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.
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
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.
The Sanjo Rokkaku
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.
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 www.gothicdesign.ca,
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.
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