Monday, May 18, 2009


There is a deep history and connection to kites and kite celebrations in Japan that inspires a great admiration in me. It was years ago in the mid seventies that these artful and wondrous flying objects introduced me to the world of kites in a big way. I tried my hand at splitting bamboo while living in Hawaii, gathered from the bamboo forests high over the city of Honolulu, carefully splitting them, shaving them to even the spar bend and balancing the bamboo to the requirements of the kite “bones”. My first copies of the Japanese kite would often end in many broken bones and, eventually, a switch to crash proof fiberglass rod. It was a dream of mine back then to travel to Japan to learn from the masters.

This year was probably my fifth trip to Japan. I was invited by my friend, Masaaki Modegi, the president of the Japan Kite Association for a second tour of the kite festivals in Aomori, Uchinada and Hamamatsu. I arrived in Japan with traveling companions, Jon and Karen Burkhardt, kite makers from the Washington DC area and Clyde Cook, from New Zealand who brought a group of Peter Lynn’s kites with him. Melanie was unfortunately enmeshed in her student’s finals at the University of Colorado art department and couldn’t join me.

On our first night in Japan we were treated to a welcome dinner at Mr. Modegi’s Taimeiken Restaurant. Well known in Tokyo and the Nihonbashi neighborhood as the best European cuisine restaurant in all of Japan. Started by Mr. Modegi’s father in pre-war Tokyo, Modegi-san has taken both his father’s love of cooking and his passion for Japanese and world kites. His father created a kite museum in the upstairs floor of the restaurant and features his collection of traditional kites from all over Japan as well as examples from the world. The collection packs glass cases, hangs from the walls and ceiling with barely a space left for this astounding collection of the art and craft of kites.

The next early morning I took Jon and Karen on a tour of the Tokyo Tsukiji Fish Market. This place is a must see for all who visit Japan. The market is the central hub for all the fish that are brought in and transported to markets and restaurants across Japan and the world. There is a dizzying array of plastic cartons of fresh fish, eel, octopus, big and small fish and some that I have never seen in my life. An early morning auction house is filled with bidders for huge frozen carcasses of tuna that go for $4,000US and up each. The market is a chaotic yet highly organized scene of small transport carts motoring down narrow market corridors and a bustle of buyers and sellers for the lucrative fish trade. The amount of fish coming in every day to the Tsukiji Fish Market is mind boggling. It always amazes me when I visit the market that there is anything left in the oceans.

We flew later that day to the city of Aomori in the north tip of the main island of Japan. It is close to the north island of Hokkaido across the isthmus. We stayed at the house of Mr. and Mrs. Sato and were hosted royally with fabulous meals and comfortable quarters there at the Sato house. Mr. Sato has a dental practice in the front of the large rambling house while Mrs. Sato has a kite making studio upstairs. I have known Mrs. Sato for many years and have enjoyed her sweet Japanese demeanor, her cute laugh and her kite making skills. She has also had a career as an internationally famed Japanese opera singer.

We spent most of the next few days there visiting three local elementary schools where we were entertained by the school children before doing kite workshops with them and flying demonstrations in the playgrounds. A kite festival was held in the Fujisaki township on a river bed park with groups of children performing opening ceremony band performances and Taiko drumming groups.

A welcome party was held at the local community center with local members of the kiting community. We were told that we would enjoy a “cultural experience” there. Jon, Karen, Clyde and I were ushered into a tatami matted room and were each dressed in traditional Japanese wear by a group of women. Karen took the longest to outfit with a meticulous and colorful dress kimono and emerged transformed. We were then ushered into another tatami mat and shoji screen tea room and given the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, a meditative and graceful preparation of green tea in a spare and slow motion presentation of the sublime gift of a warm cup of tea in an exquisitely simple ceramic cup.

It was also prime cherry blossom time up in this northern township and a tour was given of the Hirosaki Koen Park grounds in central Fujisaki. This is an enormous park complex featuring the historic Hirosaki castle tower and moat system throughout the grounds and surrounded by the most spectacular display of cherry blossoms I have ever witnessed. It was like a spring snowfall in flower petals. People were strolling among the tree lined pathways, across arched red bridges crossing the moats, young blossom revelers spread blue plastic tarps across the open areas enjoying their friendships and partying into the night when the trees are lit up in a colorful splendor. It was a magical and beautiful sight.

