Last fortnight we were in Saku, Japan for the second round of the Japanese hot air balloon Honda Grand Prix. This is a series of five events held throughout the year and Matt and I have entered the series as “Team Scaife”. Unfortunately there are no competitions in Australia this year (so sad!), and given this is a world championships year we really wanted to get some competition experience leading up to the worlds.
Saku is located in Nagano prefecture and is approximately 4 hours drive North-West of Tokyo. The city itself lies in a river valley and is surrounded on all sides by mountain ranges, one of which includes the active volcano, Mt Asama. Standing at 2,568 metres (8,425 ft), it is taller than Mt Kosciuszko, Australia’s highest mountain! The balloon festival ties in with Saku’s annual carp festival, and there were many beautiful, metres-long colourful fish flags flying throughout the city. We also managed to catch the last of the spring blossoms blooming; so pretty! It was a very quick 5-day trip for the team, leaving Australia on Saturday evening and arriving back in the country on Friday morning.
On Sunday morning we picked up our hire car and drove to Saku, picking up our gear from Watarase on the way (where Matt flew GP1). After arriving at the comp centre to say hello and check-in we decided that a 1 hour wait to be seated for lunch might be fun so we headed to the famous Sakunokusabue Soba restaurant for a delicious, very late, lunch. Afterwards we settled in to our home-stay and met our lovely host family, Noriko and Akito Okamoto. We were staying in their old family home, a traditional house with tatami floors, rice paper sliding doors and futons. The garden was beautiful and I enjoyed coming home each morning and sitting in the garden with the morning sun warming me up!
The next morning we were out of bed early for a practice flight, with all of the balloons taking off from the CLP (common launch point). It wasn’t a particularly successful flight in finding any targets however was good to take in the terrain, get my bearings – ‘can you see that giant, active volcano over there? Well, that's just east of north!’ and got me used to flying my little racer balloon again which is 7x smaller than the balloons I fly for work at home. Gosh I love my racer. While the visibility wasn't great, at 3000ft agl I got a great look over the beautiful valley and caught glimpses of the giant snow-capped peaks in the distance. The rest of the day was spent sleeping, eating (a lot! noteworthy: a delicious pizza restaurant that we visited with our friends Akari and Tetsuhiro Sue, Saku locals.), and getting final things ready for the competition proper the next day.
Competition Flight 1: Hiropon set 4 tasks for the morning. PDG, FIN, JDG, FON. The winds were pretty consistent and many of the balloons ended up in the same area for launch. I was in the first few balloons to launch with Yudai and Takeo Mizukami just in front of me. After a so-so throw at the PDG (5m) I was into my FIN. The FIN target was set at the launch site with a nice crowd gathered. During the flight so far we had faster winds aloft taking us left and the slower, lower winds to the right. I was flying closely with Richard Parry and it was quite unnerving at times with some very close flying and gentle balloon contact as we were both working those distinct wind layers the whole way into the target, not wanting to get too far left and making sure the right was still there. As it turned out the right did drop out at the target, which was right down on a riverbank. I spotted Mizukami’s balloon out to the left, struggling to get the right back to the field so held onto my line and did my gravity drop from height for a 7m result. Onto the JDG and at this point it was only Yudai ahead of me now. It was much the same coming into the target however the right hand turn on the surface was back. I dropped in a little too early and had to adjust with a quick high to low managing only an 8m-gravity drop (good enough for 2nd).
And now onto the final and saddest task of the day. The moment when you drop your marker with your final declaration on it and ascend to get on your way and realise that the wind has shifted, a lot, literally in that last minute since your drop. When you look behind and realise that many of the balloons behind you wont score well on the goal as the wind shift means they will miss completely, however, they will then have time to re-declare their FON. At this point there is absolutely nothing you can do but try to find the closest point to your declared goal, 100’s of metres away. It’s the worst feeling ever! So that’s what I did, making sure not to drop my marker in a flooded rice paddy field. I landed on a small road and lots of excited and curious people came to say Conichiwa as I handed out little Australian flag stickers to all the kiddies :).
That evening the welcome party was held and as the current women’s world champion I was honoured to join the world champ, Yudai, and event officials to open the party helping with the ‘kagami-biraki’, breaking the Sake barrel, so that the drinking could start.
And that was that for the event. While we still went through the motions of the balloon competition for the next 2 days, meeting morning and afternoon for briefings, heading out to the launch site and waiting, in the end the afternoons were too windy and the mornings were too wet on one day and far too windy the next. Not ideal but unfortunately that is the nature of our sport. In the small number of competitions we have done we have been pretty lucky so far with the weather so it was bound to happen eventually! The other negative to not flying is we had far too much time to go shopping and eat (and eat and eat). The discovery of an amazing French bakery ensured we would not go hungry, as did my continual purchases of different types of rice crackers, my Japanese addiction. Our host family also cooked us a delicious (mostly vegetarian!) meal one evening too. So yummy. We did some sightseeing heading to Kanizawara, the closest ski area to Saku, only an hours drive away, the strong winds meant we finally had great visibility with beautiful views of Mt Asama and the surrounding mountain ranges.
Unfortunately we could not stay for the prize giving ceremony as we had an evening flight booked and were told that as it was 'Golden Week' the traffic would be very heavy going into Tokyo. It was a whirlwind trip and we were back home and onto our commercial flights the very next morning.
Travelling to Japan is starting to feel very familiar to us now, we love meeting up with friends and we’re starting to recognise more and more familiar faces. A big thanks to everyone who has helped us out, lending, storing and transporting equipment. And also the ever patient Sanshiro who is a complete saint for putting up with Matt and I asking questions all the time, needing things, wanting to go shopping, needing translations and finding vegetarian food. We really couldn't do it without you all! x