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  • Photography: Cameron Allan Mckean

A shape, falling into the sky | Hamamatsu Kite Fighting 1

, 2015/06/16

A tangled network of kite ropes is suspended in the air above a park along Hamamatsu’s coastline. The strong onshore breeze is picking up as crowds watch the overlapping hemp ropes — like lines extruded from a colossal asterisk — being pulled in different directions by opposing teams of kite-fighters. Each team forces their tangled rope against the others, rubbing it back and forth to try to burn through an opponent’s line with friction, sending one of the myriad enemy kites above crashing to the ground. The smell of burning hemp fibres fills the air as fighting intensifies, until finally, a rope breaks. Team leaders shout instructions and the tempo of the endlessly repeating trumpet blasts — the soundtrack to the festival — speeds up. High above, the kite whose line has been severed begins to sink, but a warm draft pushes it higher and it falls into the sky, passing through the square silhouettes of the surrounding kites and entering the jet stream, its square shape shrinking to a tiny dot before it disappears from view. “It was beautiful,” says 71-year-old kite-maker Tomiji Uchiyama in his Hamamatsu kite workshop, remembering the moment. But the festival below? “Chaos,” he says curtly, showing us a photo of himself at a kite fight in the 1980s where he’s leaning back on one leg, pulling a hemp rope as he tries to control an unseen kite. “It’s hard work, you do that for 10 minutes and you need to lie down,” he says. Uchiyama says that the festival here started more than 450 years ago, when a huge square kite was flown to celebrate the birth of Yoshihiro, the local lord’s firstborn boy. Although the festival is still used for hatsudako (flying kites to celebrate the birth of first-born babies), it has become something more knotty, violent and euphoric: an overcrowded, chaotic display of coded symbols, craftsmanship and a fiercely proud local community. Kite fighting binds Hamamatsu together, even as the city wages war with itself, and expands as the urban sprawl spreads further into the hinterland. Uchiyama’s steel-frame workshop is in that sprawl and, Around us, the walls are festooned with paper kites he has collected from all over Japan. “I started learning to make kites when I was 42,” he says, lifting up one he made. Light shines through its paper skin revealing a bamboo skeleton (“Shaving off those 3 mm strips of bamboo is the hardest part”) and he shows us how he ties together criss-crossing slivers of bamboo with hemp string; how he paints the bamboo frame with glue and attaches handmade paper to it; and how he paints his district’s insignia on the outside. For Uchiyama, this isn’t craft or tradition, it’s an obsession he has had since he was a 7-year-old: “When I would fall asleep, I could hear the sound of the festival’s trumpets, just running through my ears all the time.”

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