Kamishihoro High School in Hokkaido has a hot air balloon club. There are only two such high school clubs in Japan, so it is extremely unusual.
Kamishihoro Town is located in the center of Hokkaido, and is known as “the home of balloons.” This is because the Japan Balloon Federation, which was inaugurated in 1973, held the first Hot Air Balloon Festival in Kamishihoro Town the following year in 1974. Today, the hot air balloon is the symbol of Kamishihoro Town, and large-scale hot air balloon events are held twice a year in spring and summer.
Kamishihoro High School, which is located in this town, established its hot air balloon club in 1994. Originally, volunteer students of the Student Council Executive Committee started a hot air balloon group. Two years later, it became a club, and was lent its first balloon from the Kamishihoro High School promotion association. Since then, the balloon has been replaced multiple times, and now the club uses its 4th balloon, which it has had since 2018.
Main activities of the hot air balloon club
The hot air balloon club meets once or twice a week. The early morning is the best time to fly because the wind is calm, so the club mainly meets in the mornings on holidays. As such, most of the students attend a different club on weekdays.
As main activities, in addition to “free flights” when the balloon is in the air, there are also “tethered flights,” in which students board the balloon when it is fastened by ropes. The free flights are held from summer to winter, and the balloon flies from flying spots in the school grounds and suburbs. Every August and February, the school enters the local hot air balloon competition, and it has become a regular at the event. Regarding results, in the 2020 “38th Kamishihoro Winter Balloon Meeting” Hesitation Waltz event, it was successful, coming 4th out of 22 teams.
In early spring, mostly tethered flights are held. Four to five times a year, events are held at the local elementary school and roadside station. In such events, visitors board the balloon, and the students interact with the local people. In addition, the club activities involve raising the balloon at various events.
To become a hot air balloon pilot, one must acquire a pilot license issued by the Japan Balloon Federation. As a condition to take the license exam is that one must be 18 or over, the club members basically do not have licenses, and cannot fly the balloon themselves. Owing to this, local balloon club team members and the teacher in charge are pilots, and the students provide support. To be a teacher in charge of the club, it is not necessary to acquire the license, however, so that the teachers and students work hard together, historically, the teachers in charge have all acquired the license. In the past, a student aged 18 acquired the pilot license while still at school.
Difficulties and rewards unique to the hot air balloon club
When the balloon is inflated, it is around the same height as a seven-story building. It takes about an hour for the balloon to inflate. As the club activities can usually only take place in the early mornings, the members gather at 5:30 am. In particular, in winter, it is not unusual for the temperature in Hokkaido to drop below minus 20. It is a battle with conditions so cold that one’s hands cannot move.
Also, for students who participate in other clubs, it is difficult to be members of both. When they are busy with the other club activities, they cannot attend the hot air balloon club for a while. The time of activities of the hot air balloon club is limited due to weather conditions, so this could be said to be a difficulty unique to the club.
Even with such difficulties, once one takes a flight, the magnificent scenery of Hokkaido can be seen from 1,000 meters above the ground. Such scenery, which cannot be seen from below, is appealing to the students of the hot air balloon club, and it takes away the tiredness they feel after working to inflate the balloon.
Also, for students who were born and raised in Kamishihoro Town, seeing hot air balloons flying in the sky is natural, and they have been familiar with hot air balloons since childhood. There are some students who choose to attend this school because it has a hot air balloon club. It seems natural to feel longing and pride to raise a balloon by one’s own hands.
Activities invigorate the community
The members of the hot air balloon club learn about the appeal of hot air balloons and community invigoration through participation in competitions and various events, as well as interaction with visitors at the events. This opportunity provides an experience which cannot be had in other general clubs, and it could be said to be a main characteristic of the hot air balloon club. For Kamishihoro Town and Kamishihoro High School, how to sustainably develop hot air ballooning, which is the culture of the town and a nationally known symbol, is a large issue. The role of the hot air balloon club in this is not at all small. Being involved in a club with such influence is an irreplaceable experience for the students.