese versions of the articles, which can be reached via the link located at the top right below the headline, include "furigana" phonetic characters to assist in reading all kanji characters that appear in the text. The user-friendly text primarily targets grade school children in Japan, but can also be used by non-Japanese readers learning intermediate-level Japanese. We encourage any readers interested in Japanese culture, language, or both to make full use of our series.

    The next "Enchanting Edo" story will be published on Aug. 31.

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