Sumida River Fireworks Festival sucks! Yes, the most famous summer fireworks festival in Japan, officially known as Sumidagawa Hanabi Taikai, is crap. There are three key reasons why:
(1) You have to camp out for weeks in the hope of seeing anything. All the best places fill up as the event gets closer. You won’t find anywhere comfortable to stand, let alone sit, no matter how early you show up on the day. My memory of the festival was of standing behind a wire fence on a small patch of grass slightly smaller than the area covered by the soles of my feet.
(2) The ‘boom factor’ is a lie. The fireworks go off in two different places, meaning the number is effectively halved. That makes the number you can actually see around the same as less well-attended displays. There are, however, a few choice spots where you can see both locations. For that, you’ll need to camp out for weeks.
(3) Crowds. Once the display is over, everyone heads to Asakusa Station. That’s 948,000 people all heading in the same direction. Eating is also a big part of festivals, so the usually scenic Asakusa streets are lined with trash.
Thankfully, there are better firework displays, like Itabashi Hanabi Taikai (いたばし花火大会). My friends arrived in the early afternoon and spread out their blue sheet. We drank and ate red velvet cake while dragonflies danced around us until it got dark.
Another great festival is The 43rd Katsushika Nouryou Hanabi Taikai (第43回葛飾納涼花火大会). All day and into the evening, giant red dragonflies float above the grass, making it look like a section of one of those digital art posters you had in college where all the dolphins are flying into space on rainbows.
What you need:
A blue plastic sheet. Hell yeah it has to be blue! Don’t look at me, I don’t make the rules. This is used not so much as a place to sit, but more of a way to mark your territory.
Plastic bags. To put your rubbish in. You’ll need more than one.
Beer. Don’t buy it from the convenience store near the display since they’ll be full of people doing the exact same thing. If it has to be ice-cold, you can buy it from a vendor (limited selection), but you’ll still want more than one over the course of the display. Buy those in advance.
Wet wipes. Eating buttered jacket potatoes with chopsticks is tough. Most festival food is fairly greasy too.
No food. Never bring food. There are plenty of food stalls selling food and even standard fare like corn-on-the-cob and jacket potatoes have a Japanese twist to them. You’ll have to queue for these too, but it’s worth it.
There are a number of summer firework festivals and almost all of these are better than Sumidagawa. For a fairly comprehensive free listing, pick up Lawson’s Ticket magazine from Lawson’s convenience store. However, even if you aren’t in Tokyo (or, perhaps, especially if you’re not in Tokyo), there should be plenty of local firework displays around you. Have fun!