A happy cacophony of bugles and drums greeted us as we approached the walking trail to Nakatajima Dunes where the annual Hamamatsu Kite Festival is held.
Neighborhood troops dressed in matching happi coats marched happily through the woods, into the park, across the bridge and towards the expansive main festival field.
Some kite teams were already having trouble with shifting winds at the entrance to the field, as the neighborhood bugle corps with their drums and banners marched around the lake. One group had already tangled with a ravenous kite-eating tree.
This team employed various methods to free the kite from the tree’s twiggy clutches. They climbed the branches, shook the kite, pulled on the lines and tried to lift the kite up out of the tree with a special pole made just for this purpose. They finally succeeded in retrieving their kite and the tree simply had to go hungry. I guess you could say that it lost its lunch. The team carried their kite back to the main field to launch it once more.
The festival was in full swing when we arrived at the field. Teams of kite flyers trundled huge spools of kite rope back and forth across the field, following the shifting winds and attempting to avoid tangled lines.
After a few moments in the field, I realized why no one else was out there taking photos. The kite teams moved fast and you had to learn to anticipate taut ropes, falling kites and quick kite launches. Good peripheral vision proved to be a life-saver! Several times, I noticed a rope slicing towards my head out of the corner of my eye. I ducked under just in time.The weather was perfect for flying and before long the sky was filled with huge rectangular bamboo and washi paper kites. Each team had their own tent where they stored supplies and repaired their kites. Before the launching of each team’s kite, a rowdy and jovial ceremony had to take place.
A young neighborhood boy is chosen every year, with his mother and father, to launch the inaugural kite. The couple with their baby are lifted high amid bugles, drums and chanting as the community celebrates new life and gets ready to launch the kite in honor of the child. This custom recalls the origins of the Kite Festival when the Lord of Hamamatsu castle had kites flown to celebrate the birth of his first son. This was also the beginning of the Boy’s Day (now Children’s Day) Celebration that is held every May in Japan. Koi-nobori, or fish-shaped wind socks are flown from the rooftops on the first weekend of May.
Sometimes the child would be lifted up and encouraged to grasp the line while the huge kite was already dancing in the sky. Care is taken not to let the string hurt the boy’s hands as the wind pulls hard on the kite. This boy looks a bit dubious and soberly considers this opportunity.
Spectators stood around the edges of the field watching the teams launch their kites and then bring them down. Some kites flew all day and landed unscathed. Others tangled, severing each others’ lines, and crashed spectacularly just outside the field. Some kites simply had a horrible, no-good, very bad day.
The skill and synchronous movement of the Hamamatsu Kites was truly impressive. Everyone knew their job and would step in at the right moment to launch the kite, or reel in the line, or pull hard to keep the kite from colliding with its neighbor. On this field, kite flying was definitely an aerobic exercise.
The kite handlers would often wrap the line behind their backs to add some friction and give them more leverage when hauling in the rope. They protected their hands with goatskin gloves, long sleeves and close-fitting long pants. The shoes that they wore were traditional jikatabi, split-toe work shoes which are very supple and help to grip the ground. The headbands and scarves keep the sun out of their eyes and soak up stinging sweat.
Of course, not everyone was dressing for a vigorous kite-flying experience. Many of the young women had elaborate, hair-sprayed salon up-do’s. Some had sprayed their hair with glitter and many had applied layers of makeup. The young men wore a wide range of colors and styles, but almost everyone, (men, women and children), wore some kind of short, belted happi coat. This festival was definitely a fashion event and everyone dressed in their best.
Things were quieter at the ocean. Children played at the shoreline while tired kite flyers plunked themselves down on the dunes to dig their toes into the sand and rest. Some brought their picnic lunches to the beach and enjoyed a respite from the crowds.
Here, away from the bustle of the giant kite-flyers, troops of children launched their smaller kites into the air with just as much pomp and ceremony. These little flyers were already honing their skills as they learned to deftly control the rectangular kites. One little kite-handler in particular was the picture of concentration as the team brought their kite in for a perfect landing.
Once the kite was safely down, they all gathered around to admire their signatures and wishes. “I want to become an actor.” “I wish to be good at jazz dancing.” “I would like to become a professional baseball player!” The names and aspirations of these young flyers had been flown high in the sky and they were all so proud of having contributed to the successful launch of a beautiful kite.
Surrounding the main field were colorful vending booths of all kinds selling food, candy and toys. Like any festival, there were plenty of fried things on sticks, many of them made out of rice. There was even a booth selling cotton candy.
One very colorful booth was selling plastic masks which are popular with kids of all ages. Even high schoolers enjoy wearing these character masks, although they typically wear them on the backs of their heads.
At the end of the day, the kites were brought down out of the sky, repairs were made and everyone packed up to go home. What a perfect day!
This was the first time that I had experienced the Hamamatsu Kite Festival. My husband was born in Japan and spent the first two years of his life in Hamamatsu, but doesn’t seem to remember much about Hamamatsu as a two year old. He grew up in a nearby city and he remembers coming back to Hamamatsu to enjoy the kite festival when he was a bit older.
By the end of the day, everyone was tired… and a few were a little bit cranky… but we had all had a wonderful time.
It was hard to leave, but I know that we will be back again next year. We wouldn’t miss it for the world.
Nice article and very good photos. I didn’t know about the kite festival, I believe almost every festival in Japan that I know involves fireworks, paper boats, or sake drinking. This one seems very fine for an outing with the family, the kids surely eager to get involved in some way or the other, at least that’s how I’d feel, kite flying was such a fun activity at a young age! And the guys in Japan appear to have graduated into.. er, bigger things!