Drachen Foundation Newsletter: February 2009

Recollections of Japanese Kite Battles

Some of the most interesting objects in my collection of kite ephemera are the Japanese postcards produced in the early 20th Century. Most were produced by companies that licensed the image worldwide. They are labeled “carte postale”, or “post card”, or in one case, “union postale universelle” and usually, “made in Japan” is indicated as well. Many show the sights of early 20th Century Japan; Fuji, the Emperor’s residence, cherry blossoms, and scenes from everyday life. 

But many seem to have been produced to encourage tourism or at least an appreciation of Japanese culture. These show the special events and festivals that make Japan so remarkable. These are the cards that have captured the magic of several of the great kite battles: Nagasaki, Hammamatsu, and Shirone.

It has been 20 years since I visited Hammamatsu and saw, first hand, the kite battles there. It was my first trip to Japan and I probably have a romanticized recollection, but Hammamatsu was a feast for all the senses. The noise, the color, the dust, the potential for bodily injury, the kites! All contributed to one of my most memorable kite experiences. This is a place for action: babies hoisted up into the middle of a team to celebrate his or her birth in the previous year, full bands playing “fight songs”, teenaged boys sprinting with kite lines to gain strategic advantage, old men quietly supervising the bridling of new kites, and dozens of kites flying, seemingly serenely, in the stiff breeze.

On the other hand, I look at the historic post cards depicting the kite fighting at Kasagashira Hill in Nagasaki. This is an area that is now overgrown with housing and a bustling neighborhood. There is still a tiny park at the top of the hill that commemorates the kite flying tradition here, but it is a place for one or two to quietly fly kites, not for the crowds of flyers and picnic-ers shown 100 years ago. Nagasaki still celebrates its kite fighting tradition and flying the hata today must be very much like it was; a basket with flying line, a portion of flying line coated with roughly ground glass, and the elegant two-stick hata, all used together to defeat an aerial opponent. But this formal competition seems to be a far cry from what we see in the old cards.

From what I see in the early post cards, the kite fighting festival least changed may well be the one in Shirone and Ajikata. Here is another example of environment driving the development of a kite and its use. In this rural area of Western Japan, a sizable river (at least by Western US standards) runs between the agricultural towns of Shirone and Ajikata. The kite battles used the only land available for the recreation; the tops of the levees protecting both towns. 

So, while there may be modernization all around, on the tops of the two levees, not much has changed. Flying the giant kites still has to be done along the banks of the river; the large kites have to be arranged at the downwind end of the levee so they can be launched up into the prevailing wind. Teams have to lay out flying line, manage the kite launch, and then fly their kite without disrupting the efforts of other teams on the levee. There is a wonderful ballet of movement along the levee-top; groups of men sprinting to launch a giant, ropes snapping into the air, whistles and shouts to manage the kite’s flight, and, finally engaging the opposite side’s kite by looping your own over the line.

The kites are little changed, too. They are paraded through each town with accompanying bands, politicos, and sponsors. The largest are rolled for the parades and carried on flatbed trucks – too tall to squeeze under telephone lines and too heavy for all but the largest groups to carry. Kite groups gather each evening for “fellowship” - that means lots of food, sake and beer – and to thank the sponsors that pay for the kites.

It’s interesting to see the Shirone giant kites fly. They are structurally ‘soft’, in that their bridles dictate their final flying form. One corner is left slightly less supported by the bridle and this causes the kite to turn toward the opposite bank when really pulled. It’s this characteristic that allows the teams on opposite sides of the river to overfly and then dive and catch the other’s kite. Both kites have an extension of the flying rope that comes right through the sail and is attached to a large piece of wood, secured behind the kite frame. This beefy piece of wood ensures that the two kites will not become disentangled when kite teams from both sides pull the lines tight, crush the kites, and begin the cross-river tug-of-war. It’s this tug-of-war that determines the winner of each individual kite battle. Everything up to this point has been preparation.

