Two Japanese Kites...

Much Copied And Adapted In The West

Here are diagrams of 2 Japanese kites - the Sode and the Rokkaku.The 'bones'

To really do justice to the entire world of traditional Japanese kites would take a larger website than this one!

Each different region in the country, called a Prefecture, tended to come up with it's own designs. This all happened during the Edo period from the early 1600s to the mid 1800s. The kites' names often refer to objects, folk heroes or creatures.

Besides the variety in decoration, it's amazing how unique kites from Japan are in terms of overall design. That is, the shape of the frame and sails.

Quaintly, the Japanese refer to the frame as the bones of the kite!

The big majority of them were, and in some cases still are, made from split bamboo for the spars and Washi paper for the sails.

Washi might just be paper, but this hand-made mulberry-based product it is very strong and ideal for kites - as long as you don't get it wet!

I'm just going to focus on a couple of designs which have been much copied or adapted in the West. You are likely to see at least one of these types at any large kite festival around the world!

Apart from these 2 designs, I wouldn't be surprised if other traditional Japanese kites have been copied too, from time to time.

Talking about copying, here's how you can make your very own Sode or Rokkaku. From hard-wood dowels and any light tape-able material such plastic...

Making The MBK Dowel Sode Kite is a handy e-book of printable step-by-step instructions. It's a PDF file download.

My Making The MBK Dowel Rokkaku Kite is a handy e-book of printable step-by-step instructions. It's a PDF file download. The PDF also contains plans for the huge Multi-Dowel Rokkaku.



The Sode Dako

The shape of the Sode Dako looks somewhat like a Japanese kimono laid flat. In fact, 'Sode' means 'sleeves of a Kimono'.

Like some other Japanese kites, and many other Asian designs too, this one lends itself to having a 'hummer' strung across the upper horizontal spar. The hummer makes musical noises when aloft in fresh breezes. This feature doesn't seem to have been copied in the West though.

Traditionally, Sodes were built and flown to celebrate the birth of a son, and to ensure his future happiness and health.

In general, the larger Japanese kites need more complex bridle lines. At the small end of the scale, I've seen a child's paper Sode with no bridle at all - just a hole over the vertical spar allowing the flying line to be tied on directly!

Larger Sodes would work well with a 4-point bridle, with 2 lines from each horizontal spar. This helps to relieve the stress at the center of the horizontal spars, in fresher winds.

Most of the biggest Sodes seem to have 6-point bridles. That is, lines run from the center and each tip of both horizontal spars. This gives even more rigidity, allowing for the use of even lighter spars than would otherwise be possible. More rigidity also helps the kite to cope with stronger winds.

The modern Sode in the photo over there is by Janneke Groen, who is well known for her artistic Sode kites. She specializes in appliqué and patchwork techniques. Janneke, who comes from The Netherlands has been putting her eye-catching flying works of art on show at kite festivals since the 1990s. It was at one of these festivals that Roy Reed took the picture over there.

Modern Japanese kites like this one usually employ fiberglass or carbon fiber rods for spars, and use rip-stop nylon for the sails. The 4 narrow tails on this particular design help to keep it stable. However, I suspect they are very much a part of the kite's artistic concept!

An interesting addition is the bracing of the upper horizontal spar which I presume is there to improve the flying characteristics of the kite. That's the line going out from the nose to the tips. With a bit of ingenuity I guess it could be made to double as a pair of hummers! Tuned to 2 different notes perhaps...

Being a decent sized kite, Janneke has chosen to go with the full 6-point bridle. The bridle lines are clearly visible in the photo, and the bridle appears to be very long. Usually, with this kind of bridle, the 2 groups of three lines reduce to just 2 lines before being connected to the flying line itself.

We have instructions for making a Sode. There's the MBK Dowel Sode in flight, in the video.

Making The MBK Dowel Sode Kite is a handy e-book of printable step-by-step instructions. It's a PDF file download.


