• Photography: Cameron Allan Mckean

Lost without a string | Hamamatsu Kite Fighting 2

, 2015/06/30

Paper kites are floating in the sky, their light bamboo frames trailed by hundreds of meters of unspooling hemp rope. Although they’re far off, you can still see the symbols that have been painted on the paper surface of each one — images of fox-nosed pigs, mythical creatures, geometric kanji characters or hiragana letters —representing a distinct geographical area of Hamamatsu’s sprawling city. This May there will be 174 teams participating in the city’s kite-fighting festival, set aloft by the strong Enshu no Kazu wind. Flying together, they almost look like whimsical decorations, a constellation of vibrant colours and shapes bobbing in the wind — but what you are seeing is a war of coded symbols. The pig-fox kite that has wrapped its rope around the kite painted with a slash of white? That’s Tsunayama warring with Tokiwa, a neighboring district. “There are ropes everywhere, kites everywhere in the sky,” says Noritada Nihashi, recalling the days when he was a kite-fighter. To be successful, “you need to get your kite really high and really far away as quickly as possible — that’s most important,” he says. “But it’s hard work, you need three really good kite flyers working in rotation to get it up fast.” He should know; Ohashi was the leader of the Tokiwa district’s kite team for two years — but that was more than two decades ago. Now he contributes to the festival by dyeing light cotton towels, known as tenugui, with the insignia of each warring team. The festival involves an ever-expanding contingent of participants, from kite-flyers and kite-makers, to craftspeople who fashion hemp ropes, festival coats (happi) and tenugui, which Ohashi makes. Each tradition is part of the festival’s ecology, with unique histories of their own. In the days before World War II, when few had private baths, tenugui were typically used to dry off after using the public baths but, at the festival, tenugui are used to indicate the district you are affiliated with through the symbols dyed into the cotton. We follow Nihashi through a maze of grimy machines in his factory. “Our family has run this place since 1927. I’m the third generation to work here,” he says. And it’s here that he — along with his 11 workers — dyes the symbols of kite-fighting districts onto cotton using a technique known as chusen, which allows the towel to be dyed on both sides. “We do 30 percent of the tenugui in the festival,” he says, a number that equates to tens of thousands of individual towels. “It’s hard to make the festival appealing to tourists because we are all more excited about participating in it — actually flying the kites — than doing this as a show,” he says, staring up at hundreds of symbols printed on freshly dyed towels, drying in the sun.

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