If you don’t like heights, maybe this post isn’t for you.
Personally, when it comes to standing on a mountaintop, flying in an airplane, or crossing a bridge, I have no issue with high places. I love going into observation towers and seeing how far out I can look.
But when it comes to roller coasters? Skydiving? Bungee jumping? Fuhgeddaboudit!
Last winter, a friend was trying to work out what to do for his birthday, and invited me and a few others to try a 1-day hang-gliding course in Shiga Prefecture. My instinctive reaction was, “No!” (Only, y’know, ruder.) However, rather than follow my knee-jerk reaction, what I said instead was, “Do you have a link to the website?”
You see, just because I can’t handle these things doesn’t mean I’m not curious about them.
So on the website I went, investigating this group that was willing to instruct people in hang-gliding in English. Reassured that it claimed you wouldn’t go that high or that far, meaning I was less likely to die, I agreed to go with my friend.
The things I do for my buddies’ birthdays.
Anyway, let me share a few things that happened with you that day.
On that day, we went to a local JR train station way out in Shiga Prefecture. There, we were greeted by a woman who led us to a van. Now, I know what you’re thinking: who in their right mind would pile into an unmarked van in the countryside?
…I mean, we were going to be hang-gliding, so why not?
As we got into the van, an older gentleman behind the wheel greeted us. We exchanged basic pleasantries, getting to know each other, when we heard some strange noises in the back of the van. Turning, we were met with a white duck, who quacked all the more when we seemed to discover him. Perplexed, I turned back to the older gentleman for an explanation. Nodding gravely at me, he said only, “My son.”
So, with the older gentleman, his “son”, and the lady, we drove for a good 10-15 minutes toward the landing point. This was a large field directly in front of a small mountain. Up above, we could see a take-off point. I somewhat nervously asked if that was included in the day’s plans. The older gentleman laughed at me.
“Eager, huh? That’s good! But you need lots of training before you do that. Unless you want to do some tandem hang-gliding today as well as learning how to do it yourself?”
“No, that’s okay!” I answered quickly, and the matter was dropped, much to my relief.
We went over some basic ground rules, then were handed knee guards and helmets to put on. Then, the training began.
We used a “flight simulator” –basically a harness hanging from a metal tripod–first, so we could see how secure it felt and work on the basic mechanics of controlling the glider. The controls are, in theory, very simple. You want to turn left? Move your body slightly left. You want to go fast? Lean forward. Etc. etc.
Then, we got strapped to a real hang glider. Our “flights” were more like “hops”– 20 or so seconds in the air, never more than 25 feet or so off the ground. You would have to try very, very hard to hurt yourself. While most places have instructors running beside you while you take off, this one had a whole system of ropes and wires attached to the wings so that it was impossible for a beginner to go off course. When asked, the older gentleman informed me that it was his invention to streamline the course and increase the overall safety of the training.
The very first time I took off, I was definitely nervous. You had to hold yourself in a sort o crouch, and you had to commit to a run as you take off. The instructor told us to mentally prepare to run “at least” 50 meters, even if honestly we wouldn’t be on the ground longer than a couple of seconds. So, when the signal came, I took off… and then I took off.
The first flight was so fast, especially as I tried to run through everything the instructor taught us. Now, it being the first flight, all we had to do was fly straight ahead and land without hurting ourselves. Simple enough, right? Here were some things I had to keep in mind:
- Run like you’re escaping something dangerous
- Pull the bar toward yourself to go down/fast; push it up to slow down
- But don’t push it up quickly, or the wind will get caught in the glider and you’ll drop like a stone!
- When you’re about to land, change where you put your hands on the bars
- Bend your knees a bit and hit the ground running. Well, not running, but at least take a few steps.
Then it was over. I’d flown. I’d lived. And I had felt completely secure the entire time.
The instructor grinned at me. “Want to go again?”
I said yes.
We took turns; when the birthday boy was in the glider, I took video and photos, and vice versa. The instructor soon began to add more rules to our flights; we had to bank left or right, or we had to work on our landing. At one point I landed flat on my butt because I hadn’t braced my legs when coming down.
Overall, over the course of the day we each went up in the air about 8 or 9 times. There was a break for lunch (in which we were provided some complimentary coffee and tea–you buy your lunch ahead of time), and another to celebrate my friend’s birthday.
By the end of the day, I was exhausted, but glad I’d dared to try something that had scared me before.
Now, would I throw myself off of a mountain? Nooooot necessarily. But at least I know a bit more about why someone would be interested in the sport.
More importantly, I got to meet a very cute duck that quacked wildly in celebration whenever we made it through another run of the gliding course. And we got a picture with said duck, so I was satisfied.
The full day course cost 11,000 yen, and I thought it was well worth the money. The staff are very thorough and are with you step by step through the process. That said, I was grateful I could speak Japanese, as I feel like I was able to get more out of what they taught us. However, you quickly pick up each instruction they tell you during the “flight simulator” aspect of the training. The instructor will call out, “Migi! Hidari!” and want you to tilt right or left, respectively. So even if you’re not really a Japanese-language expert, you are in perfectly good hands.
Have you ever gone hang-gliding? If not, would you try it? Have you tried any other extreme sports?