It was November when I moved to Japan, and my boss made my colleagues take me to the balloon festival, which turned out to be a very nice event. I arrived on the last day, so we only saw the night show, with the balloons’ flames on full blast, live music and a nice fireworks display at the end. This year the night mooring event will be on November 4th and 5th from 6:30pm to 7:15pm.
On the second year, I did get to see the beautiful balloons in action. The events start from 7am, so we got up bright and early to be there at 6, so that we could see them inflate and take off. It was absolutely freezing, but worth it, as the atmosphere was great. The very enthusiastic announcers would call each balloon and wish them a nice flight as they went up and out and the crowd would cheer for them. The sight of the balloons against the morning sky was pretty amazing!
This year, if you are planning to come, you are in luck, as the weather is actually still very nice in Kyushu. Also, it may happen that the balloons don’t go up or the schedule changes, due to the weather conditions. The grounds are next to the Kase River, which makes pictures even prettier, if you catch the balloons and their reflection on the water. The event is great for both visitors and people who can’t stay for very long. We got there at 6, sat on our cozy blankets on the grass, enjoyed the sunrise and watched a little bit of the first competition event. Then, it was time for some breakfast and off to work we went! The 2017 event runs from 1-5 November.
International Competitions and Fantasia balloons
Competitors from all over the world attend the event and, since everyone is here, we do it properly and combine lots of different activities for the duration of the fiesta. There are competitive events, like the key grab race held on the last day and the international competition comprising different tasks. There are also adorable-looking balloons, like animals or famous Japanese characters just for you to enjoy. The festival is free to attend and you can learn more about the programme, different events, pilots, balloons, judging process, or how the wind works here. As in any good Japanese event, there are also lots of delicious food and drinks stalls, as well as souvenirs.
During the competition events, we could see lots of changes in the wind direction and intensity, so some contestants were luckier than others and we were rooting for and suffering with the less fortunate ones. One of the tasks consisted of dropping a ribbon from way up high so that it would land as close to a certain point on the ground as possible. The first competitors of the day dropped their ribbon and it came down vertically, landing very close to the mark, whereas others saw their poor ribbons being blown away to a completely different place. Also, when the Australians got close to the dropping spot, there was absolutely no wind and they just got stuck over the audience. They took it with humour and were chatting to us and taking selfies. Sometimes you see a balloon approaching the dropping area and you think you can guess if they’ll do well or not, but the wind is tricky and sometimes things change faster than you can blink, which makes it more exciting to watch!
How to get there
You can reach Saga by plane (Saga International Airport or Fukuoka International Airport – and then bus from these two locations to Saga bus centre) or train (JR) from various locations, such as Fukuoka, Nagasaki, Sasebo/Huis Ten Bosch, Karatsu or Kagoshima, Oita, Kumamoto via Hakata (Fukuoka) or Shin-Tosu. The bus centre is right next to the train station. During the event, there will be special buses from the bus centre to the festival grounds and you can also take a local train (Nagasaki main line). The station is aptly called Balloon Saga Station. You can obviously also drive or cycle. There is plenty of parking (although a bit pricey – 1,000 yen).
Other things to see and do whilst you are in town
At the moment there are quite a few things going on. The Balloon Museum has just opened at a brand new building last year and is fully functioning, with an exhibition of historical items related to the theme, a big theater where you can watch videos of the Saga International Balloon Fiesta regardless of the weather and a flight simulator where you can experience what it is like to fly a hot air balloon. This is the first permanent exhibit of hot-air-balloons in Japan. The admission fee is 500 yen for adults. You can take a bus from the bus centre and exit at the kencho mae stop (県庁前) and walk a few steps back. Alternatively, if you want to do a bit of walking, throughout the main road between the train station and the museum there are lots of random little tiles on the pavement with symbols of the prefecture that you can have fun exploring, like balloons from the festival in Saga, a red snapper from Karatsu Kunchi festival, a dancer with a mask performing the Menburyu dance from Kashima, the prefecture's bird, magpie (カササギ, kasasagi) and a little brown mud fish with beautiful blue dots (むっごろう, muggorou).
Speaking of the Karatsu Kunchi festival, it is happening now as well (from November 2-4), so you can hop on the train and combine the two events. You can also do this walk at night, since the Saga Light Fantasy is already on (from October 31st to January 8th). All trees on both sides of the road are covered in lights, half way through, near Tojin, there are a few light installations to take pictures next to and then, on the side of the Balloon Museum, behind the Matsubara jinja, there is a small bridge over a little stream completely covered in lights that switch on and off in a way that they look like waves over the water.
If you walk further down just a little bit more, at the Prefectural building, you can also see some very nice mapping projection. You can enjoy this interactive experience with captivating imagery and magical lights for free and the opening hours are from 6:30pm to 10pm (or until 9pm on Sundays and public holidays). The entrance is at the south side (the back of the building, if you are walking from the Balloon Museum).
If you have time, Saga Castle is not too far from here and, by local train on the Nagasaki line, the historical town of Yoshinogari Koen (the station name is the same) is only 11 minutes away from Saga station.
This is a great time to visit Saga and this year the weather doesn’t even feel like winter yet!