After we said our “arigatos” and “sayonara” to Mr. and Mrs. Sato we flew to Kanazawa on the central western coast of Japan. The Japan Kite Association annual convention and kite festival is held in the nearby seaside town of Uchinada. The gathering of kite clubs from all over Japan featured a welcome party in the town hall with a sumptuous feast of Japanese food, sushi and free flowing beer and saki. A woman’s taiko drumming group pounded on stage, mayors spoke, Modegi-san gave a rousing speech. All the food was gulped up in minutes.

The next day we were taken to the beachside kite festival field where tents were put up for the kite teams and groups of children arrived for the special children’s kite flying day. Large traditional Japanese kites were lofted into the air. We had been told to fly our kites well away from the other kites but wherever we went it seemed we were smack in the middle of their upwind running paths. Long lines of kids ran in the much too light winds towing the ropes to the giant kites at the other end of the beach. They ran, laughed and collapsed as the kite then gently floated back to the sand.

We flew our kites again the following day when teams from all over Japan flew their large kites. There was a group of paraglider “Peel” kite flyers with motorized back pack fans traversing the beach all day and avoiding the lines of the kites. A large red sailed ship kite was an unusual addition to the Japanese traditional kites on display along the beach. An attempt to fly the ship was made but the wind was too light for this very heavy structural kite.

Our next stop on the tour was south-east to the Pacific shore of Japan. We traveled to bullet train…which is true to it’s name. Waiting at the train station platform as the trains pass through is like a horizontal rocket launching pad. The trains whooshed through in a blazing white and blue striped line and had me trying to anticipate the impossible digital camera capture.

Hamamatsu is known for it’s centuries old traditional Japanese kite festival during the Golden Week and Children’s Day festivities of early May. The festival dates back four hundred years and features some of the most elegant and beautifully crafted large kites in all of Japan. They are like flying ‘shoji’ screens masterfully crafted from bamboo and Japanese paper. Each prefecture or township in Hamamatsu sends teams of kite flyers to the festival. Kites are sponsored by citizens who have a new born son or grandson during the previous year. The sponsoring family name is put on the corner of the kite from the prefecture. If the kite does well during the afternoon of kite battles, the boy will also do well in life. And if the kite is taken down in the chaotic tangle of ropes and tugging teams…well, too bad.

Thousands participate in this seasoned kite battle dressed in traditional kite flying garb, hapi coat emblazoned with the team emblem, wrap around trousers, two toed snap on shoes, head band and team color gloves. Support groups of banner teams parade around the field with groups of horn players belting out a tune that starts to engrain itself on the brain. Parties go on into the nights as well with parades and pagoda-like wheeled carts festooned with lights and seated children clanging cymbals inside. It is a wild scene. Even my second time there brings me to a sensory overload of this culture’s facility for celebration and community spirit.

We were given a tour of the Hamamatsu Kite Museum as well that features the history of the festival and a grand display hall of an array of prefecture kites with traditional red, white and blue graphic emblems and designs. The displays show sounds and sights of the festival and video screens showing the lively action on the field of the kite battles.

The day ended earlier than we wanted as an overcast day started to drizzle and rain on the kite teams. Some of the kites were pulled in with soaked paper hanging from the frames. We darted between the team tents with saki parties going on inside. A moment later we were on the bullet train again for the hour and a half zip back to Tokyo and to our homeward flights.

As always, my visit to Japan has me wanting more. The flavor of the country is one of graciousness, color, courtesy and artful celebrationism. I never realized that my small foray into the world of Japanese kites many years ago would introduce me to so many friends, such a rich culture, giving me a deep appreciation and love for this country. “Domo Arigato Gozaimas”…thank you!...for my passion for making kites and a life in the wind.

Hamamatsu kite team flyers

Mrs. Sato at her home tea ceremony room

kids making sled kites at a Fujisaki elementary school

I gloried in total immersion into cherry blossom time!

the 'Peel' parafoil fan team

an inflatable crab by Peter Lynn flown in Uchinada

two new 'Flying Man' kites I made for the Japan kite festivals

For more pictures and descriptions of the kite trip to Japan go to the slide show.

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