Traditions that date back hundreds or thousands of years ago are important to every culture around the world. These traditions connect people to their ancestors as well as remind them of their heritage. Some traditions include festivals, rituals, and even games. In Japan, there are several traditional games that both adults and children play on special occasions. One of these traditional games is called takoage.
Takoage: Translation and Meaning of the Word
The Japanese word “takoage” can simply be translated to “kite flying.” As the name suggests, it is a traditional activity that consists of people flying kites. In Japan, kite flying is among the traditional activities that people partake in every New Year’s. Prior to the invention of video games, kite flying was one of the highly anticipated activities of children during New Year’s. After the introduction of video games, less and less children participate in these kite flying activities but this does not make takoage any less fun.
Despite its decreasing popularity among children, kites are still being sold in toy stores and convenience stores around December. Flying kites at the beginning of the year is also a favorite activity among Japanese families. While kite flying is not exactly popular around the world, it is quite so in Japan.
According to the secretary general of the Japan Kite Association, Masami Fukuoka, the popularity of kite flying began in the late Edo period, which was from the year 1603 to the year 1868. At the time, people were only allowed to fly kites during New Year’s by the Tokugawa shogun. As it was a rare occasion, people naturally looked forward to kite flying at the start of another year.
The reason behind the restriction was due to the kites falling over time. Because kites were very popular at the time, people played with kites frequently. They would even participate in kite battles. However, some of these kites would fall on aristocrats and lords who were traveling, which angered them. As a result, kite flying was only allowed on that special time of the year when traffic would not be as heavy.
Today, kites are seen as toys played for entertainment. However, they were actually invented in China not less than 2,000 years ago for military purposes. Kites were flown as a means of measuring the distance from their opponents on the battlefield. Furthermore, they would also attach whistles to the kites so as to confuse or frighten the enemies.
At present, kite flying is seen as a great sport in Japan. In fact, there are even several kite festivals that the locals hold during spring season every year. These festivals would be held in the months of April, May, and June. During kite battles, the main goal is always to cut down the kites of one’s opponents. Players incorporate several strategies to emerge the winner of kite battles.
In Nagasaki, kite festivals are typically held in the months of April and May. Teams composed of as many as 20 players battled against each other in the open field. Colossal kites are flown with sizes reaching up to 25 feet by 30 feet. On the other hand, the kite festival in Hamamatsu located in Shizuoka Prefecture is celebrated from the 3rd to the 5th of May every year. This festival is held on the beach.
The kite festival in Hamamatsu was said to have begun in the 16th century. At the time, a certain lord flew a huge kite in celebration of the birth of his son. Today, this festival is one of the biggest events to happen in the western portion of Shizuoka Prefecture. During the festival, people fly more than a thousand kites to celebrate the event. One may also witness parades of floats amounting to 50 at night.
Another kite festival occurs in Shirone located in Niigata Prefecture. Held in the middle of June, opposing teams participate in kite battles on opposite banks of the Nakanokuchi River. This tradition apparently originated 300 years ago when a giant kite crashed into an adjacent village by accident.
Introducing Hamamatsu’s Takoage-Gassen in Japan
The city of Hamamatsu is known as a place for kite flying. When the weather starts to warm up following the spring season, it serves as a sign of the nearing kite festival. A flat plain, Hamamatsu consists of mountains and beaches, which let the city experience strong winds. As a result, the city of Hamamatsu is quite ideal for kite flying. The city is famous for its annual kite festival known as the Takoage-Gassen. Held on the 3rd to the 5th of May, this kite festival is the biggest one of its kind in all of Japan.
The Takoage-Gassen originated in the 16th century when the lord of Hamamatsu Castle received good news. To celebrate the birth of his son, his heir, the lord decided to fly a giant kite into the sky. This tradition carried on to this day, with locals flying kites for every baby born in the city. This custom became known as hatsudako. On the third day of the festival, it is customary for the locals to fly streamers shaped like carps known as koinobori. This is to pray for a bright future for the babies of Hamamatsu.
The reason that the streamers are shaped like carps is their symbol. Carps typically swim along waterfalls in an upward motion. This action is seen as a symbol of going up in one’s career path. The streamers are also displayed elaborately, looking like they are flying on wooden poles. The poles can get as high as 10 meters. A custom is also flying a kite that contains the name of the child.
At the sound of trumpets, more than 160 giant kites are flown in the sky during the Takoage-Gassen. Held in Nakatajima Sand Dunes, one of the three biggest sand dunes in the country, this kite flying event paints a pretty picture. Kites of vibrant colors and various design fly in the sky, overlooking the Enshunada Sea. The whole image truly provides a picturesque view.
