Japan 1 May - 12 June

Fierce fighting

Hamamatsu 2 - 5 May

The Hamamatsu Festival is a total, completely overhelming experience: Intense kite flying the entire day and intense partying the entire night! And this goes on for three days!

I had the privilege and the honour of being the guest of Mr. Heizo Itoh, President of Hamamatsu Kite Association and a well renowned maker of the Hamamatsu kite. Or, as Mr Suzuki, who helped me in my initial contacts, put it: "As Mr Itoh is the biggest man in the office if you have his guarantee, you will be able to attend kite fly/fight."

Mr. Itoh's kite, with the simple character for "Sky", always launches straight and flies very steady.

Mr. Itoh introduced me to his team, Yokoten, and lent me a team happi coat during the festival, so I could take part in all team activities both on and off the field. The team members, ranging from children to old veterans, both women and men, not only accepted me but made me feel very comfortable with them.

The Hamamatsu Festival is not only a Kite Fighting Festival, though the emphasis is on the kites: In the afternoons there a orchestras parading the streets and a lot of other cultural activities. The festival gets a sneaking start already on the evening of 2nd June, when some teams warm up by parading the streets with drum and horn orchestras and carrying lanterns. They parade in a sort of a quick-step march, measured shouting something like Eizoh - Eizoh or SoJu - SoJu, and occasionaly the team, like a swarm of bee, clump together back to center, in a joyful extatic crescendo.

The morning of 3rd June did not look too promising: It was raining heavily, and there was no wind. At first Mr. Itoh and I stayed in his mini van, sipping saké, but after a while he took me to the Kite museum nearby. This museum concentrates on the Hamamatsu traditions with Hamamatsu kites, line making, team outfits and carriages. The line that all teams use is of the same type: hand made from linen (flax) with a diameter of 5 mm. The cost is 20 USD per meter! And the teams have up to 2000 m. of line on the line drum. This year 167 teams were participating in the kite festival; each team having from 50 to several hundreds of members.

The team members are dressed in a traditional Japanese dress, Haragakei, which has the following parts:

  • Setta - Calf high shoes, which are made of cloth and have a rubber sole. The big toe is separate, and this of course requires a special sock: Jikatabi
  • Jikatabi - The sock for Setta. It can have either all toes separated or only the big toe.
  • Patti - The trousers, where the part around the bottom is not one piece but two: left side and right side that wrapover round the bottom.
  • Obi - A kind of waistcoat or rather a waist-short apron with big pockets.
  • Pappi - A coat or a jacket with the symbol of the team on the back.
  • Teko - Wrist protection.
  • Hatimaki - A piece of cloth that is usually twisted and tied around the head.
The dress is made of cotton, usually dark blue but there are also colours like light blue, black, brown and pink.

Many of the teams also have their own drum and horn orchestra, mostly with children on the instruments.

Just before 11 o'clock the weather cleared up and the grand opening ceremony was held: A few short speeches, a cannon shot and a bee swarm clump of teams with their standards.

The kite field, specially built for the festival, is some 150 x 500 m. big and it was soaking wet, but it dried up surprisingly fast, due to the clever use of sand in the ground. The wind was still very weak, so only a few teams managed to get their kites air borne, and there was no real fighting this first day. It was job enough to keep the kite in the air. To do this the teams use a certain technique: They let a lot of line out and let the kite almost touch the ground. Now the line is put in a big, heavy pulley, with the line coming out of the pulley in an angle. Now a number of the team members line up on the this side of the pulley and then run round in circle, taking the line for a short time and pulling it during a few steps. Thus several people continously pull the line, and this gives a good, steady rise of the kite.

At the kite field I met some other Swedes, a group of five from an advertising bureau. They were on a mission to take pictures for a book on kites, and their client was a major Swedish paper manufactoring company which had decided that this years "Year book" should be about kites. A very admirable decision!

The kite flying ended at 15.00, and mr. Itoh took me to a dinner party close to the kite field with some of his (non kiting) friends. We sat outdoors on upside down crates under a tarpaulin and had snacks like skewers and dried octopus (which by the way also is Japanese name for kite: tako) and, of course, a lot of beer.

Leaving this party we went downtown and joined some of the veteran team members on a car park where they had a party. More snacks, more beer and now also a big glass of hot saké. At dusk we moved on to the parade streets to watch the carriages.

This carriages were earlier on made to carry the kites to and fro the kite field, but they have developed to some kind of a status symbol for the team. A carriage is approximately 1.5 m. wide, 4 m. long and 4 - 5 m. high, and enormously richly decorated. The whole carriage is made of hand carved wood and the wealth of detail is very impressive: fully three-dimensional figures such as dragons and lions and warriors from wellknown stories. Inside the carriage there is a little flute and drum orchestra; children playing a short tune over and over again. It is said that the cost of one carriage is about 10.000.000 USD ("More than 10 Rolls Royce" as mr. Suzuki put it).

The carriage is pulled by team meambers, some of them holding paper lanters with a candle inside. There are also lanterns hanging on the carriage itself, but these have electric bulbs which get the power from a small power generator built in into the carriage. On the roof top is the watch man, who looks out for low road signs, traffic lights and power or telephone cables crossing the street. If there is a problem he light a red lamp.

To sit on the street side and see these wonders pass by in both directions, sometimes simultaneously, with the orchestras playing, is an incredible experience. And is seems endless!

