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Flying Kite on Special Days

2019.02.01

In the Japanese traditional song about New Year’s Day, the first activity mentioned is “Tako-age” Kite Flying, followed by “Koma” top spinning, “Hanetsuki” Japanese badminton, and “Temari” ball game.  All these are activities that all generations of family members can enjoy, but kite flying is the most popular, enjoyed by adults as a lifelong hobby around the world.

Kite Flying High in the Clear Sky

A genius craftsman in China invented kites around the 5th Century BC.  The historical records describe that they were used for measuring distances, testing the wind, forecasting weather, lifting men and goods, and signalling for military operations. a Buddhist monk brought it to Japan during the Nara period (710 – 794 AC), and it was initially used mainly for religious rituals, as well as some practical applications.

The word “Shien” appears in a Japanese dictionary compiled in the early 10th century.  Shien means kite (as in a bird) made of papers, and it seems that kites in the past were made to imitate high flying birds.  Although shapes have been simplified in Japan for ease of production and practicalities, kites in China are still crafted to look like flying animals, such as birds, butterflies, dragonflies, and dragons.

… and to Octopus, But Still People’s Favourite

They are called Tako (= octopus) and used to be also called Ika (= squid) in Japan, because of the long tails attached at the bottom to stabilise.  But according to expert opinion, these tails should be unnecessary, as well-made kites balance themselves without any additional parts.

There are about 130 types of kites in Japan; different shapes, features, sounds, and other characteristics defined mainly by the regions.  During the peaceful Edo Period, amateur and professional artists made many beautiful kites with drawings of legendary characters, often in the colourful and bold Ukiyoe style.  Hexagonal kite from Sanjo, Niigata Prefecture, is famous for its stability in the air.  It is now a very popular shape and made in many different materials around the world.

Challenge to Construct and Fly the Largest Kite

Flying a huge kite has always been a challenge for makers.  Some festivals are specifically for flying giant kites.  One of the record sizes is over 300 square metres.  More than 100 people gather to fly these types of kites, and sometimes people had to wait until the wind died down as it was impossible to bring it down safely otherwise.

The festival at Edogawa River in Tokyo started in 1841.  A Buddhist monk called Joshin flew a kite to tell a fortune on the silk production of the coming season.  (Silk was occasionally used to make kites, as well as paper.)  If the kite flies high, the silk price would be high.  It caught the imagination of silk producers, and they started flying kites themselves.  It became more an annual event, and kites became bigger and bigger. The current festival kite boasts 800 kilograms, with a length of 15 metres, and a width of 11 metres.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are miniature kites, a few millimetres in length and width, usually made by retired people, just using straw and tissue paper to fly them near the fireplace.

Flying for Luck, Fun, and Sport, with Everyday Ingredients

Apart from New Year’s Day, Children’s Day in May is another typical day to fly kites.  The higher they fly the better luck you (or the newborn child) will have.  People in their “unlucky year” (Yakudoshi) would try and shoot the kite with a letter “Devil” written on, to wish to overcome the troubles that may occur during the coming year.  High flying kites have always been a sign of good luck, and it is a very satisfying thing to do.

There are many stories related to kites in literature:  A castaway Samurai made a large kite and used it to send his son back to the mainland, or a famous thief tied himself up to a large kite to steal a rooftop ornament from a castle.  These imaginative anecdotes show that kites were a widely accessible everyday item.  In fact, in Japan, they are made with just three things:  wafer-thin paper (washi), bamboo sticks and strings, all of which you could find in many households.  It needs precision to be able to fly well.  It is a technical challenge that anyone can start without any special tools.  And it can, of course, be decorated freely with bright colours.

The product of the technical challenge for practical purposes in China has grown to be a favourite pastime activity in Japan.  Having a kite of your own, using all the skill, craft and art one possesses, flying it high in the blue sky of the New Year – all these things feel good, and are just what some people need for a new beginning.

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