20 Jan 2021

Adapt, improvise, and overcome: the ballooning community pulls together at Watarase

The Watarase Balloon Race 2020, in Japan, dramatically achieved the mission to complete a high-level competition for the Japan National Hot Air Balloon Championship while ensuring all possible measures of the infection prevention control from Covid-19.

It was something best described as exhilarating for the pilots, crews, organizer and staff, and everybody who visited the event (via real/online). To see the reality that they had been looking forward to in their mind.

This is the story how ballooning in Japan spent 2020 and how the event in Watarase was finally realised.

WATARASE BALLOON RACE 2020, 11-14 December 2020, Tochigi, Japan

  • 2020 Japan National Hot Air Balloon Championship
  • Hot Air Balloon Honda Grand Prix- Final round (postponed from April)

Originally, the Watarase Balloon Race 2020 was scheduled in April, as the first Japan National Hot Air Balloon Championship to be held in the Kanto region (middle of Japan, 60km North from Tokyo). However, Japan was no exception to the cancellations and postponements around the world, all affected by Covid-19 since spring 2020.  

When the Japan Government issued the Declaration of a State of Emergency on April 16, Balloonists had refrained voluntarily from flight activities. And most ballooning events, including competitions, were cancelled at the same time.  

The organizer of the Watarase Balloon Race made the decision to postpone the event to December. Tracking the difficult conditions throughout the year in Japan, they finally come to the decision to “GO” for the event. The success of the Ichinoseki-Hiraizumi Hot Air Balloon Festival 2020 (another Honda Grand-Prix event) in October, helped then decide to go forward with the December date. The Ichinoseki-Hiraizumi HAB Festival, the first Japanese Balloon competition under strict Covid-19 protocols, showed that competition can be safely held while protecting all participants at the event.

WATARASE Flying Area 

Watarase conservation area

Watarase is very well known as one of the most popular flight areas among Japanese balloonists. The Watarase Retarding Basin is a flood protection operation. The area contains the largest retarding basin in Japan – a reedy jungle marsh.  It connects to the flood control of Tokyo metropolis. This conservation area is full of flora and fauna.  And every season brings more nature colors that grabs the eye of both local balloonists and public visitors.

Covid-19 Protocols for all teams, competition, and event staff

Body temperature check with shield at the reception desk

To hold the event safely, the organiser announced mandatory protocols to follow for everybody who took part.

  • Pre-health check declaration 14 days before the event AND 14 days monitoring health check after the event.  
  • Health check declaration before every briefing (morning and afternoon).
  • Limit numbers in the briefing room – only entry for Pilots (one person in each team) and limited competition staff.
  • Must wear face mask/face shield, frequently wash hands and gargle.
  • Must prepare antiseptic solution in each ballooning vehicle, use it frequently.
  • Avoid Three C’s (Crowded places / Close-contact settings / Confined and enclosed spaces) at all times.

Social distancing

Covid-19 Protocols for ALL participants including ballooning participants and audience

Health check

  • Health check, monitoring body temperature at the launch/event field.
  • Must wear the provided “Checked” wrist band each day to enter the field. (New color each time).
  • .. and so on.

The competition began:  Day 1 Friday, 11 December 2020 AM
Flight #1 – 3 Tasks – Judge Declared Goal (JDG)/ Fly-On (FON) / Land Run (LRN)

Day 1

Twenty-eight pilots gathered at the briefing room with his/her crew members waiting at the parking spots outside. The FAI Competition Logger was on each desk. Soon after the task sheet and the weather information were provided.  Straight away the task and weather sheets were scanned and sent to their crew by every method of network.

Crews were chatting with other teams before we received the task sheet.  Suddenly our heads snap to the screens with the competition details.  And the parking spots went quiet as each team concentrated to construct their flight strategy. Somehow it seemed a very special moment. The competition was back for the balloonists!  


Since spring 2020 and still at present, this world has been changed for everyone and forced us to accept unexpected life changes. As I’m writing this, Japan is facing the third wave of Covid-19 infection which is more critical than the earlier waves. We were fortunate, for balloonists and residents who love ballooning, to ‘sneak’ this event in before the third wave which would have prevented the enjoyment people found with the spectacle of the balloons flying overhead and sharing the experience, event with social distance in place.

At the time of the Ichinoseki-Hiraizumi Balloon Festival, there were more strict limits of audience. Still, even with the restrictions, balloons seemed to bring them something they needed. The balloonists turned up, not only their own flight pleasure but for the audience and to cheer them up as well.
Balloonists missed all the 2020 events so much! Watarase race provided a backdrop that made everybody happy to gather again. The pilots wanted to win the Japan Nationals, but they also wanted to share the ballooning experience that they missed so much in 2020.

Competition result

During the four days of scheduled competition, there were five flights and 11 competition tasks. Two flights were cancelled due to unsuitable weather conditions. Seven tasks were flown using physical marker drops and the balance were scored by FAI logger marks.

On the Podium:
2020 Japan National Hot Air Balloon Championship

  1. Yudai FUJITA is the 2020 Japan National Champion!  This was his 7th time as Japan HAB Champion.
  2. Sansei TOMIZAWA got the Silver, and
  3. Shiro KATAHIRA got the Bronze.

2020 Hot Air Balloon Honda Grand-Prix – Winning Teams:
NOTE: Normally 5 rounds in total. However, 3 rounds were cancelled in 2020.

  1. YAZUYA Balloon Team (Pilot: Yudai FUJITA)
  2. team LAPUTA (Pilot: Tetsuhiro SUE)
  3. Kimura Information Technology Balloon Team (Pilot: Sansei TOMIZAWA)

Champion Yudai Fujita shared his thoughts on the Championship and looking forward:

"I would like to say ‘Thank you very much’ to all my supporters and would like to give the biggest hug to my wife who supported me more than anyone else.
It’s been a tough competition season for everyone because of COVID-19. Not having enough chance to fly for practice brought me the worst performance in my career in the previous competition at Ichinoseki. I was losing my focus on how I can enjoy flying the balloon in competitions. Feeling like I don’t want to fly anymore! After that, my wife and I tried several ways of recovering my mental focus and set my mind on the winning in the Japanese National championship. It worked.

"We learned a good thing, that if you wish strong and do a lot work on it, it makes something better, so we must not give it up wishing the World without COVID-19 and seeing my ballooning friends in the blue-sky."

Watarase Flight Movies from Team Kailas

Please visit following links to experience the incredible beauty of the Watarase flying area. And enjoy the movies from Team Kailas.  

From Dec.12 AM   Task5 FIN/6 MDD/7 PDG/8 JDG/ 9 FON
Competition flight detail as well as Covid-19 protocol reference

From Dec.13 AM  Task11 JDG (cancelled further JDG/3DT due to weather condition)
You could imagine how WATARASE can be amazing on such a foggy winter morning.

Top picture: launch site
Submitted by Ms. Katsura ENDO (Japan), PMR S.C. Asia Reporter & Member of Balloon Team of #24 N. Yamanaka