When the Yokoten carriage passed by I left my watching position and joined the parade, sometimes pulling the rope, sometimes just walking along sipping from a glas of saké that never seemed to become empty. When we reached the home base of the team, the head quarters, the carriage was put in a garage and the team started the night's "Eizoh" jogging, visting some houses, eating and drinking.

The next day was a spendid day, warm and sunny, but unfortunately still not very much wind. In the morning I paid for last night, wishing I could have had some KoreanHe Chang Ku, looking in vane for my sun glasses. By noon, as the wind picked up, my body had recovered and I could enjoy the spectacle: the field becoming filled with teams, orchestras playing to the right and to the left, kites beeing launched, the stands filled with people, the innumerable booths selling snacks and drinks, the teams working hard to keep their kite in the air, and the sky getting more and more filled with kites.

The wind was still not very strong, so most of the energy was spent on getting the kite up in the air and make it stay there. The wind was not suffient for fighting; when this happend it was mostly by coincidence.

The kite fighting as such is a continous "everybody against everybody"-battle. There is no winner declared at the end of the festival, every battle has it's winner and losers. The objective is to bring an other kite down or to cut the line of another kite. To bring another kite down can be achieved by e.g. having your kite high up in the air, let go of the line so that the line is slacking and try to get the weight of the kite line on the leading edge of another kite and bring it out of balance. It is also possible to use the long tail for this.

To cut the line is more difficult: the lines have to be entangled, and when this happens the team usually try to untangle by running around, over or under the other line, quickly, and during fighting screams, pulling the trolley with the line. When this fails the team members try to cut the other line (or lines, because there can be many kites in a tangle) by "sawing" rytmically shouting "Eizoh - Eizoh" with a whistle giving the rythm. The teams work side by side, getting more and more excited, trying different tactics of lowering the kite or pulling it up high again. As long as the kite is still in the air the sawing continues. Suddenly a line breaks, but the other teams keep sawing. One by one the lines get worn out and when there is only one left this team cheers triumphantly and quickly pulls the kite high up in the sky again.

The Hamamatsu kite has a square shape with the bottom corners slightly rounded. The spine is prolonged to double the length of the kite, and a long tail of ropes is attached to the spine end. The kite is made in seven sizes ranging from 1.5 m. to 3.6 m (2 - 10 hanjou). The frame consist of a rather close grid where each second (for sizes 2 - 4 hanjou) or each third (for the sizes 5 - 10 hanjou) spar is slightly thicker. The material is of course bamboo and washi (the paper made by hand from the bark of mullberry tree). When fighting you can choose any size of kite, but you have to consider that the same line (5 mm.) is always used. I think the 3 hanjou (2.1 m.) was the most commonly used. Alas, a sky filled with Hamamatsu kites is really beautiful!

On the third and final day the wind was a bit stronger, so there were many kites in the sky (at times more than 60), but still not good enough for fierce fighting. The wind direction was still across the field, and since there were telephone wires alongside the field, the tangle frequently ended up just beneath the telephone lines with the kite lines "resting" on the telephone lines. But fighting was not the only task for a team: The teams had two types of kites, team kites and family kites. A family kite is a kite that has been ordered by a family to celebrate a newborn boy. These kites have in addition to the team symbol also symbols for the family. When a family kite is succesfully launched the parents of the boy are lifted up on team members shoulders together with the boy, and the fly the kite for a while, cheering. Especially on 5th May "The Boys Day" - Tango no Sekku this is important.

And in the evening, after the parade, when the team go on their "Eizoh jogging tour" (my term for a kind of a double quick where you shout "Eizoh" on count 1 and 2 but are silent on 3 and 4) you visit the homes of these families. Sometimes they have a lot of delicious snacks ready, like skewers, sushi and of course a lot of beer and saké. When the team first arrive at the family's house there is a short greeting ceremony, then a wooden barrel of saké is put out, and the lid of the barrel is smashed with a blow of a club. And the party isn't over till the barrel is dry! So you step up behind the barrel and emtpty a scoop while the crowd is cheering. In the end it is the father of the boy who finishes the barrel off by drinking directly from it.

And then you countinue to the next family and the next barrel...

Three or four families per night and three nights in a row. It's tough to be a kite flier!

My host Itoh-san

Team warming up

Team clumping together

Hamamatsu Kite Museum

Hamamatsu Kite Museum

Hamamatsu Kite Museum

Opening swarming

Veterans and novice ready

Wet kite field

Accidental skirmish

Reinforcing broken spar

Playing the kite

The line trolley with crew

After-kite with the veterans

Parade starting up

Carriage with roof watchmen

Carriage front decoration

Flute and drum orchestra

Another carriage

Yet another carriage

Carriage rounding street corner

And yet another carriage

Close up of carriage front

Carriage front

The Yokoten brightly illuminated carriage

Decorated front of Yokoten carriage

Battle over telephone lines

Sawing lines

Battle with big tangle

Team members line up and saw

Lost battle kites

A beautiful Hamamatsu kite sky

Side view of kite sky

Hamamatsu kite sky

Peaceful Hamamatsu kite sky

Dedicated team member

Pulling in line

Family Party

Family Party - team partying

Finishing a sake barrel

Final celebration with the boy

And off to next family

Itoh-san drinks to the next boy

Kyoto 8 - 14 May

Tango 15 - 16 May

Etchu Daimon 18 - 21 May

Yokaichi 24 - 28 May

Sanjo 1 - 3 June

Mitsuke 4 June

Shirone 7 - 12 June