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Monday, November 11, 2013

1879 Japanese Balloon Trip From London to Kyoto

Recently, Dave, a reader of Japan—It's A Wonderful Rife wrote to me regarding a painting he saw in an antique shop in Notting Hill Gate in London, England earlier this month.

He says the painting - on wood - depicted five hot-air balloons in the sky at various distances flying over a temple. The image above is NOT the painting in question - it's what we in the business call filler...

According to Dave, the bottom of the painting has the writing—I assume in English: "Ascending over the shoriden at Rokuon-ji".

Okay… sounds nice… balloons flying over the Rokuon-ji temple… a temple in Kyoto.

The Rokuon-ji translates into "Deer Garden Temple", but perhaps you all know it better as Kinkaku-ji… the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. My photo of it is below.

But… the reader, tells me, the truly confusing aspect of the painting in the antique shop is the fact that at the top of the wood painting is written—I assume in English: "A depiction of the great London - Kyoto balloon expedition, 1879".

The reader—Dave—said that the balloon baskets could carry two crew or passengers—your typical hot-air balloon… and noted that the closest balloon in the painting (the largest) featured red, white and blue stripes on it…

Dave said that it features the colors of the British flag… but it also has Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. of A. But since it is supposed to be a London to Kyoto journey… we'll assume he's correct about the British flag revelation!

He surmised that even though he didn't know anything about such an event, that I might… not only do I write about Japan in this blog, but I also put out the Pioneers of Aviation blog… but gosh darn it... I had never heard of this particular event.

That doesn't mean it can't be true, of course… except… it appears as though it really did NEVER happen.  

So… what's up with the painting?

Now… my reader did not tell me how much the painting was going for, or even if it was a particularly good painting… but there are always  a few reasons.

Perhaps the painter simply imagined an idyllic scene. I've heard that sometimes happens with creative sorts.

Or… perhaps this was an event that was talked about as something that should happen… and someone created the painting perhaps in anticipation as something that could be turned into a promotional poster.

Or… maybe the damn thing did occur. Yeah… 1879 is pretty early in hot-air ballooning… but, then again...  not really. Then, just like now, not too many people have actually flown in a hot air balloon. To be honest, I don't know anyone who has flown in one... I had the opportunity to fly in one this summer, but did not have the cash. It's okay... with my current run of luck it probably would have been attacked by a Kodiak bear.

Anyhow... even in 1879, flying a hot-air balloon wasn't a hobby for the middle-class. People need money... and they needed sponsors.

The first manned balloon flight was by the Mongolfier brothers of France in 1783.

By 1785 flights were taking place in England… so… a hot air-balloon expedition from London to Kyoto wasn't so far-fetched in 1879… after all, Japan had only really opened up its international borders about 11 years earlier.

As well… a trip of that distance would be a decent accomplishment… it's 5,890 miles or 9,479 kilometers. That IS an expedition. But - a doable one.

Maybe this was a planned aeronautical flight, but it was shelved after a failure to come up with funds, sponsors… the originator dying… no one caring…

But… here's the thing… the painting depicts five hot-air balloons flying majestically over Kyoto era of Japan….

First off… why are there so many balloons? Okay… maybe that's how you carry supplies… before dirigibles became a better alternative.

Secondly (and more importantly in my opinion) why is there a depiction of the Kinkakuji temple…  apparently that is clearly visible… which implies that the painter knew what the temple looked like.

Was the painter actually there in Japan witnessing the London - Kyoto expedition fly over that Japanese temple?

While possible, it seems unlikely. 

I'm going to hypothesize that the painter was given a photo or drawing of the Japanese temple and turned it with the balloons into a fanciful depiction of an event that was proposed to happen, but never actually happened.

Along with learning that this painting actually exists, I also learned the real name of Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto.

So… Dave… the gentleman who sent me the information and request - thank-you for the quest. It's been a pleasure.

Onwards and upwards,
Andrew Joseph

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