Every year as October draws to a close, thousands of people come to Saga to see the festival which makes the city so famous. Going to work on the train everyday, crossing the prefecture, I can see hundreds of hot air balloons rising over the horizon, a sight that can scarcely be seen anywhere else.
For one whole week, Saga becomes home to hot air balloon fanatics from across the globe. People pack onto trains hoping to see a glimpse of the spectacle. Most people come in the morning, as the rising sun makes the balloons look even more majestic, and the morning weather means that launches are less likely to be cancelled.
Aside from the main events, there are several stalls set up all along the river bed for people to enjoy between launches. Delicious food of every variety from takoyaki to yakitori, sweet potatoes and ice cream. There is a treat for everyone to enjoy.
The festival also plays host to one of the games common to Japanese festivals, which involves using paper nets to catch fish that you can then take home and keep. I think it's intended more for children, but it can definitely be enjoyable for adults too.
Sadly, the day that I attended the festival, the balloons were unable to launch. I would personally recommend going in the morning to increase your chances of seeing a launch, and if you have the opportunity, to attend on a weekday, to avoid all of the crowds. Going on a Saturday, we were crammed into a tight train that we waited nearly an hour to get on, and then had to queue for nearly 3 hours in order to catch the bus back. So be aware of this if you are planning to go at peak times.
The balloon festival is not just great for balloon fans. It also hosts some great competitions, such as dirt bike racing, as well as a balloon school where you can get up close with the balloons and experience how they work. This is not to the mention the spectacular night time events which take place at the weekend.
Saga’s signature balloon festival, despite its bustling crowds, is definitely worth a visit. So if you are around the Kyushu area in autumn make sure that you add a trip down to Saga to your itinerary. It really is a spectacular opportunity that you'd be disappointed to miss.