Fireworks play a big part in Japanese culture; they are often used in summertime festivals ubiquitous across the country, and historically in the aftermath of disasters and pandemics to signify the end of bad times. As with many other of the country’s crafts, the practice of firework making was brought over from China, but it has gained a distinctly Japanese twist over the centuries.
The senko hanabi sparkler offers more of a meditative experience than other kinds of fireworks
In addition to loud and extravagant fireworks that are known for lighting up the entire sky, Japan also has a tradition of creating small and quiet fireworks – sparklers. Sparklers were first produced in the country more than 300 years ago, dating back to Japan’s Edo period. The senko hanabi (literally meaning “incense sparkler”) firework is nearly silent and has an introspective notion to it. The sparkler is to be held upside down and in front of your face. With a flickering spark pattern that is constantly changing, the senkou hanabi emits an almost hypnotic power that can make its viewers fall into a silent awe. The sparkler offers a meditative experience and reminds people to cherish fleeting moments; it gives people a chance to reflect on beautiful times and memories, particularly those of summer.
Ryota and Kyoko Tsutsui are third-generation firework makers and the owners of the Tsutsui Tokimasa Fireworks workshop, which specialises in the creation of these senko hanabi sparklers. Their workshop aims to find ways to pass on the tradition of Japanese firework-making to future generations.
With rising imports of cheap, mass-produced fireworks in the modern age, Japan’s domestic production has all but disappeared. When the last remaining Japanese sparkler factory, in Yame City of Fukuoka Prefecture, closed its doors in 1999, Ryota Tsutsui stepped in to save the craft from extinction. Ryota learned the craft and took over, transferring factory operations to the nearby Miyama City. There are now only three Senkou makers left in Japan, and Tsutsui is the only one in Kyushu. At Tsutsui Tokimasa Fireworks they carefully handcraft senko hanabi sparklers using traditional production methods. This is a very precise craft which involves an extremely delicate process of hand-rolling gunpowder in thin sheets of paper. The workshop handles the dangerous task of blending gunpowder for the fireworks on-site, made from Kyushu-sourced sulphur and pine soot mixed with potassium nitrate.
All the efforts of Tsutsui Tokimasa Fireworks are aimed at finding ways to pass on the tradition of Japanese firework-making to future generations
About ten years ago, Tsutsui Tokimasa Fireworks partnered up with local designer Hidemi Nakaniwa to renew the look and feel of their products. After the update, Ryota and Kyoko sold five years’ worth of stock in one year, proving that tradition can be embraced by modern design.
The workshop now holds a whole host of activities. They create a selection of different fireworks, host a product showroom and plan festivals. Ryota and Kyoko have also opened a new riverside lodging, where guests can spend the weekend surrounded by nature, enjoying fireworks made by the workshop.