LOS ANGELES — He’s jolly, brings joy to children around the world, and is busiest in December.
But in lieu of a red coat, he wears a happi coat and sports a “hachimaki” headband where Santa’s hat would be. If there is a strong wind, he doesn’t need magic reindeer to fly. Edo kite master Mikio Toki prefers to keep his feet on the ground.
Toki is one of Japan’s few living experts at making, flying and painting traditional Tokyo-style kites dating back to the Edo Period (1603-1863).
Throughout December, Toki is busy working on kites for New Year’s. The rest of the year he travels the world teaching children to make their own Edo kites.
“December to February is kite season in Tokyo,” says Toki, 60, an energetic Tokyo native with a ready smile.
He remembers flying kites in the capital back in the 1950s, when there was more open space. These days the kiting in Tokyo is not as good because “wind diverted around buildings is unpredictable.”
“The best place to fly is the beach, because the wind blows straight,” he advises.
Kites are a popular New Year’s decoration because their ability to take to the skies is associated with success and good luck, Toki explains. For 2011, the Year of the Rabbit, he has made a design based on a traditional bamboo toy called the “tondari hanetari.”
Starting in mid-October, Toki secludes himself in his Chiba Prefecture workshop to create New Year’s kites. He splits bamboo and paints designs on strong mulberry paper.
These pieces of art bear no resemblance to Toki’s first attempt, made when he was 10 years old using pieces of bamboo split from an old broom handle.
“It never got off the ground,” he chuckles.
Toki was in his 20s when he got really interested in kites. At 25, after a brief stint at a design school in Tokyo, he found himself working at a children’s center where he taught traditional toy-making.
“When I was a kid, we didn’t have TV, so the older kids taught me a lot of things, like how to use a knife and play traditional games,” Toki says. “These games were handed down over the years, and as we learned them, we changed them slightly and expanded our world of play.
“All of that changed. . . . So I want the kids to know about the old games, too. And kites are a part of that.”
During his time at the children’s center, Toki met the late Katsuhisa Ota, a professional kite maker. While learning kite construction from Ota, Toki started to observe a famous third-generation kite maker, Teizo Hashimoto (1904-1991), who specialized in painting intricate, symbolic designs on decorative kites.
The two of them inspired Toki to study kite making seriously, including the Japanese legends behind the traditional designs. But even as he gained the skill to create kites up to 6 meters tall that can sell for ¥800,000, he never stopped working with kids.
In addition to giving workshops around Japan, Toki has flown his creations at kite festivals and conducted workshops in 16 countries, including Israel, Thailand, England, and Trinidad and Tobago.
In 1999, he helped children on the Russian island of Sakhalin to fly their very first kites.
“It’s cold there, so there are really only a couple weeks of summer and that’s when we went,” he recalls. “When we asked, they said there weren’t any kites in Russia. They didn’t even have a word for ‘kite.’ So seeing, making and flying kites for the first time in their lives, they were really excited.”
The Japan America Society of Southern California has been organizing the Annual Japan America Kite Festival and kite workshops with Toki for children in Los Angeles.
Last year, on his ninth visit, Toki taught 689 students to make kites at eight schools and after-school programs. Kentwood Elementary School was one of those schools.
Afterward, they had the thrill of sending them aloft.
“This is a wonderful learning experience . . . both culturally and from the perspective of art and learning the mechanics of kite-making,” principal Jean Pennicooke said as 60 fifth-grade students lined up awaiting Toki’s instruction.
Leaving this memory with kids around the world is Toki’s goal for his workshops.
“If they think to themselves someday, ‘I remember that old guy from Japan came and taught us to make kites,’ and they start to appreciate kites, that’s all.”
Perhaps, he says, “if they end up liking them, then maybe they will take up the craft themselves one day.”