If someone in Zama, Kanagawa Prefecture, tells you to go fly a kite, don’t be hurt. They are probably just inviting you to the Odako Matsuri or Giant Kite Festival! And with hundreds of years of history, 13-meter paper and bamboo kites, and a bonfire using said kite as the finale, you’ll be glad you were invited.

The Odako Matsuri is held every year on May 4th and 5th as part of local Children’s Day celebrations. The roots of the event go back to the Bunsei Period (1804-1830), when flying kites was a popular family activity for May 5th. Over time, the kites grew larger, requiring more people to fly them, and as the region developed, there were fewer and fewer open spaces available to fly them in. Eventually, the banks of the Sagami River naturally became the place kite flyers gathered and the festival grew up around them.

▼ The participants of the 1915 Odako Matsuri

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The festival includes lots of live music and entertainment, a rummage sale, children’s sumo bouts, lots of firetrucks for kids to play on, and of course, kites.

We attended on the second day, and likely due to cool, cloudy weather, the grounds were not crowded at all. There was a stiff breeze though, so we had high hopes for kite flying.

▼Carp streamers and high-flying kites mark the fairgrounds.


The first events we saw were local school groups and Boy Scout troops trying to get their medium-sized kites in the air. This involves several of them holding the kite, which is around 1-2 meters on each side, at a good angle to catch the wind, while a bunch of other kids run with the long rope attached to get it into the air. This is actually much harder than it looks because the paper and bamboo kites can be quite fragile, but also fairly sharp if they fall back and hit anyone. There was lots of cheering and support from the crowd as the kids did their best.

▼ Bringing the kite onto the field


▼ Getting ready to runScreen Shot 2014-05-07 at 4.51.20 PM

▼ And it’s airborne! For about 20 seconds, anyway.  Screen Shot 2014-05-07 at 4.50.04 PM

▼Another team gets their kite flying pretty high.


Although this is an event to honor kids, the main event is clearly the flying of the giant kite, which only trained adults can participate in. And no wonder: the 13m² kite has a pulling force of one ton! Constructed out of bamboo strips about 8-10cm in diameter and covered with special handmade paper sheets, the kite takes about two months to build and requires about 100 people to fly.

Each year, the kite is painted with the same two characters, shou (祥) or “auspicious” in red to represent the sun and fuu (風) or “wind” in black to represent the earth.

As the preparations to get the giant kite in the air began, everyone gathered around the field. It is quite difficult and dangerous to work with a kite this big and fragile. An impressive 47 ropes of differing lengths attach to the frame and are joined to a single thick rope. The kite has to be shifted and turned to catch the ever-changing wind in just the right way and just the right moment, and if the people carrying the frame don’t do it correctly, it may fall back and crush them or it could suddenly fly up and fling them into the air. The people pulling the rope also have to start running together at just the right time. There is a lot of shouting on bullhorns.

▼ Preparations underway


▼The end of the rope is anchored with a construction crane IMG_5763

Finally, they see a chance and attempt to get the kite in the air.

▼At first it looks good, the kite begins rising into the air…

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▼ Then, disaster! The kite tips sideways and crashes into the ground!

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The crowd literally cries out in despair. This communal striving towards flight is incredibly endearing. We wait patiently while experts examine the frame and determine if the kite can still be flown. This takes about 15 minutes, but finally word comes over the loud speakers that although some of the braces have been broken, they think the kite may fly, so they are going to give it one more go. This will be the last chance until next year.

Due to the damage, it is too dangerous for people to position the frame manually, so the kite is propped up using bamboo struts. The people on the rope wait for just the right wind speed and direction and then take off running with the rope. For one brief, beautiful moment the giant kite gets airborne, and then it snaps in half.

▼ It’s up!

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▼… and it’s down.

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This being Japan, the crowd quickly gets over its disappointment and gives everyone involved a hearty round of applause for their efforts. The staff start deconstructing the kite to get it ready for the bonfire, but it begins to rain, so most of the crowd turns toward home.

A few determined fans, or perhaps friends of the staff, stick around to see the debilitated kite go up in smoke, but the mood isn’t really melancholy. Everyone is already talking about plans for next year.

▼ What kid doesn’t love firetrucks?


▼Some handmade toys for sale IMG_5769

▼ Small traditional kites for sale. Each year, the city chooses different characters for them. This year was you (陽) meaning sun and shun (駿) meaning a good horse, since this is the year of horse and they want to kites to gallop through the sky.  IMG_5737

▼ The local mascot decorating a trash truck


▼ Himawari shochu, booze made with local sunflowers, for sale IMG_5768

▼ Video from the previous day, when they did get the giant kite up

Source: RocketNews24
Images: Zama City (top, historical), RocketNews24