The International Saga Balloon Festival is something Dan and I have wanted to witness for a long time. Picture mountains in the background, autumnal sunshine, and many unique and colourful hot air balloons ‘racing’ around the skies. Beautiful.
It was, therefore, with mounting excitement that we planned our trip to Saga with Brittany and Mitch. Before the blog continues, I’ll tell you now, it isn’t a blog about the balloon festival. But, rather, a different type of adventure we didn’t expect to be having; the weekend we travelled from Heaven to Hell. Well, actually it was Hell to Heaven…
We arrived in Kurume, about an hour away from the festival site and a city seemingly known for a nice-ish park, on Friday. Lunch was required and so a quick google search by Brittany revealed a vegetarian and vegan cafe nearby. It was almost like being in the UK…five stars, local food, totally vegan, I couldn’t believe my ears / eyes / other senses. I was fully expecting to arrive and be greeted with a ramen restaurant and a stick of carrot. Yet, it was real. A real vegan restaurant in a delightful and peaceful traditional Japanese house (I know it was a house because I got lost on the way to the toilet and ended up the couples bedroom…) The food was, wait for it, phenomenal! It was my best meal in Japan, and possibly ever…totally delicious and a real bargain too as we enjoyed four courses and a drink for a mere 1,650 yen each. The weekend was starting off in Heaven.
Then, in a post-lunch haze, on route to our accommodation, an impossible sight met our eyes. A huge white statue towering on the horizon. The conversation in the car went something like this:
Me: Woah, what on earth is that?! Look! (Pointing vaguely in the direction of the statue)
Mitch: It’s a telephone pole (referring to a nearby telephone pole…)
Me: No, not that, THAT.
Mitch, Brittany and Dan: What?
We just weren’t expecting it. We had looked on tripadvisor for the local area and a pretty park showed up. That really was about it! So, what was it?
She is Daihonzan Naritasan, or the Kannon Goddess of Mercy. She is of Buddhist origin, but underwent something of a change during the Edo period (17th century) when Christianity was outlawed. To enable the continued practice of their faith, Christians substituted the Virgin Mary with Jesus with the Kannon Goddess, as she is depicted holding a baby. This particular Goddess was built in the 1950s and stands 203 feet high. The dot on her forehead is made from real gold and surrounded by 18 three carat diamonds, and she holds not only a 43 feet long baby, but a necklace of 53 jade stones and crystal. Pretty impressive. Made even more so by the fact you can climb, hem, inside her! She is also only one of three like this in the world.
After the climb, we were directed down a long and winding corridor to Hell. Yes, really! Here we discovered a new exhibit showing a range of extremely graphic, moving, noise making statues depicting Hell. No photos allowed, but let me paint you a picture;
Naked men, being sawn in half, by crusty, larged, horned demons, with fake blood splattering everywhere. Humans being thrown onto shards of broken glass by the same demons. More naked humans being boiled alive in a large pot. Screaming statues with red lighting highlighting their mouths were being stretched open and filled with metals / demon goods of some kind. Statues forced to fight to the death (one assumes again). Etc…It really did take us to Hell. The rest of the museum was filled with equally terrifying statues that were very lifelike and therefore totally terrifying. Why there isn’t much in English on tripadvisor about the temple and Hell remains a mystery. It was an extremely cultural thing to do on this ‘culture day’ holiday.
We finished off Friday, culture day, with a visit to the park we had read so much about…it was pretty featuring some nice flowers, the usual coy carp, and some feisty roosting birds. We enjoyed relaxing here before venturing to a nearby onsen to unwind fully. The onsen experience was also somewhat unusual, as it turned out to be a private onsen space. For 1,800 yen you could hire a room for one hour for three people. So we split off into men and women and enjoyed the private onsens after a meal of burgers and fish. It was a relaxing end to the day, and afterwards, we headed back to our accommodation to prepare for our 5 am start the following day. The Balloon Festival here we come…or so we thought.
5 am is not a time to be up really. It is still dark and cold. But we hoped it would be worth it as balloons soared above us at sunrise. It started off well, we arrived and took one of the final 20 spaces in the extremely full car park. We joined the crowds walking towards the large embankment of the festival site. The sun started to rise and the sky was clear, it was looking good. As we reached the site, we started to hear the word ‘cancelled’ over the Japanese PA. Choosing to ignore this, along with hundreds of other people, we continued to make our way closer to the balloon site. There was just one thing missing, balloons. Soon an English announcer made his way on to the PA to confirm that the morning activities had been cancelled due to wind that we could barely detect.
We regrouped. Afterall, there was still an afternoon of events to go (or not, as it turned out). At 8 am the festival teased us, somewhat unfairly, with many large balloons coming out and being placed on the ground. Turns out, this was the consolation prize, you got to look at balloons that had not been blown up on the floor. To quote Dan’s, somewhat overused joke of the day, we were all feeling very “deflated”. It had certainly started out as a rather hellish day. We regrouped again and then I had one of my rare ideas. In the background there was a rather large mountain I had been moodily admiring. A quick google revealed that there was parking about half way up. So we took off, determined to win something back from the day. Afterall, it was only 9 am.
We arrived at the carpark on what was revealed to be called Heaven Mountain, Tenzan, 天山. The ride up to the parking was pretty hairy, taking roads that titered on the edge of sheer drop cliffs. Still, the view was totally worth it. We collected our cameras and any slightly outdoor looking gear we head (I climbed it in a leather jacket and Dan wore tight Levis and Converse shoes, so this wasn’t hugely successful) and took off on the 1.2 km hike to the summit. It was a reasonably challenging climb in parts (the parts where the path was missing and replaced with a big rock) but completely worth it. At the summit of Heaven Mountain you could see for miles. We could even see the ocean, despite that being a reasonable distance away! The wind was incredible and the views really were breathtaking. It felt like, as the name implies, we were on the top of the world. Just touching Heaven.
So, there were no balloons on our weekend away at a balloon festival, but there was an extremely delicious meal, extraordinary statue, and very unexpected trip from Hell to Heaven.
#Saga #Friends #Heaven #Hell