Senko hanabi: Japanese sparklers light the summer nights

Summer in Japan isn't summer in Japan unless there are fireworks—and lots of them. Cities and towns, temples and ports; somewhere near you, on one of these hot and outrageously humid summer nights, there will be a fireworks show. It will be loud, and it will be incredible.

The quiet side of summer pyrotechnics, though, is called senko hanabi. Senko in Japanese meaning an incense stick, and hanabi (literally flower fire) is the word for fireworks. The senko hanabi is one cool little dude with a lot of meaning and charm packed into a very short and very serene ten seconds.

First, one of these delicate sparklers looks like a roughly 20 centimeter long, tightly twisted, rainbow-colored piece of tissue paper, with one end not so tightly twisted. That’s the top. There’s no stick inside, so the way to burn one is to pinch the top, holding the senko hanabi vertical, while you light the bottom. After a second or two, a molten bubble will form. Here’s where you have to have a steady hand. If you’re not careful, that tiny shimmering ball of fire will drop off and the show is over. If, however, you can hold it very still, you will be able to enjoy the serene, mesmerizing, indeed almost hypnotizing beauty of a Japanese senko hanabi.

This beauty is divided into five stages that go like this:

1. Bud. The fire bubble looks like the bud of a flower.
2. Peony. When the first burst of sparkles appear, breaking the surface of the tiny molten ball, the shape is said to look like a peony.
3. Pine Needle. This is the stage when the sparkles are most active, shooting energetically and straight like a prickly pine tree.
4. Willow. The sparkles become a little sluggish as the hanabi nears its end, resembling the long strands of a willow tree.
5. Falling Chrysanthemum. Right before the sparkler goes out, the pretty branching sparklies cease, there is once more a round fiery ball that drops off much like the way a chrysanthemum does when falls from its stem.

If all of that isn’t impressive enough. The entire show happens in about ten seconds. It’s a good things they are cheap and there are quite a few in one package.

The only thing to remember — and I’m reminded every time I use one of these sparklers — make sure you don’t hold it above your foot, because when that mini ball of magma falls its temperature is somewhere around 350 degrees Celsius/662 Fahrenheit . Ouch.

So I give you the end of summer and the end of my two-week stint at BoingBoing, all beautifully represented in the short life of a senko hanabi.