You may never have heard about it before, but the little city of Koga (古河) at the very edge of Ibaraki, is not only home to the biggest fireworks in the Tokyo area, it is also home to the biggest peach blossom viewing festival.
Unless you planned to spend time traveling around the backways of the Tokyo area, Koga was hardly on your map. But this little town was once a major stop on the road to Nikko, the Unesco world heritage site that is the burial place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the shogun who united Japan under a military rule that lasted for almost 400 years.
In those days, you would walk. Horses were rare in Japan and you could not get to Nikko in a boat even if you tried. So if you wanted an outing and needed an approved destination to go to, a pilgrimage to Nikko would fit the bill. Remember, Japan was a pretty harsh dictatorship at this time, and you needed a pass to go anywhere except for close to home.
A city made for driving
The old Koga city center was in the area from what is today the train station to the golf links at the shores of the Watarase river, which comes from Nikko in Tochigi prefecture, now one of the UNESCO world heritage sites of Japan. There was even a small castle, and since this was a major rest stop on the road to Nikko, there were several restaurants specializing in haute cuisine for wealthy travelers. Many of them remain today.
But apart from the restaurants, the shops have moved away from the city center. Koga is spread out like an American city, and if you plan to do anything but watch the fireworks,
The fireworks exception
while you have to drive to get around Koga, that does not apply during the fireworks festival. The street from to the station to the Watarase riverbank is closed off to cars, and everyone walks there between the market stalls.
The best place to see the fireworks is from the river wall above the golf course. But you have to get there early. The best seats are pre-reserved and paid for, but there is plenty of places where you can spread out a “blue sheet” and have an early dinner while you wait for the fireworks to start at 19:20. It will not be too late for your kids as the fireworks end at 20:30. You can let them sleep on the way home. Just remember to slather them in insect repellent. August is hot and prime season for mosquitoes. And the fireworks happen next to the river.
Koga fireworks bomb. Children inserted for comparison.
Walking along the market stalls along the Koga main street is a fun experience. However, eat a proper dinner while you wait for the fireworks. Most of the markrt stalls are selling food of one kind or another, and those that do not sell food will sell toys. Crappy plastic toys that may last until you get home to your hotel.
Are these the biggest Kanto fireworks?
The Kanto region (of which Koga claims to be the geographical centrepoint) stretches from Hakone in the south to Fukushima in the north. The plain used to be the granary of Japan, endless stretches of rice fields fed by the rivers running off the surrounding mountains.
That means if you claim to be the biggest fireworks in the region, you have to make good on it. And you will have a lot of competition. There are huge fireworks in Yokohama, in several of the Tokyo suburbs, and in Tokyo itself. But with 20000 enormous fireworks pieces, each weighing 650 kg, Koga has a good claim to the title. These are not your ordinary sparklers, they are more like artillery grenades. And they go on forever. The fireworks last only for a little more than an hour, and like most Japanese fireworks,
How to get there
Koga sits on the Utsunomiya branch of the Shonan-Shinjuku Line, and there is a train about every 20 minutes. But the last train to Tokyo leaves already at 2130, so if you miss that, you may have to stay the night. And that will not be easy during the fireworks festival.
if you are not coming from Tokyo you may want to drive. There will be parking spaces surrounding the fireworks but be prepared to walk for quite a long distance.
Watch out for the crowds
The Koga fireworks attracts tens of thousands of people, if not hundreds of thousands. It is the same with all fireworks festivals in Japan. The fireworks themselves only last for an hour, but for people coming all the way from Tokyo, Maebashi, or Fukushima, you will not want to spend an hour watching fireworks and then go home. Many people come earlier and take seats on the river wall. Others enjoy the market stalls.
But almost everyone who does not live in Koga go home at the same time. The trains get incredibly crowded. All the roads to the riverbank fill up with people walking home. Most are blocked to traffic but there is the occasional residents car trying not to run over anyone. It is better to wait for an hour or so and then take the train home. Or take the train to Nogi, the next station towards Utsunomiya, and then switch to the Tokyo-bound train.
Is it worth it?
So is it wort it? If you love fireworks, absolutely. But if not, then you may want to look for something closer to Tokyo. There are plenty of fireworks around Japan in summer. But I must say, it was impressive. Although keeping the attention of three four-year-olds are hard at the best of times.
I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Bangkok to Tokyo, with a brief visit to Honolulu on the way. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning six - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on email@example.com, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.