Growing up in Colorado, kite flying was one of those things you did on blustery March and April afternoons after the snow was gone but before the swimming pools opened. The goal was to send the diamond has high into the sky as possible. In recent years I've found kites of different shapes and sizes and I've had fun flying them on the beach with my grandchildren. But in May my entire perspective on kite flying was changed. While looking for something different to do with my visiting 20-year old niece, I happened upon a web page for the Yokaichi giant kite festival in Shiga prefecture. Since Yokaichi was only an hour from Kyoto where we were spending a few days, we decided to go.
The Yokaichi kite festival began during the Edo period. Kites were flown by families who had a son born during the current year. Today it is held on the fourth Sunday of May and it is competition between teams from the area. The kites, called Oodako, are designed and built by the teams using local bamboo and washi (rice paper). The face must represent a phrase or play on words – the top half is a picture of a plant or animal and the bottom is a kanji character. The giant kites average 12m x 13m and weigh as much as 700kg. The largest kite ever flown at Yokaichi was 19m x 20.5 m and weighed 1500 kg. Judging is based on the decoration, its meaning, flight time and technique. Teams of all ages participate.
Close to 50 teams entered the competition we attended. Most were about 2m x 3m but the highlight was two giant kites. By my rough calculation, the largest was about 15m x 16m and the other about ½ that size. When we arrived the smaller of the two was already constructed. Despite a valiant effort, it failed to fly during its allotted time and was immediately dismantled. The large oodaka lay on the ground for hours, a giant roll of paper and logs waiting to be assembled by a team of 40 or so young men and women in specially designed Happi coats. Aesthetics is an important part of the competition and there is as much anticipation associated with the design of the giant kite as with its size and ability to fly. Hundreds of people peered inside the roll, speculating on the pattern.
Around noon a giant tarp was laid out, the kite unrolled and construction began, supervised by a "kite master" who appeared to be at least 100 years old. It took nearly 2 hours to build the frame and fine-tune the tension on the 50-string bridle (the strings attached to the frame of the kite and which helps control the kite in the air). Taiko drums beat as the kite was hefted on the shoulders of the team and carried to the riverbed. A large rope was attached to the bridle and the anchor, a pick-up truck, drove down the riverbank rolling out about 2km of rope that was then picked up by the team and over one hundred boy scouts and volunteers from the audience. Cameras flashed as the kite was pushed up on end by 16 team members with long, hammer-headed logs, and the first full view of the design was unveiled. Then, with only a few tugs on the rope, the giant work of art soared into the air to the wild cheers of spectators lining both banks of the dry riverbed. The longest flight of a giant kite was 2 hours and five minutes. Even though "our kite" was only in the air a few minutes, the spectacle and majesty of it was well worth the wait.
In addition to the competition, amateurs of all ages filled the sky with their creations – from flapping birds and dancing dolls to anime characters. There were numerous stunt kites and quite a few kite trains; one with over 150 individual kites flown on a single string looked like a giant rainbow.
As with many of the local festivals, if you are a gaijin, be prepared to be part of the entertainment. At one point my niece and I posed with the "festival princesses" for about 15 minutes while many, many men (and one woman) took our picture.
The recreational use of kites is a relatively recent activity. Over the past 2,000 years kites have been used in Japan for religious festivals – cranes, dragons, fish and turtle kites symbolized good luck, fertility and prosperity while other kites were used to scare away evil spirits, predict the future success or failure of rice crops, thanksgiving for a good harvest, charms against bad luck and congratulations to the parents on the birth of the first born son. The military used kites to carry human spies and snipers long before the Wright brothers were born; meteorologist have used kites for hundreds of years to help predict the weather; Ben Franklin used a kite to prove that lightening was electricity; Marconi used a kite to help transmit radio signals across the Atlantic; and a kite was used to pull the cables across the Niagara River for the first railway bridge between Canada and the United States. Kites have also been used for aerial photography to aid military reconnaissance, disaster assessment, and archeological surveys. Kites were even used in the construction of the early temples and shrines in Japan to lift tiles and other materials to the workmen on the roofs. In some countries, kites are still used for fishing.
Today, there are over 450 kinds of kites in Japan and the Japan Kite Association alone sanctions over 50 local kite festivals each year (http://www.tako.gr.jp/eng/index_e.html). Most of the festivals focus on one geographical area and one type of kite but some draw competitors from around the country and even internationally. Several festivals feature fighting kites with teams of up to 50 people from different towns in a prefecture competing against each other. The kites are small, highly balanced, extremely light and maneuverable and the strings are covered with powdered glass, sharp sand, ground pottery or even knife blades. The object is to bring down the opponent's kite by cutting its line. The last one flying wins. (Kite fighting was banned in Japan in 1760 because too many people were flying kites rather than working!) The Nagasaki fighters are the most famous fighter kites in the world.
Kite making and flying is not only an art form, but also a fun way to apply the principles of design, engineering, physics, gravity, and aeronautics with even a little bit of history, language, poetry and drama thrown in. It is an activity that can be enjoyed by people of all ages (more adults fly kites than children) and a great family pastime. Kites come in all sizes and shapes. The largest kite in the world is a "megaflag" that is about 940 sq meters – over 1,000 people can fit inside it and the smallest is only 5mm.
If you have the opportunity to attend a kite festival in Japan, take it. I guarantee you will be hooked!
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