Most teams use hand-made hemp rope for their flying lines (and tug-of-war rope). Made in a time-consuming traditional way in which eleven strands of hemp are braided into each of three parts of the rope, the rope-maker’s job starts the day after the festival to provide new rope for the next year. When stretched tight over the river, with hundreds of “pullers” on each side, the line finally breaks and is claimed by the other side. It’s this lost line that determines the winner for the week; the team that has claimed the most line from its winning tug-of-wars is the year’s winner.

The Shirone festival occurs in early June, so is more accessible than the many that occur during Golden week (early May) when travel in Japan is not easy. Near the city of Niigata, Shirone is a small town, so some Japanese language skill is helpful but not necessary. Niigata can be reached by train from any city in Japan and flights from Tokyo and Osaka are convenient. Travel from Niigata to Shirone is best done by a hired car (our hotel had one) or taxi, both expensive but well worth it. Bus service is infrequent but can work if you’re patient. The Shirone Kite Museum, founded by Kazuo Tamura is a must-see and there is usually someone on staff who speaks English. Also check the “Niigata Guide” on the web, with its links to the festival.

-Scott Skinner


Building Wind / Kite Wind Power Symposium 2010

After the success of our first Kite Sailing Symposium in 2006 (click here to read more), Drachen looks to hosting the second and more expanded kite symposium to cover the topics of Kite Wind Power.

At this point we are targeting the year 2010, and would like to hear from our readership whether it you would be interested in attending the symposium in mid October.  A two and a half day seminar, we will issue a formal call for papers/presentations in May 09’. 

The site, Seattle, Washington...

Dave Lang, Scott Skinner, Joe Hadzicki (Chairs)

Send us your preliminary rsvp, and comments to info@drachen.org!


New Products

Kono Flies Again

With the call for kites in the classroom, and working various educational workshops, Greg Kono continues to work with Drachen to design kites for teachers and organizations that fit their flying needs, both in matching school curriculums and budget.

We are happy to announce new designs, Chinese Emperor, Catfish, the Cobra, Jellyfish, Octopus, and paper Rokkaku. These kits all come with everything you need to take flight, (you add the labor, scissors and tape)

If you want to make a longer lasting kite, use the bond paper sail we give you as a pattern for a better grade of paper or light weight plastic. Experiment!

New Kono Kite Kits:
Chinese Emperor

New Yoshizumi Kit    

With the interest and demand of the book and movie Kite Runner, many have asked us to help them with fighter kites. We worked with Nobuhiko Yoshizumi and Bruce Lambert to develop the first user/flyer friendly fighter kite. The materials are Japanese paper and bamboo, just what you need to start your passion in the world of fighter kites.

Yoshizumi Fighter Kite Kit

Publications: Long awaited!

A specialized “how to” kite book by William Farber and Jara Krivanek, of Australia graphically imparts their craft and knowledge of stunning appliqué designs on translucent fabrics. This book, Painting with Light and Air, brings to your door, over 20 years of experience in designing and making award winning kites and fabric designs. It covers the principles of design, development and assembly of appliqué panels in ripstop nylon, sewing technology and techniques---hints on repairing errors! Secrets learned over the years from designing and stitching artwork, and a step by step approach to two different kites, a rokkaku and a WEFpanel.

Unavailable through bookstores, Drachen has ordered copies to make them available on this side of the water!

Full color, 97 pages.
Price: $35.00 each


No Gift is Too Big or Too Small

It is the thought, not the size or the amount. An anonymous American kite icon called our office to asked, “Would you folks take US postage stamps as a donation?” Our office fielded the call and asked me if we would take them. They explained to me the stamps are still good for the monetary amount printed on them, (some were issued 20 years ago), and although they are not today’s amount for first class mail, they can be used as stamps; their value still remains as printed. The donor explained that she tried to sell them as collector’s value, but there is no collector’s value, so many of these stamp editions are circulating, that there isn’t an elevated value for the un-cancelled stamps.  The problem, is taking the time to calculate and position the right amounts, then “licking” and affixing the stamps on a package for mailing. 

More effort, but they are good and worth real monetary mailing amounts.

“Of course we will take them; it will save us money on our mailing budget.”

The box of stamps arrived. It was several bricks in weight. 

We opened the box, and found the value of the contents, $3,200.00---covering the cost of our postal budget for three years.  What a wonderful gift. 

