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Kyushu Balloon Festival Takes Off

January 21, 1999

The Kyushu skies grow colorful in late autumn each year. (Saga City)

In late November 1998, about 720,000 people from all over Japan and around the world gathered in the Kyushu city of Saga. They came to see the 1998 Saga International Balloon Fiesta, a hot air balloon competition held in the wide open skies above the plains of Saga Prefecture. The annual Fiesta is Saga's biggest event of the year, boasting the largest number of participants and observers of any ballooning competition outside the United States and Europe.

Home of the Hot Air Balloon
For more than a century, hot air balloons were the only form of aerial transportation available. It was in the 1960s, however, that ballooning caught on as a sport in Europe and America. The first balloon flight in Japan was carried out by a group of students in 1969; since then, the number of ballooning enthusiasts in Japan has grown to almost 5,000. Besides Saga, ballooning events are currently held throughout Japan, in such locations as Hokkaido and near Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture.

Saga is the most popular spot for ballooning in Japan, so much so that it is sometimes called the "home of the hot air balloon." Saga has hosted a Balloon Fiesta every year since 1980, but the event took off in 1984, when Saga hosted the Pacific Cup, an international competition. Saga has hosted the Hot Air Balloon World Championship twice, and since 1990 has hosted the Ladies World Cup, the only event in the world used to rank female balloon pilots. In 1998 the 15th Japanese National Championship was held in Saga--a town now known worldwide as a Mecca for hot air ballooning.

Harder Than It Looks
When most people think of balloon flights they picture a relaxed, carefree pastime, but in reality ballooning is harder than it appears. It is a tough sport that tests both mind and body, where pilots must read the winds in order to maneuver their balloons. Pilots are judged in many events by their ability to accurately steer their crafts, fly over a target on the ground, and drop a marker (a sandbag with a streamer attached) as close to the target as possible. Nineteen events are held in the Saga festival, including Pilot Declared Goal, where the pilot declares his or her goal before takeoff, and Fly In, where the pilot takes off from the site of his or her choice and aims for a pre-determined goal. The exact details of each event are decided on the day of the competition before flights begin, depending on weather and other factors.

1998 Championship Won by Local Pilot
Three competitions were held in the 1998 Fiesta, the most important of which was the Pacific Cup. A total of 79 teams participated, 57 of which were Japanese and 22 foreign. Yoshihiro Masumoto, a balloonist from Saga, won the championship this year--the first time a local pilot has accomplished this feat. His victory has boosted interest in the sport and the Fiesta, which has grown to become something of a festival for the people of the city of Saga, and indeed an important yearly event for the worldwide ballooning community.

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Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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