On the last Sunday in January we traveled from Misawa to just north of Hirosaki to see the 32nd Annual Tsugaru Large Kite Flying Tournament (津軽大凧を揚げる大会―tsugaru daitako wo ageru taikai). Just a two hour drive from Misawa, the Tsugaru Region in Western Aomori Prefecture is famous for giant, whirring tako (凧) ― a compound kanji character made from the simpler kanji for wind and cloth. Kites enjoy a rich history in Japan, dating back to at least the Nara period (649-794 AD) when they were introduced from China. While the first kites were bird shaped and similar to Chinese designs, Japanase artisans quickly distinguished their trade, finding innovative uses for kites like carrying men and building materials. One 12th century tale tells of the warrior Minamoto-no-Tametomo whose son escaped exile on an island using a giant kite. During the Edo period, 1603-1867, when foreign influence was minimal, most of the 130 different styles of kite known today were developed. Those interested in further reading please visit: http://www.kiteman.co.uk/JAPANESE%20HISTORY4.html
The tako or kites at the Tsugaru festival are rectangular with height between 6 and 15 feet, a size that could easily have lifted an adult American male. Artwork featured characters and animals reminiscent of the summertime Nebuta festivals in Hirosaki, Aomori, and Goshogowara (cities in the Tsugaru area). The canvas is typically traditional Japanese washi paper with old writings on the reverse ― one of which, funny enough, sported ancient Korean writing. Wood frames provide support to the painted section of kite, which is bent into an airfoil shape (think of an airplane wing or sail). The final touch, unique to Tsugaru kites, is a 4 inch flap of Japanese paper strung across the airfoil at the top ― producing a loud reverberating sound. What with the traditional Japanese music, helicopter-like whirring of the kites, and the soothing sound of wind whipping clouds and kite alike into acrobatic maneuvers, there was enough sustenance for the ears.
For those gastronomic connoisseurs, local sake and delectable pork stew were on offer for free. The sake was ceremoniously cracked from traditional casks by the visiting VIPs with small hammers during the opening ceremony. The warm libation was a welcome respite from the dull ache creeping up our tibia from the 2 foot snow pack under our feet.The pork stew (豚汁 buta jiru) was served piping hot, as well, and ingested next to a fifty-gallon drum fireplace graciously stoked by local farmers.
Fifty clubs competed for prizes in four classes, based on size. Grading criteria included artwork, flight duration, how long they could stay in one place in the sky, and the quality of the sound they make while airborne. The contestants' ages ran the gamut from infant to infirm― the snowmobile driver, packing snow for ease of running, was easily 80.
In the end, we left before the late, A-class kites were sent aloft. But the experience of kites in winter with warm Japanese food, sake, and hospitality were well worth the two and half hours in freezing temperatures.
If you are interested in this or other kite festivals in Japan, please visit the following website listing other similar and completely different festivals throughout the archipelago: http://www.tako.gr.jp/eng/events_e/events_e.html Two of these festivals, held in Niigata prefecture and Hamamatsu in June, feature fighting kites, which readers of The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini will not want to miss. Another festival of note in the local area is the Aomori National Kite Tournament held in early March along the dry riverbed of Iwakigawa in Goshogawara.
To get to Fujisaki, site of the Tsugaru festival, follow Route 8 north from Misawa and follow signs for the Michinoku toll road (みちのく有料道路) towards Aomori. Follow the Tohoku expressway through Aomori towards Hirosaki and take the Namioka exit. Follow route 101 west and turn left onto Route 7 south. Follow Route 7 for about 7 miles. The sign for the festival will be on you r right. For those with GPS use 40.675642,140.512988. The website for the event is : http://www.aptinet.jp/Detail_display_00002087.html
To get to Goshogowara's March festival follow the same directions continuing on Route 101 west past Route 7 to Goshogowara. Once in Goshogowara, the 101 will cross a large river, the festival takes place along this river. So follow the roads down to the river next to the bridge. The event took place on Mar 12 2009, but it is difficult to find
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