We thank you for thinking of us and a welcome to those donors in our future.

- Ali Fujino


The Way We Were

Another year has slipped away and memories of Y2K have become distant as the first decade of the 21st Century has almost passed. As we mark this moment, I want to take a look back at how we in the kite world have progressed to this exciting time; kite surfing a mainstream sport, resurgence of kite cultures throughout Southeast Asia, talk of “mega-kite-shows,” and real possibilities of significant kite power on land and water.

For most of us baby-boomers, we were influenced by an “old guard” of kiteflyers, a group predominately from the WWII-era “greatest generation.” Can you imagine the raised eyebrows of their peers, when in the 1950’s or 1960’s these pioneers went out to fly kites? Here in the US, we remember Domina Jalbert, Francis Rogallo, Paul Garber and other national figures, but there was a whole cadre of kite people who influenced me and my contemporaries. I’d like to offer some remembrances of people who had serious influence on my kite life, and ask that you take a moment to remember others who might have guided you.

Dave Checkley

My first international trip for the specific purpose of flying and seeing kites was with Dave in 1988. I had been involved with kites for over ten years by then, but had very little hands-on knowledge of ethnic kites. The trip to China changed everything! Dave led kite excursions to Japan and China for many years throughout the 1970s and 1980s and introduced countless people to the magic of Asia and its kite traditions. On that trip in 1988, among others, there was a “retired” actress, Gloria Stuart, who had traveled with Checkley to Japan in the mid-70s. Gloria became famous again when she was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in “Titanic,” but she had carried on a love affair with kites since before WWII! Checkley was an active member in the fledgling early years of the AKA, virtually hosting the annual convention at his Seattle home in 1982. Sadly for the American kiting family, Dave passed in early 1989 while planning another trip to Japan.

Margaret Gregor

When I started flying kites in the mid-1970s, I hardly thought I’d ever have to make my own. There were just so many options available - Sky Zoo kites, Vertical Visuals, White Bird kites, the Nantucket Kiteman – why would I ever have to make a kite for myself? That question was answered in 1984 when I attended my first AKA annual Convention. Now my eyes were open to all the kite makers who were making their own creations, far away from prying eyes. I met peers, like Rick Kinnaird and his mythical BST, Doug Hagaman with his Giant Red Parafoil and Scott Spencer, master of the snowflake. But I also met many of that greatest generation; Bob Ingraham, Tony Cyphert, Ed Grauel, and others. Somewhere along the way I met a very retiring lady, Margaret Gregor, whose Kites for Everyone contained concise building information and flawless designs for a variety of kites. Margaret used input from many of the “old guard” kite makers (Len Conover and Ed Grauel) but also introduced us to the likes of Lee Toy, and Steve Sutton, both who would have a profound effect on American kiting (Count the Sutton Flowforms at any major kite festival, or ask any kite artist who first pushed him toward art kites). Margaret was a bridge from the kiting’s older generation to today’s kite maker and workshop presenter. Her efficient uses of materials and foolproof designs are still the standard for elementary kite education.

Betty Street and bill lockhart

It’s not fair, but I can never speak about just Betty, or just bill; it’s always bill and Betty, together, a team! With ten years of the Junction, Texas, kite retreat, they raised the bar on kite education, inviting local and international artists to inspire and conspire to greatness. As art educators, their emphasis was upon creativity and originality and they were (and still are)respected mentors for all of us who call them friend. Betty and bill’s influence is still being felt. They were active travelers in the late 1970s and early 1980s and documented kite festivals with photographs and collected kites. Both have donated their kite collections, their slides and photographs, and their kite libraries to the Drachen Foundation so they can remain accessible to the active kite community.  Finally, they also leave a wonderful legacy of their own beautiful kites, patchwork masterpieces that I was instantly drawn to back at my second AKA Convention in 1985. Here was someone else using patchwork techniques and ideas that I had no idea existed! How lucky for me that they became such good friends and trusted advisors.

I hope these ramblings have inspired you to think about those who might have had a pivotal influence upon your “kite-life.” The Drachen Foundation is interested in first-hand reminiscences for future publication in its, “Discourse: From the End of the Line.

- Scott Skinner