I have decided to rewrite some of my old entries regarding my travels, partly to reminisce, and partly to re-share some of my experiences. Here's a gem from when I went on my first hot air balloon ride a few years ago. Enjoy.
When I was 20, I moved to Japan for a year to teach English. The year had its ups and downs, but one of the most memorable moments was when I heard that you could go up in a hot air balloon in Furano. I booked the trip well in advance, and then set upon the daunting task of asking everybody I knew if they'd be willing to part ways with $150 to spend 20 minutes floating high above the air in a tiny little wicker basket held up by a giant torch and some fabric. Needless to say, it was hard to find any takers. I was at my wit's end, when finally my lovely friend Cian told me that he was so down to come with. GREAT!
The day of the flight, I waited and waited, and the morning finally came. The flight was scheduled for 7:30 am, but the people would call me at 6:30 am to let us know whether the weather was conducive to ballooning. I was up at 5:00 am, pacing back and forth because I was so excited. I tried in vain to not wake up Andromeda, my roommate. It didn't work, but she was understanding, and sat up with me as I waited.
Eventually, I got the call. The weather was perfect. It was time to go.
"Take a picture of me on my way to balloon! Take a picture of me! Take a picture of me!" I asked Andromeda, and she obliged as excitedly as she could in her exhausted state. The result was this gem:
Afterwards, I ran downstairs to await the van. The great thing about Asobiya, the balloon company, is that they pick you up from your hotel and drive you straight to the field. Which is awesome, because we didn't have any other way there. Cian was waiting for me in the lobby with his 7/11 breakfast and ridiculous yellow snowboarding pants. They had told us to dress warmly. Apparently it's cold up super high in the middle of winter!
After about 15 minutes, the man with the van showed up, and we hopped in excitedly. We made small talk with the driver for about one minute until Cian and I collectively ran out of any Japanese we could remember at 7:00 am. Then, we sat excitedly in silence, and I snapped this picture of Cian looking super excited!
We picked up a Japanese couple, then finally made our way over to the balloon. Furano is pretty much all farmland, so we could see the balloon from a mile away, with a backdrop of beautiful, snow-covered mountains. Oh, yes. This was totally going down.
We got out of the van and walked through the snow to where 5 Japanese men were painstakingly holding the balloon down. "Well, hop in," the driver of the van said. Just like that.
"Uhh... okay...", I thought, starting to falter a little. The basket was maybe 1 x 1.5 metres, and once I was inside it came up to my waist. No harnesses, no seatbelts, no anything.
I had it better than Cian, though. He is 6'2", so the edge of the basket only came up to mid-thigh on him, and his head was at most a foot away from the flame. I'm pretty sure he thought he was going to die, and I can't say that I thought otherwise. My unease was only heightened when the pilot said, "Alright, if you're scared, crouch down, and whatever you do, don't get in my way. Let's go!"
With that, we were steadily rising.
The balloon wobbled a little as it got off the ground, but it rose smoothly and quickly. There was no wind, so it felt a lot more serene than I had anticipated. We rose and rose until all of a sudden, the van that dropped us off was no more than a dot in the expanse of white below us.
Even though I was dangling in a basket, I felt completely comfortable and at ease. Maybe it was the fact that the balloon felt like it was barely moving or maybe it was the fact that I was stunned by the view, but I was calm, collected, and absolutely in awe. These pictures don't do it justice at all, but it looked a little like this. (Click on the photo for the gallery)
About halfway through the 20 minute ride, Cian realized that he felt safer if he stood behind me, using me as a sort of block against his inevitable downfall. I'm glad that I could help him feel at ease, but I'm not sure how I felt about being used as a human shield. Thanks, man. Thanks.
The trip went by way too quickly, and all of a sudden, we were descending. There was a power line in our way and the wind wasn't working with us, so we flew a little bit longer, and amused ourselves by watching the men in the vans down below follow us around, parking where they thought we would land, only to have to move again. Eventually, we landed, and they immediately started deflating the balloon while we were still in the basket. How many Japanese men does it take to deflate a hot air balloon? Apparently, the answer is four.
We were finally let out, and I quickly snapped this photo of the deflating balloon before I headed back to the van, my heart and mind content with a completely unique experience.
The man drove us back to the hotel, and the drive was long and solemn. The only thing I could think of to express my utter contentment was "楽しかった！", or "I had fun!" and somehow, that just didn't seem to be enough.