Japanese Fireworks, Better in Every way but One

Has it already been two weeks?  Jeez, where does the time go?  So yeah, a couple of weekends ago I went to a Japanese fireworks festival.  Seems like only yesterday.  Anyway, suffice to say that watching fireworks in Japan is just like watching fireworks in the U.S., except better in, uh, every single way. Except one.

To start out with, you don’t have to drive.  You just put on your bathrobe, which is what the Japanese call a yukata, but really it’s a bathrobe, and your wooden sandals and get on the subway with about a million other people.  Know how hard it is to walk down the steps into the station wearing a bathrobe and flip-flops hewn from oak trees?  Really freaking hard, that’s how.  Those steps are made of like granite or something, and who ever thought of making footwear out of wood anyway?  Really need to work on that shoe technology, Japan.

Thank God for Texting

As far as I can tell, the traditional thing to do when you arrive at a Japanese fireworks festival is to wander around in your bathrobe looking at your iPhone trying to locate your friends out of about two billion people.  I was supposed to meet a young lady there.  Actually, she’s not that young, but hey, at least she’s not a dude, so one out of two isn’t bad.  And while I was texting and trying not to trample someone else’s picnic with my oaken clogs, I heard my favorite sound in the whole world, which is

“Want a beer?”

I like that so much.  “Do I ever,” I said instantly, and looked down to find a large blue plastic sheet full of guys and gals, all sitting silently.  The thing about Japanese people is, frankly, they’re pretty awkward in mixed company.  They have the hardest time talking to each other, probably because they’ve never done it.  Not real big on communication, the Japanese.  That’s where I come in.  Japanese people like to invite foreigners because, well, now there’s something to talk about.  Namely, my foreign-ness.  It’s like if we were a bunch of white people all sitting around having a semi-un-fun picnic, and then suddenly a black guy came by.  How entertaining would that be!  To have a black guy join our picnic?  It’d be awesome!  Because, you know, he’s black.

Hi, I’m Ken.  I’ll be your Entertainment for the Evening

So I sat down and we all kanpai-ed, and they asked in stilted English where I was from and if I’d ever drunk Japanese sake and if I could use chopsticks until they figured out I actually lived in Japan and spoke Japanese, and it slowly became evident that I wasn’t some tourist to whom they could introduce the wonders of Japan, but rather just an ordinary dude from the next town over who was drinking all their booze.  And then my lady friend found me and they were like Oh, you already have a Japanese friend, and then everyone seemed so disappointed and it became awkward again, and I figured maybe Now was time to leave.

So my lady friend and I set up our own plastic sheet next to a children’s swing set under a tree.  We had what in theater parlance would be termed a “semi-obstructed view,” meaning that we could see the sky if we squinted hard and used our imaginations.  There’s a crazy amount of people at a fireworks festival, is what I’m trying to say.  Anyway, I told her to wait for a minute and went off in search of deliciousness.  I looked back and she was sitting contentedly on the sheet in her bathrobe, texting away.  She looked pretty good, from that distance.

The Two Truths of the Universe

Food at a Japanese festival pretty much follows a theme.  Rows of smokey booths offer up fried chicken, fried potatoes, fried noodles, and stuff you never dreamed could be fried like, I dunno, cabbage and squid.  Somehow that gets folded into savory pancakes, or the same pancakes with an egg on top, or the same pancakes wrapped around a hot dog and stuck on a stick.  So much variety.  Well, everything’s good on a stick.  That’s one of the two truths of the universe.

The other being that everything tastes good fried.  You gotta wonder what people did before frying, like back in the Pleistocene era.

“Hey, Grork, climb off that dinosaur and get over here.

“Yo Ken, what’s up?

“Check out this new way of cooking lizard bone I just invented!  I call it ‘fried.’

“Intriguing.  Hmm.  It’s light, yet crispy.  Tastes like chicken.  It’ll go well with my new invention, beer.  Let’s have a festival.

“Great.  If only there were some bright things we could shoot into the sky.

“How about just throwing a bunch of hot coals into the air?

“Dude, you’re a genius.  This’ll be big someday.”

Ah jeez, all the good stuff’s already been invented.  So I went back to my sheet by the swing set with a quiver of fried food on sticks and several cans of beer.  That’s another nice thing about Japan—you can drink outside like a normal adult and nobody’s going to club you with a nightstick and you wake up behind bars.  So that’s Advantage, Japan.  Like when I lived in the U.S., it was easy to forget drinking outdoors violated some law the Pilgrims dreamed up, because it makes no sense. I mean, having a gin and tonic while enjoying the sunshine and fresh air, that’s just healthy. Who doesn’t like health?

Such things lead to small, let’s just say, misunderstandings, like ones where Ken Seeroi inconveniently goes to jail.  What am I, a lawyer—how am I supposed to remember so many rules?  Apparently that’s no defense, at least according to the District Attorney.  But that’s another story.  Anyway, it seems I now have two countries I don’t understand.

