Far from the capital, in the midst of Kyushu island’s countryside, a slow local train clanking through the fields was giving Tokyo rush hours a run for their money. Squashed against a window, I thought it would’ve been better to have slept in nearby Saga, rather than all the way up in Fukuoka, so I could’ve caught an earlier train, but the crowds already there when I arrived proved that the situation wouldn’t have been much different on the morning’s first train. As we all poured out of the doors onto a very narrow platform, an empty train was left behind to continue its usual quiet journey.
I was attending the Saga Balloon Festival, an event held on the last days of October every year. It started out as just a small gathering between local balloon enthusiasts but developed into the nowadays internationally known flying race. Each pilot is given a few small sandbags and they have to try and drop it as close to the target, usually a giant X on the ground, as possible.
I arrived when most were getting ready to take off.
The rest of us, we can gather next to the takeoff point and see them all fly off and disappear into the distance. It’s an early morning festival, starting just after sunrise, because balloons must be in the air before the stronger winds of the day come into play. At night, the animal balloons are also lit up (with lights, not fire!), so the festival is a good way to start and end the day, with some of the more typical sightseeing around Saga in between.
Up, up and away!
As the balloons left us behind, I decided to escape the crowds and go for a bit of a walk around the area. Rice fields in October are especially scenic, in my opinion, the rice harvest already over meaning the countryside is an array of oranges and browns fit to match the autumn season. The farmers have to take care of all the leftover hay, so sometimes you’ll see barrels waiting to be taken away, other times columns of smoke rising from piles being burned on the spot.
Some houses had turned their doorstep into an impromptu garage sale or had even become temporary restaurants, so I stopped for some breakfast udon.
Heading back to the grounds for one last look at the balloons before I left, the animals were already out and the speakers were telling us we could go down for a closer look.
My favourite was the whale!
And with this, off I went for some early autumn leaves around Saga prefecture.
All in all, I was surprised by how many people were at the festival, but it was a Sunday so many families living nearby had brought their kids for a day out. Definitely a nice way to start the day.