The same spot is also famous for providing a beautiful view of the sunrise during New Year’s. It is common for the place to be filled with tons of people who want to witness such a beautiful scenery. The Takoage-Gassen serves as the symbol of the beginning of summer in Japan. The kites used in the festival are usually 3.5 meters by 3.5 meters in size. Aside from displays, some of these kites are also designed for kite battles.
The sound of the trumpet signifies the beginning of the battle. The goal of the game is to cut the strings of other kites through friction. The friction shall cause the strings to burn, which excite onlookers of the kite battle. There are several techniques that kite flyers use in order to catch the strings of their opponent’s kite.
The fun does not end with the kite battle. The festivities continue until late at night. Located in the center of the city, guests can witness around 100 floats that look like palaces. A parade of these floats is also highly anticipated by the locals. The floats carry bands of three-stringed lutes and flutes. The parade also serves as a welcome greeting to the young people who participated in the kite battle.
Several forms of entertainment are prepared and organized in the different parts of the city to the delight of locals and guests. This includes the Act City located in front of Hamamatsu Station. If one is traveling to Japan in the month of May, visiting the city of Hamamatsu and participating in the 3-day event is highly recommended.
Things to Do in the Kite-Flying Festival
The Hamamatsu Festival is held annually in celebration of the newly born babies in the city. Together, the local pray for the babies’ good health and bright future. While most festivals in Japan are correlated to a religion, shrine, or temple, the Hamamatsu Festival does not have any associations with any spiritual structures. This huge festival is only made possible by the strong participation of the citizens of Japan.
There are a number of activities that can be done during this big event. The first thing to do is to gather up in Nakatajima and watch the Hatsu Tako, also known as the First Kite, fly high into the sky. This kite is flown to celebrate the newborn babies. In the evening, the locals get to watch the elaborate performances of decorative floats called Goten Yatai. Held in the middle of the city, these performances feature Ohayashi music, which are produced by the local children. Truly, these performances liven up the city of Hamamatsu.
With the participation of more than 170 neighborhoods, floats in grand designs fill the streets of Hamamatsu. Each neighborhood has its own Goten Yatai float, kite symbol, and design on jackets known as Happi. Due to the strong winds that the city experiences because of its geographic location, Hamamatsu is an ideal place for kite flying. Up to this day, this tradition continues to live on in the city of Hamamatsu.
Of course, the most obvious thing to do is to watch the Takoage-Gassen, also known as the Kite Battle. This battle takes three days, which is the length of the festival. The battle is held at the Nakatajima Kite Venue. Battling kites by the ocean, the strong winds are ideal for the kite battle. Seeing the different colors of kits flying through the wind is truly something to behold.
The Hamamatsu Festival is considered a 3-day holiday in Japan. From the 3rd to the 5th of May, children and adults alike are free to go to the city of Hamamatsu and celebrate the festivities in the area. However, in case there is rain during the scheduled festival, it would sadly have to be canceled. The Tako-age Gassen starts at 10 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon.
As for the parade of Goten Yatai floats, it begins at 6:30 in the evening and ends at 9 in the evening. Aside from these two main events, there are also small-scale events happening throughout Hamamatsu. An example of this is a workshop close to the Hamamatsu Festival Museum. This workshop teaches guests on how to create mini kites.
Other Japanese Traditional Games for the New Year Celebration
While takoage is a traditional game played by the children of Japan during New Year’s, there are also other Japanese traditional games that people still participate in at recent times. One of the well-known traditional Japanese games that people play during the New Year’s is known as karuta. It is basically composed of people playing cards. A popular kind of karuta is known as uta-garuta. This consists of cards with poems written on them.
The gist of the game is that for every turn, a poem is read out loud. After which, players would have to get the card that has the matching verses meant for the poem. The player who gets the most number of cards that correspond to that poem wins the game. This card game originated from kai-awase, which can be traced back to the Heian period from the year 794 to the year 1185.
As for young girls, a Japanese traditional game that they play during New Year’s is called hanetsuki. Similar to badminton, hanetsuki consists of a paddle known as hagoita and a shuttlecock. The paddle is rectangular in shape and made of wood while the shuttlecock is of a vibrant color. Today, the popularity of the game has declined; however, the hagoita is still being used as a lucky charm.
The hagoita also typically features portraits of people embroidered in the paddle. At present, some hagoita are being used as decorative ornaments. Some people also collect different designs of hagoita due to its decorative value. Back in the day, hanetsuki was played by young girls wearing formal clothing.
Last but certainly not the least is a game called fuku warai. The game consists of players being blindfolded and organizing different parts of a human face. These parts include eyes, eyebrows, mouth, nose, and ears. The results of the game is often that of a weirdly arranged face, which makes it a funny image to look at.
This game became popular late in the Edo period (1603-1868), and people began playing it as a New Year's game during the Taisho era (1912-1926). Until around 1960, people, mostly children, played this game at home.