But, moving on.  About two beers later, the fireworks started, which were pretty much like fireworks anywhere I guess, with lots of Boom and bright lights and shapes of hearts and stars and Hello Kitties.  Only it went on for an hour and a half.  I don’t recall ever watching fireworks in the U.S. for that long, but maybe the towns I lived in were just cheap with the rockets or something.  Either way, that’s a long damn time, especially when you’ve got an attention span of about 30 seconds.  Good thing we had all that beer.  Even still, I had to go back to the booths twice just for more fried stuff.  So much looking up sure makes a brother hungry.

Well, There’s a Drawback to Everything

And then it was over.  One last ear-splitting Ker-Blammo where they sent every flammable thing in their arsenal up into the air at once and it was brighter than daylight and then it was suddenly strangely quiet.  Then everybody jumped up in their bathrobes, tossed their beer cans and skewers into a tremendous trash pile and rushed for the subway.  Which made me realize there’s only one drawback to a Japanese fireworks festival—namely all those damned Japanese people.  There sure are a lot of them.  My lady friend and I crushed onto a subway car with about five hundred of our closest friends and I hung onto a strap and she hung onto me and we went to sleep standing up and dreaming we could breathe again.  Next year, I think I’ll avoid the subway and try some place a little less crowded, like, I dunno, America.  Man, that’d be sweet.

22 Replies to “Japanese Fireworks, Better in Every way but One”

  1. Yo Ken,

    Nice Story, I always wanted to wear a bath robe on the subway, but I think there were things other than fireworks flashing in that fantasy….hmmmmm!

    I lived in D.C. for a few years a long time back and the fireworks there last for several hours on the 4th of July and they are spectacular… and even timed to some really great music. Loads of people were drinking too, even me and there was a subway nearby too, so its not that different…. except for all the Japanese people that is… double Hmmmmmm!

    1. Several hours? Okay, that’ll work great for my next article: “American Fireworks, Better in Every Way.”

      Seriously, that highlights one of the difficulties I’ve noticed with people who write about Japan, apparently including myself: you can’t remember or didn’t pay attention to how things were in your home country. A lot of times I’ll notice something remarkable about Japan, only to visit the U.S. and find the same darn thing there. Sometimes things look different simply because you never really looked at them before. Plus, times change, so for all I know by now people might be wearing bathrobes and eating fried squid on sticks in the U.S. Life’s full of surprises, that’s for sure. Kanpai.

      1. Got another video recommendation:


        I think you might this series because there’s a lot of really good food, nice looking Japanese friends, the beach and stories about people looking for love in this one. The name of this Japanese TV Series “Summer Nude” is sort of a tease, so don’t get too excited…. Hmmmmm!

        BTW, the fireworks I was referring too was the bi-centennial celebration in 1976, so it was sort of special. Nearly half a million people were there and it was sort of crowded, but I was stationed next to the Arlington National Cemetary at HQ USMC, so it was just a short walk.

        1. Thanks, Bud. That looks exactly like the kind of funny drama that I enjoy. The earth doesn’t get blown up, nobody turns into a space alien, and I don’t have to have a heart attack watching it. So those are plusses.

          Gotta hand it to the guy who titled it too. Pretty good way to sell movies, even if it’s a little disappointing. Summer Nude (contains no actual nudity). But I guess that’s probably better for the old heart as well.

  2. Instantly made me think of Kitano’s “Hanabi” movie. What a classic.

    I think all the fireworks and festivals and sakura kisetsu are just an excuse for Japanese to get that food out on the street and eat a lot.
    While in Japan I tend to eat as much as I can because it is just too good, and I always tell (lie) to myself “Who knows if you ever come back??” (I come back once a year.)
    Japanese people that I meat in shotengais at izakayas and ramenyas and sushiyas and unagiyas and sobayas and all the other -yas tend to show that they LOVE to eat but many show restraint. However when there’s festival they have an excuse: you’re supposed to eat now, so it’s OK to endulge once in a while – it’s the SEASON! So Japanese invented a lot of seasons.

    But where was I? I forgot, I’m so hungry… On the diet before traveling to Japan in September…

    1. Yeah, I always say that my favorite thing about Japan is the food, no lie. It’s fantastic. And that excuse thing—Oh, who knows if I’ll be here next year, better eat up now—that’s a killer. Sure, it’s okay for a week, but a few years on and your pants become problematic.

      The Japanese term is kuishinbou 食いしん坊, which somehow sounds a lot better than “stuff yourself silly,” although it means the same thing.

  3. Hey Ken, good to hear from you! I’m not sure you remember, but I left a few comments on your blog posts a while back saying that I would be coming to Japan in the near future. Well, the near future is now, and I am in Japan! Thanks for all your help and advice 🙂

    IT’S SO HOT THOUGH. AND HUMID. I’m slowly getting used to it, but boy, I did not expect it to be 35 degrees Celsius everyday for a week straight.

