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An Englishman in Japan - “Let’s go fly a kite.”

By: Chris Wilson

Date Posted: 2002-01-10

Irreverent thoughts about living in the “land of the rising sun”

In a modern country that revels in miniaturization, mini discs, micro cars and unfeasibly small cell phones reign supreme. However, the more traditional side of Japan appears to have a love for things a little larger. Sumo wrestlers, castles, torii gates, mountains and koi (carp) all seem to be valued on a bigger-is-better system. Surprisingly the same system is also used for Japanese kites. Whereas kite flying in England tends to be done by the young on a blustery day in the park, in Japan it is a chance for a team of men to build a huge fighting machine. The behemoth kite then gets sent up into the sky to battle with other aerial monsters in what is best described as a heavenly bar fight.

The kites are made of a bamboo frame covered in paper and then painted with samurai faces, lucky symbols and, somewhat remarkably, with sake logos. The medium-sized ones could easily drape over two cars parked side-by-side, and the largest ones would probably appear as blips on the radar of Japanese air traffic control. In the small rural town I visited, kites are taken once a year to either side of the local river, where teams of five to 30 men grab the thick towropes. Then with shouts, grunts and whistles blowing, the men hurl the kites into the air and begin running frantically along the riverbank. Five or six kites are launched at the same time, and the frenzied runners then try to steer them into each other. The last kite flying is declared the victor. The kites had incredibly short life expectancies for things that probably took days, if not weeks or months, to build. Some quickly gained altitude before rotating 180 degrees and then crashing back down into the river or onto the heads of hapless runners or spectators. Other kites, due to congested riverbanks or unfit runners, never reached soaring speed and instead stalled and similarly crashed back to earth. The “lucky” ones that managed to stay up long enough to meet mid air got their ropes tangled and, not surprisingly, collided into one another. The entwined kites then plummeted together to join the other less successful kites lying in pieces on the grass or river surface. I am pretty sure that no kite ever got to defend its title, as even the victorious drifted off downstream along with the rest of the floating debris.

Fortunately, the teams didn’t seem overly concerned about who won or lost, and afterwards all the competitors and spectators (some with kite-induced minor head injuries) headed for the local izakaya. There everyone got down to the more serious business of eating raw sea critters and having drinking competitions until someone either collapsed or came up with a new design for next year’s kite.

Chris Wilson Profile

Chris Wilson was born in Manchester, England, and left his country six years ago. He has been living in Canada and Peru before coming to Japan. He lived in Hokkaido before living in Okinawa and writes his thoughts on living in Japan and adapting to the Japanese culture. He enjoys diving and outdoor leisure.

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