I've been lucky enough to visit Japan more than a dozen times since my first trip in 1989, but it's been over twenty years since I experienced the organized chaos of Hamamatsu. On that first trip, with Dorothea Checkley, we attended five festivals in 7 days: Sagara, Fujisaki, Hirosaki, and Hamamatsu, along with the JKA annual festival. I still have vivid memories of the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of Hamamatsu and was excited by the prospect of attending the festival again this year.
Large flying boat at the JKA Festival
Husband and wife team at the JKA Festival
The prelude to Hamamatsu was the Japan Kite Assn. (JKA) festival held for the 22nd year in Uchinada. Appropriately, the only foreign guests were American and Korean in this area of Japan that had been a staging area for military troops during the Korean War. It is a source of great pride for the people of Uchinada that the beach area has been reclaimed as a recreational center for kite-surfing, wind-surfing, kite-flying and sports. The JKA meeting reflected current economic conditions as many familiar faces were not in the crowd. Other commitments, the price of travel, and less support from the city all were factors. Of course, there were wonderful kites from every part of Japan and there was heavy participation by area schools, which fielded kite-flying teams with kite trains, Shirone-style kites and others.
Travelling to Hamamatsu and arriving well into the evening, the five Americans (Dave Gomberg, Al Sparling, Mike Agner, and Jim Martin, and I) were squired to one of the many neighborhood parties held throughout the city. You have to understand that this was after the 2nd full day of three, in which teams fly kites, parade their shrines, and then pull their shrines all the way back to their neighborhood. You might think that festival participants would be wearing down, but, now the party starts! Food of every kind was served in the street; sushi, edamame, yakitori, fruit, and of course sake and beer. It was on this night that I was introduced to a canned Shoju drink. I've always avoided shoju, as it's like a heavier sort of sake, but these canned drinks were a little like a Squirt and the first one wasn't bad at all. Don't ask about the second...
Kites flying at Hamamatsu
So as the next day arrived, we were off to the Kite Museum and kite festival. The kite museum in Hamamatsu is wonderful, but I must admit that all of our interest was in getting out to the field. The most illustrative display in the museum shows the evolution of the giant shrines that are now as big a part of the festival as the kites. These started out as simple carts used to transport the large kites to the kite field. Through the centuries, they became more and more ornate and their original function was forgotten. They are now highly adorned, heavy wooden structures carrying lanterns and traditional musicians in an elaborate parade through the city streets.
And then there is the kite flying! 20 years ago I was struck by the assault on every one of my senses as kites were launched and retrieved, bands played constantly, food and drink were served all around the field, and dust lingered everywhere. About the only change is that there is much more grass on the field, now, and so the clouds of dust that I recall were not present. But the chaos, that's still everywhere. There are close to 100 neighborhoods represented on the kite field, so space comes at a premium (I'd estimate that the field is @ 300 M by 500 M, surrounded by neighborhood's tents). Teams are very orderly when arranging their reel, kite line and kite. When all is ready they launch into a sky filled with machijirushi, neighborhood kites. Kites are made and flown to honor children born in the last year, and these children are present on the field. Carried by a parent, they end up in the middle of great knots of hapi-coated friends, flags, buglers, and drummers.
Kite launch at Hamamatsu
The kite flying is intense, and is a team activity. "Runners" pull kite line rapidly in to gain altitude, then the hemp line is fed out from large reels that are managed by at least three people. Fast-moving line is fed through a pulley or around a bamboo pole to keep from burning hands. While the kite team flies, drummers drum, buglers blare, and friends chant and cheer. The point to make here is that everyone in the neighborhood is included. While the kite fighting is intense, it is amazing to see the cooperation on the field - much like trucks and bicycles in Beijing, where only enough room necessary is given, so it is on the kite field. It's impossible to capture the intensity of the event with pictures, but I've included a few that might give a taste.
It's my impression that the kite tradition in Hamamatsu is not only safe, but is growing in cultural importance. The dedication of so many people of every age and both genders makes it clear that this is a city that will continue to embrace kites. Remarkably, the celebration hasn't seemed to gain worldwide notice. I saw fewer foreigners this year than I had twenty years ago. Was this just by chance or another result of fewer tourist dollars? I doesn't really matter, because this is a festival by the people and for the people of Hamamatsu.