story by Ashley Stepanek
Nobuhiko Yoshizumi knifes through a bamboo reed, shredding it into thinner and thinner and even thinner pieces. The reeds will become the framework of the kite he’s about to build. “I made my first kite without a teacher,” he recalls. “But the bamboo was too heavy, and it couldn’t fly.” He learned the hard way—and did he ever learn. Today Nobu is a master kite-maker, renowned around the globe and even in the Guinness Book of World Records for having built the world’s smallest flyable kite.
As he cuts the reed, Nobu is standing at a worktable at Maui’s Hui No‘eau Visual Art Center, a picture of poise and prowess. He’s here from Kyoto for a few days, to teach workshops on kite-making to both kids and adults; they’re not his first workshops in Hawai‘i and he hopes they won’t be his last. “Basically, Nobu is teaching people how to build kites for the very first time,” says Paul Mullowney, the center’s artistic director. “He also shows them how to paint the kite in the traditional way.”
Tradition, yes. Watch Nobu work and you see expertise coupled with the focus of a monk—and all born from a centuries-old body of knowledge. In the Edo period particularly (1603 to the late 1860s), kites were all the rage in Japan, even spawning the term tako kichi (“kite crazy”). Frenzy reached a pitch at regional festivals as kites got bigger and bigger, and all was soaring—until people started to get hurt by crashing kites, and government limitations on size emerged. But the style of decoration has remained the same, and it is from this aesthetic that Nobu—now one of the last traditional kite-makers in Japan—works. His kites, identifiable by their popular rectangle shape, have iconic faces from kabuki plays, along with helmeted musha-e warriors pitted against each other, swords clashing.
Images are drawn on handmade paper
with charcoal ink. Then colorful plant dyes are painted to animate the faces and create
luminosity. “They are beautiful when they fly through the sky,” says Nobu, smiling. “The sun comes through like stained glass.” HH