The Sanjo Rokkaku

A big white Rokkaku with birds posing in the background.Photo courtesy of Jeff Attaway

This design is so named because it originated in the region of Sanjo. It's more commonly referred to as the Rokkaku. Many non-Japanese abbreviate the name even further to just 'Rok'. The interesting thing about this design is how popular it has become in the West. There's an example of a non-traditional Rok up there in the photo.

The traditional Japanese kites were actually fighters, where people would try to knock each other out of the air by various devious means. Kite battles with the Rokkaku are still organized from time to time, all over the world.. In the West, versions of this kite are constructed with more modern materials, and when organized battles take place, the rules are different.

When it comes to bridling, there are some similarities to the Sode. Bridle lines are attached to various points along each horizontal spar. A common arrangement on these Japanese kites is the 4-point bridle which just has 2 lines on each horizontal spar.

Traditional Japanese kites have a very different look to the artwork on this large Rokkaku.
Traditional Japanese kites have a very different look to the artwork on this large Rokkaku.

The next step up would be the 6-point bridle as used on the big Sodes. In the case of the largest Roks flying in fresh wind, an extra line may even be attached to the vertical spar, at the very center. This prevents the vertical spar from bending under extreme air pressure.

Some commercially available kites have names. Like the one in the picture on the left, the LoonDance. How's that for an elaborate design! This modern Rok is screen-printed by hand, which still takes some time due to the number of colors. Other larger designs by this same company are hand-painted, which would add even more hours. Not to mention $s!

At about 1.5 meters tall (60 inches), this is a medium sized Rok. Thanks to Boreal Kites, of, for permission to show that photo.

The materials are not exactly run-of-the-mill. The sail fabric is 3/4 oz. Contender Nylite, which I presume is a specialty nylon cloth, while the spars are spiral-wound epoxy tubing. Sounds exotic! According to the makers, this Rok likes winds of around 10 kph (6 mph), but can be adjusted to fly in much stronger breezes.

The photo shows a standard 4-point bridle being used.

There's our own home-made MBK Dowel Rokkaku in flight, in the video.

My Making The MBK Dowel Rokkaku Kite is a handy e-book of printable step-by-step instructions. It's a PDF file download. The PDF also contains plans for the huge Multi-Dowel Rokkaku.

Japanese Kites Museum

If you would like a real insight into the world of traditional Japanese kites, perhaps the ultimate experience would be to visit the Kite Museum in Tokyo!

Although there are only 3 rooms in the museum, they are crammed with approximately 3000 kites. These cover virtually every region of Japan. Apparently, the aroma of bamboo fills the air in this small but remarkable museum. Mmm, can't say my bamboo skewer spars smell like much, but then they are probably processed to death...

It's possible to buy Japanese kites from the museum. They have small and relatively inexpensive souvenir kites made from bamboo and paper. However, if you have money to burn, you could splash out on something bigger and even more exquisite, made by master craftsmen!

The museum is a 10-minute walk from the Yaesu central exit of the Tokyo station (Japan Railways), or a 1-minute walk from the C5 exit of the Nihonbashi subway station. The museum's address is:

Taimeiken Restaurant (5th Floor),
1-12-10 Nihonbashi, Chuoh-ku, Tokyo 103-0027

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Wind Speeds

Light Air
1-5 km/h
1-3 mph
1-3 knots
Beaufort 1

Light breeze
6–11 km/h
4–7 mph
4–6 knots
Beaufort 2

Gentle ...
12–19 km/h
8–12 mph
7–10 knots
Beaufort 3

Moderate ...
20–28 km/h
13–18 mph
11–16 knots
Beaufort 4

Fresh ...
29–38 km/h
19–24 mph
17–21 knots
Beaufort 5

Strong ...
39–49 km/h
25–31 mph
22–27 knots
Beaufort 6

High Wind
50-61 km/h
32-38 mph
28-33 knots
Beaufort 7

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