Floating Worlds: Tokyo’s Kite Museum

by Ben Davis

Beneath a plump body, its contours mapped by bold, black stripes, slender limbs extend from a central spine. Its red wings semi-outstretched, the cicada appears poised to take flight. It is joined by a gadfly and other insects from Nagoya while, in a nearby display, hawks, cranes, and a range of mythical creatures are gathered from various parts of Japan. Each one is presented with its underside exposed, revealing the ingenious bamboo frames that enable these paper kites to launch into the sky.

These handmade creations are among the hundreds of kites on display at the Kite Museum in downtown Nihonbashi. Founded in 1977 by Shingo Modegi, the late owner of Taimeiken restaurant and a dedicated kite enthusiast, the privately run museum provides a glimpse into the world of kite-flying in Japan. Now led by Modegi’s son, Masaaki, the museum centers on a vast collection of kites, from palm-sized masterpieces to expansive creations, and shines a light on their craftsmanship, traditions, and connections to regional culture.

The presence of kites in Japan is believed to date back as early as the 8th century. However, the modern name for kites, tako—which also means “octopus”—didn’t emerge until the Edo period (1603–1867), when flying kites became a popular form of entertainment among the merchant class in Edo (present-day Tokyo) and then the common people. Ukiyo-e prints from the era, created by masters including Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige, show paper kites—some with tentacle-like tails—flying gracefully over the landscape. From downtown Asakusa to the banks of the Sumida River and along the famed Tokaido road to Kyoto, these images show the kite-flying boom extending throughout the country. This era would come to influence generations of future kite makers.

One such artisan was Teizo Hashimoto, who was born into a family of Tokyo kite makers in the early 20th century. Helping the family business from an early age, Hashimoto crafted and hand-painted kites into his eighties, by which point he was one of the city’s last remaining artisans of his kind. His works—another highlight of the museum collection—reference various Edo-period designs, from warriors to auspicious symbols and highly stylized kanji characters. In contrast to the sculptural forms of kites such as Niigata’s tori-dako (bird kite) or Nagoya’s abu-dako (gadfly kite), many of Hashimoto’s works are painted on simple rectangular kites. Yet coming face-to-face with his larger-than-life depictions, one can’t help but be drawn in by the sheer power of his brushwork.

As the museum’s manager, Masami Fukuoka, explains, the upside-down presentation is for a simple reason: kite makers are always curious to inspect a kite’s structure. As he talks through the cicada’s craftsmanship, from the choice of bamboo to the geometry of the frame and the hand-dyed washi paper that adorns it, the true passion of the kite flyer is revealed. Each and every process that goes into a kite’s creation is undertaken in pursuit of a single goal: the desire to fly. Indeed, for every kite in the museum, there are countless others that have been lost to the elements, making the collection not only a cultural archive but a source of wisdom for the kite flyers of today and tomorrow as well.

Several days after my visit to the museum, it’s Children’s Day. At the centuries-old Hamamatsu Festival in Shizuoka Prefecture, families will fly hatsu-dako (the first kite) to celebrate the birth of a child, while koinobori (carp streamers) will be seen fluttering throughout the country. As I walk through my local park, a young boy hurtles past, one arm outstretched and a tiny hawk kite trailing behind. The hawk struggles but soon takes flight and, as the boy looks back, he is swept up in a moment of pure joy.

Ben Davis is a Tokyo-based editor and researcher who explores ideas surrounding craft and craftsmanship at thewhitepaper.net.