    I love that you’ve written about a fireworks festival! Since being here (about 6 weeks now), I’ve gone to Sumida-gawa (still bummed that they got fully rained out) and the Tokyo Bay fireworks..and just as you described in the above piece, DEFINITELY PACKED. I keep searching for the festival food but maybe I’m just looking in all the wrong places?! Or maybe there’s too many people, but I haven’t tried any festival food yet except a giant squid on a stick (which was pretty badass, so maybe that makes up for it). I AM KEEN THOUGH, just wait til the next summer festival and I’ll be going back for 3rds.

    Thanks for writing excellently as always! It’s weird but awesome to think that I’m now actually IN Japan, so I can understand on where you’re coming from. Gonna go back through your old articles and read up on things I can now actually experience haha! Thanks 😀

    1. Hey Mez, Congratulations—you finally made it! It’s crazy, right? Everything’s really different at first, starting with the fact that it’s hot as eff and there’s a million people everywhere. Don’t worry, that feeling will wear off, in about a decade. In the meantime, enjoy the weirdness that is Japan.

  4. One thing to mention about fireworks in North America is they are, more often then not, date celebrations.
    Columbus day, Independence Day, Blow shit up for the helluvit day, (That lesser known Canada Day eh?)

    Here, they are usually regional competitions which is why you end up with an hour or three of beautiful over the top explosions. In my northern frozen (Tohoku) area we recently had one of our festivals and ya… the participants were from ALL over Japan. I’m even pretty sure one of em was from all the way down in Naha. I know for a fact one was from Kumamoto and that’s pretty damn far away to go to blow things up (If you’re not American that is….)

    Either way, How can you go wrong with outdoor drinking, meat on sticks, massive explosions, and beautiful women walking around and falling out of bathrobes 🙂

    1. I never really thought about it, but you’re right—fireworks here just occur whenever. There doesn’t seem to be any date significance to most festivals. Which is strange, now that I think about it. But then again, strange is pretty normal in Japan.

  5. Hey Ken,
    I love your writing. You sir-are a funny man! I share your stories with friends and family back home. (Merica)They get a taste of my experiences-written much better than I could write. The story about your neighbor’s wife dying was simply brilliant! So sad and funny and really well written. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thanks, Randy. Yeah, when my neighbor’s wife died, that was really heavy. Every once in a while something happens in Japan that makes me realize that I’m not just on vacation here; real life actually goes on as well. Sometimes that’s hard to remember. Anyway, I’m really glad you like my writing. Hearing that is what keeps me going.

  6. I watched this year’s fireworks from within my apartment.
    Less people, cooler and no mosquitoes! 😉

    I love Japanese fireworks, but I don’t like the crowds. I’ve only ever been to smaller cities and even there it was insane! I can’t even imagine what it must be like in Tokyo or other huge cities.

    You were born in the wrong country. You sound like you could be happy in my home country, Germany.
    I didn’t even know that there were countries where it’s against the law to drink alcohol in public?!
    In Germany you’re allowed to drink certain alcoholic drinks (low percentage such as beer) at the age of 16 and everything else once you turn 18. And of course you’re allowed to drink alcohol in public once you’ve reached that age. 😉

    1. “You were born in the wrong country.” That’s funny. I wonder how many people feel like that.

      To be fair though, there’s a lot of positives and negatives to both the U.S. and Japan. Don’t know about Germany. It’s tempting to do the cafeteria thing where you pick and choose what you like and don’t like, but unfortunately you eventually have to settle in one place and accept both. Unless you’re super-rich that is, and then I guess you can just jet back and forth. Super rich. Man, that’d be sweet.

      1. Yeah, I’m still trying to find that place.
        Once I found it, I’ll move there, but I doubt such a country really exists outside of my dreams! 😉
        Being SUPER rich would certainly help! 😀

  7. “Japanese people like to invite foreigners because, well, now there’s something to talk about. Namely, my foreign-ness. It’s like if we were a bunch of white people all sitting around having a semi-un-fun picnic, and then suddenly a black guy came by. How entertaining would that be! To have a black guy join our picnic? It’d be awesome! Because, you know, he’s black.”

    That reminds me…
    Improv Everywhere did a prank on the public in Aspen, CO having a Black guy meet the public.

    From their website:
    “Since Aspen, Colorado has an African American population of 0.44%, we decided to give the locals a chance to “meet a black person.” We put comedian Colton Dunn in an empty hot chocolate kiosk at the foot of the mountain to greet folks as they exited the slopes.”

    1. Yeah, we have those same kind of booths set up here, so Japanese people can meet foreigners. They’re called Irish bars.

  8. “Rows of smokey booths offer up fried chicken, fried potatoes, fried noodles, and stuff you never dreamed could be fried like, I dunno, cabbage and squid.”

    Hey Ken!

    Make some PB*J sandwiches and have one of the guys in the booths fry them up for ya!
    Here’s how to do it.

    1. You know, I actually think that might sell at a Japanese festival. Maybe that’ll be my next career, running the Fried PB&J Booth at festivals.

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