Japan 1 May - 12 June

Fierce fighting

Shirone 7 - 12 June

In Shirone a fundamental difference between the useage of kites in Japan and western countries became evident: while most western kitemakers I know make a kite with great care and carefullnes for a long life in the air, the Shirone kitemakers make a kite with great care and carefullnes for a life in the air that is as short as possible and for the kite to be destroyed as soon as possible. The flying time of a Shirone kite is only a couple of minutes, sometimes less, before it crashes into the river and the beautifully painted washi is dissolved and washed away. I can still not understand this!

Shirone was the only place I could not go by train. It is situated som 10 km north of Sanjo along the Nakakokuchi river, which is part of the same river system that runs through Sanjo and Mitsuke.

A kite friend I had met in Weifang, mr. Hoshino, not only picked me up in Sanjo, but also introduced me to his team, Goro, and booked a Rijukan for me.

When we first arrived in Shirone mr. and mrs. Hoshino invited me for lunch in their home. After lunch a parade with all the teams started: 14 teams each carrying one rolled up odako and 25 teams carrying their Rokkakus up and down the steets of Shirone to the bank of the river.

The giant kite battle festival in Shirone has been an annual event since the 18th century. The giant kite, odako, is a rectangular kite measuring about 5 x 7.5 meters. The bamboo frame consist of five horisontal spars of split bamboo, these spars getting softer towards the bottom. There are five vertical spars with the outer ones a little bit more soft. Without the verticals spars the odako can be rolled up and easily transported. This odako lacks the usual diagonal spars, which makes it very flexible in the wind; you can see the bottom corners bend in the wind. The frame is covered with hundreds of sheets of washi that are glued together. Each kite is beautifully painted with the symbol for the team, either Ukiyoe styled pictures of warriors or Kabuki characters or legendary faces.

Like in Mitsuke the battle is across the river, and as the river runs in north-south direction the best battle conditions is when there is a good northern breeze. A special area, between two bridges, is designated for the battle. Here the river makes a small curve so the western side is shorter than the eastern side. In the program it says that the battle takes place on the bank of the river, but actually it is on the crest of the protection walls that are built along the river. This means that the area is very limited since the crest of the wall is rather narrow, approximately 3 meters. So the launching and fighting area is only a 3 meter wide path that runs slightly curved in south-north direction.

In order to make a battle possible the odakos launched from the east bank should fly a bit awry to the west, over the river, and vice versa. To achieve this the kites on the two sides are differently bridled, and they also have a piece of log attached at the back. This log has two purposes:

  1. The flying rope is tied here, and when the tug war starts this is a crucial point.
  2. As the log is tied either to the left or to the right of the kite spine it gives a displacement of the centre of gravity, which makes the kite inclined to go either rightwards or leftwards.
The whole idea of the battle is to get the lines of two odakos firmly crossed, usually by one odako diving over another odakos line. Both odakos end up in the river and float down to a point where the teams start a tug of war, and in this tug of war citizens on both side can join in. Nowadays the tug of war is time limited to 2 x 2 minutes. If a team manages to tear off the line to the other kite, the lenght of the captured line is measured, and in the end of the festival the winner is the team that as captured most line.

During the five day festival there was a good northern wind only during two hours the last day. When the wind is too soft or has a wrong direction there is no battle at all. If the wind direction is fairly good but the wind is soft the teams will have to run all the time too keep the kite in the air. Here a good timing is required between the teams of the both sides: Since the river is curved the west side bank is shorter than the east side bank. Usually a team in the west side waits till an east side kite has been launched and is air borne before they launch their kite. Since the kite is bridled to make a turn in the air you have only one chance to cross another kite's line! A successful dive is rewarded with an applause from the audience. However, many odakos crash in the river or on the bank withou having caught another line.

With a strong eastern or western wind it can be dangerous to be a spectator: Instead of flying over the river the kites fly over the bank, and though the teams are experienced, sometimes the odako makes an unexpected turn and crashes among the spectators.

The first days I partly spent with the Goro team. The wind was never really good, so a lot of running was required. I can assure it is heavy to run up an odako with a 12 kg camera backpack on your back. Three launches within an hour made me completely exhausted, but the teams kept trying the whole day.

At 18.00 hrs the fighting stopped and the teams carried damaged odakos back to the home base for repair, where also the next day kites were prepared. All odakos were sponsored by some company, so the logo of this company must be applied to the sail. Each odako team had prepaired about 20 odakos for the festival.

Then followed a dinner party with the team in mr. Hoshino's garage with the now well-known ingredients: food, beer and saké.

I was told that my Rijukan closed the doors at 21.00 hrs, which felt a bit prematurely. The Rijukan was 2 km from the city centre, and really out in nowhere land. It turned out that I was the only guest there. Mrs. Hoshino lent me a bicycle so I could move around on my own. One morning, before the daily battle started at 13.00 hrs, I visited the big kite museum; a very nice museum with a lot of kites, a work shop and also a wind tunnel where you can test a kite.

There were two Swedish kites on display: Johan Hallins swan feather kite and a typical Swedish non-flying diamond kite. I think Johan's kite deserved a better position.

One evening on my way back to the Rijukan I passed a team that was dancing a traditional dance on the street. I stopped to look, and within minutes the team members had dragged me in to join the dance. This dance was a bit more complicated than the one in Yokaichi, and I never came to master it. Nevertheless the team invited me for drinks and food and drinks. I took a chance with the Rijukan closing time and stayed on. This team, Itchiwa, persuaded me to put on their happi coat and asked me to join them the next day. In the spur of the moment of I said yes, which was maybe a mistake.

That night the distance for the front wheel of the bicycle was 50% longer than for the back wheel going to the Rijukan. It was still open, by the way.

The next day was a day in off-beat. Apart from the hangover I felt bad about having changed the Goro happi coat to a Itchiwa happi coat, so after having participated in one launch trial with the Itchiwa team I took off their coat and remained civilan for the rest of the festival.

The morning of the last day I posted two parcels, weighing 8.5 kg, to Sweden to reduce the weight of my luggage and confirmed my return flight with Japan Airines to Qingdao.

This last day had the best wind, but I had to go back to Tokyo in the afternoon. By chance I met mr. Modegi on the river bank. He had come only for the day and we decided to leave on the same train. Ten minutes later I took a taxi to the Rijukan to pick up my luggage and continued to Tsubame-Sanjo for the Shinkansen express. Mr. Modegi showed up just in time so we could book seats together.

This my last night in Tokyo and Japan it rained heavily, and I think I caught a bit of a cold. Leaving Japan the next day I felt happy that I had epxperienced so much, met so many kite friends, been so well recieved in all places and also that I had kept my expenses within reasonable limits.

Odako challenge

Contact - but failed battle

Three odakos up

Tactical waiting

Succesful challenge

Both kites down in river

Gently down the river

Ready for tug war

... and PULL!!!

Cleaning up

Launching next odako

Team members run to launch

Shirone kite museum

Rokkaku battle

Rokkaku tug war

Hamamatsu 3 - 5 May

Kyoto 8 - 14 May

Tango 15 - 16 May

Yokaichi 24 - 28 May

Etchu Daimon 18 - 21 May

Sanjo 1 - 3 June

Mitsuke 4 June