The Biwa Birdman

Japan`s Birdman Rally, or the Tori Ningen (lit. Bird Man) matsuri is held annually in Hikone, Shiga in late July. There are similar international events, like the Redbull Flugtag, or the Yarra River Birdman in Australia, though as Tofogu notes,  where other contests aim for spoof value, driving cars with tiny wings off ramps and the like, Japanese university teams take this challenge very seriously with most teams from institutions with a long tradition of Birdman, some taking part since the beginning in 1977. One student admitted to attending six by himself.

The rally was actually `won` in 2008, with a record breaking flight of 23 metres, and after a one year suspension in 2009, the Rally returned to annual event calendar to the joy of university engineering students and spectators alike.

Teams line up along the beach, waiting for their turn to jump.

Held in the middle of summer, spectators duck in and out of the shade from the trees, and take frequent dips in Biwa to cool off.

Held over two days, the last (scorching) weekend in July, teams attending from across Japan and occasionally from abroad, with small group from Holland attending in 2012 Birdman.

Starting around 11am on Saturday, the contest runs until late Sunday afternoon. A large crowd of spectators, both local and tourists, watch from beneath a wonderfully shady fringe of trees, or while floating in the waters of Lake Biwa. Their children don’t watch at all but have a lot of fun chasing bugs. Wind surfers enjoy attention during the frequent breaks.

Propped on the graveled shore of Lake Biwa, gliders and their teams stake out their zones with blue tape, tarpaulins rigged for shade and generators to keep their drinks cool. In the distance, on the massive pier, 500 metres long and 10 metres high, planes prep for the launch, watched closely by TV cameras and a nearby helicopter.

One by one, each team takes the dive, some slamming straight into the water others start encouragingly before a gust of wind turns them back the way they came. Occasionally it sends them gliding into the distance.

All eventually get wet.

A plane is decorated with cute drawings for good luck.

A plane finally makes it onto the runway.

Three to four teams waited on the 500 metre stretch at any one time, while their predecessors complete the loop as they float back to shore.

The red flag goes up

Running…

Flying?

Definitely flying!

Inevitably floating.

After all the waiting I don’t know whether hitting the water would be a sensation of disappointment or cool relief.

Teams of jet  skis and speedboats rushed to the scene of each crash, freeing pilots from the wreckage and dragging the pieces back to shore. After being in a glider (or the helicopter), they looked to be having the most fun.

Despite the heat and the occasional long spell between flights as the TV crew does interviews and promos, Birdman Japan is an amazing, entertaining day out, with kakigori (shaved ice) and beer stands nearby to help cool spectators, it’s worthy of a slot in Japan’s busy ‘Must See This Summer’ calendar of events.

How does one join the boat crew for next year?

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12 thoughts on “The Biwa Birdman

    • Hi Matto, I was working as a teacher until the earthquake, and since then have been traveling and doing freelance writing. I’m settled more in Hikone now, and luckily this town has a lot of cool stuff going on. I’ll be putting up some lantern festivals soon. ^^

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      • Thats awesome I lived in tokyo for a little for school. But since I’m an American I’ve found it really hard to get back to Japan. There is no holiday visa for Americans so I’m kind of screwed.

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      • Gaijinpot is a load of crap. No one hires out of the country. And if they are the competition is so insane that the chances are like hitting the lottery. Except it’s not the lottery is just a terrible job you have to accept because its your only way into the country. I’m not saying this as boo hoo me or that I only tried for a couple of weeks. I have tried to find a solid way for about 2 years. I’ve been out of school for a year so that 1 year was the only real time I could have taken a job. JET program is also insane competition and the process takes forever. Friends of mine who are very successful and live, or have lived, in japan have given me all the realities of what to do and what is a waste of time. Currently i’m trying to get a job at a recruiting firm that has offices in Japan and my home city. Then I can try to transfer.

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