Monday, May 05, 2003



One of the many things I love about Japan is all the ancient festivals going on all the time all over the place. Shiga Prefecture seems to have more than its fair share. Last night we went across the Lake to Omihachiman to see the Hinomatsuri (Fire festival) at Shinoda Shrine, the event all the fireworks experts attend, so as to stay abreast of the neverending fireworks revolution.

Even though we headed there at night, we didn't need a map; we just consulted the frequent signposts in the sky, or turned toward the bangs that were bigger than the night. When it comes to fireworks, they do not fool around over there. On the narrow roads leading to the Shrine all was in darkness except for occasional paper lanterns hung in front of houses to light the way and not detract from the stars of the occasion, the fireworks.

At the Shrine itself as well, all was dark except for a dim lantern here and there. The precincts were packed, with crowds jammed in among the trees and standing on rocks for a view, but wherever you were, all you had to do was look up. This was indeed the art of fire. Before each launch they announced the list names of those who had sponsored the very special firework we were about to see. Then: WHUMP!! up it would spin atop a spiral tail of sparks above the tall old cedars, to a much lower height than conventional fireworks; this was done to achieve what firework specialists refer to technically as the "inyerface" effect. It certainly is: each unique design filled the entire sky at seemed like ten feet from my eyeballs. It was sort of like being in the firework, a new experience for me.

Those special shots went on for hours, out of total darkness into blinding fireflowers blossoming to night-shattering blasts. Then the fireworks folks (who are by nature full of big surprises) set off ground-level explosions, then a forest-sized pageant in colored fire that cascaded images on the night air for long minutes; that was followed by an amazing and very old Japanese technique of "painted" fireworks, that shimmered on and on with strangely moving lights and sparklings and colors. Then came the oldest part of the festival, when they brought two many-meter-tall constructions of rice straw out into the midst of the crowd, erected them and set them alight; they roared with flame higher and higher for some minutes till they toppled in plumes of sparks and fire, looked like right into the middle of the crowd. Those folks over there sure love what fireworks can do. Remarkably, after it all the old wooden shrine was still standing.

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