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Where to get high

Sainokuni Komachi Paragliding School (English lessons available)
Ibaraki branch: 126-7 Ono, Nihari-gun, Ibaraki. Tel: 0298-62-5355. Open Fri-Wed 8am-9pm, closed Thu. Lessons: 9:30am-5pm. Nearest stn: Joban line, Tsuchiura stn. Saitama branch: Oonoshobuhei, Tokigawa, Hiki-gun, Saitama. Tel: 0493-67-1788. Open daily 8am-9pm. Lessons: 9:30am-5pm. Nearest stn: Tobu Tojo line, Ogose stn or Seibu line, Tokorozawa stn. (Japanese)

Genese Paraglider School (English lessons available)
2F 3-33-14 Minamiurawa, Minami-ku, Saitama. Tel: 048-882-2730. Open weekdays 10am-6pm. Lessons 10am-5pm. Nearest stn: Tobu Tojo line, Yorii stn.

Tsukuba Paragliding School (call for more information)
1041 Hirazawa, Tsukuba-shi, Ibaraki. Tel: 0298-67-4031. Open daily, lessons 9:30am-4pm. Nearest stn: Joban line, Tsuchiura station.

S.E.T. Ibaraki Sky Sports School (some English spoken)
576-1 Koya, Yasato-chou Nihari-gun, Ibaraki. Tel: 0299-43-0893. Open Wed-Mon 9am-5pm, closed Tue (lessons 9am-12:30pm and 1:30-5pm). Nearest stn: Joban line, Ishioka stn. (English); (Japanese and more up-to-date)



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Swept away

Put away your broomsticks—all you really need to soar through the clouds is an armful of nylon and a good gust. Cristy Burne checks out the air up there.

Last year, more than 100 of the world’s top paragliding pilots took to the air around Mount Tsukuba in Ibaraki Prefecture, riding magic thermals and racing the wind in a bid to secure the Paragliding World Cup. For those new to the sport, it’ll take some time to get to that level, but you don’t have to be a hotshot to get high. There are paragliding schools all over the country, and plenty of top spots are only a couple of hours from Tokyo. For those with more time to travel, a bunch of schools make use of the lush landscape in Nagano and Hokkaido.

Any time is the right time to start learning: the youngest student at the Tsukuba Paragliding School is still in junior high; the oldest is an ex-army pilot, cruising the clouds at 80 years of age. Such a wide range is possible because, even though climbing to takeoff provides a good workout, from there it’s all downhill. You simply lay your canopy on the side of the hill, fill it with a soft breeze and wait for your lift. Whooping on takeoff is optional.


By the numbers
A one-day course should have you flying at around 30 meters, and will set you back about ¥7,000. The A-license course, which involves basic techniques and theory, is around ¥18,000, a price that includes training, gear rental and up to three months to get your flight time in. Insurance is compulsory, and kicks in at about ¥1,000 a day. If you want to skip the hard work and taste the thrills of a tandem flight, you’re looking at around ¥8,000 including insurance and ¥3,000 for each flight after that.

The equipment includes a paragliding canopy, which is a 9x3m slice of nylon that hoists you skyward. The entire kit weighs in at around 15kg, including a harness and a backpack that doubles as a sofa, curving around your rear to provide comfort during long flights. You control your flying machine using two barely-there brake cords. Steer into a thermal that packs more lift than gravity can handle, and you can ride an elevator of air until you’re soaring 3,000m above the ground. Tap into the right currents, and you can hang out for several hours—although if you want to get this good, you’ll need to invest in your own gear and work towards your pilots licence, which will allow you to paraglide anywhere in the world. The full kit will set you back around ¥400,000, a bundle of fun that should last you about four years, depending on how often you’re flying and how well you can land.


Smiles all around
Though flying all afternoon might be the ultimate, just 30 seconds in the air is enough to have many learners hooked. Tomoko Obokata splashed out on her own equipment after passing her learners A-license. She’s been flying for a year, and still gets a buzz every time. “When you go up, you get a feeling here,” she says, pointing to her shoulders. “You know you’re going up. At first I wasn’t really aware of the glider, I just did what I was told. Now I can kind of feel what I’m doing. I’ve started to get a sense how to fly, kind of like driving a car.”

Yoko Ninagawa is also a flying fiend. She’s been paragliding for 11 years and has yet to come down. “It’s an incredible feeling of liberation. Up there you’re totally in your own space, there’s no one else around. I love soaring in thermals; it’s amazing to see your takeoff spot from a kilometer up in the air.”

Ninagawa bought her own gear after six months of flying, and graduated as a pilot just 18 months later. “I wouldn’t really call it a passion,” she says. “In the beginning I just thought I’d give it a go. The recession started to bite, work wasn’t so busy...suddenly I had some free time on my hands. Some friends and I went to a one-day course, and that was that. I enrolled in my A-license that day.”


Serious fun
For the past five years, Ninagawa has been teaching weekends at the Tsukuba Paragliding School. Any day she’s not making medical body parts at her day job, she’s on the slopes, a GI Jane in paraboots with a loudspeaker. “I don’t get any holidays,” she says with only slight remorse. “For me it’s a huge buzz when a student flies for the first time—their reaction, their excitement. I remember what it was like to take off that first time.”

Paragliding is also a serious sport, and a flurry of recent accidents in Japan has driven home the point that a big part of learning to fly lies in learning to fly with caution: being able to judge the weather, land safely and stabilize your glider in dodgy conditions. “You have to take every flight seriously,” says Ninagawa. “You have to concentrate every time.” But the rewards, which include increased fitness, are key. “It’s a mobile sport,” she explains. “You can carry your own kit; you don’t need a car or heaps of equipment. You’re out there breathing fresh air, moving around.”


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