It’s summer and Water balloons are beautifying the Japanese festivals. Okay, you can also throw them at people, we know… Remember as kids, we were enthralled by their wonderful squirt designs and we knew that, especially for us, the balloon makers must have put a lot of effort into creating wild Jackson Pollock-style patterns. For today, PingMag visits a Japanese balloon making family business in Chiba who, for thirty years, has been doing a great part of the production process by hand! PingMag reveals the secret of the biodegradable balloons…
Written by Ryoko
Translated by Kevin Mcgue
Now, we went to the Ito Rubber Balloon Factory, a family business near Kimigahama station in Chiba. As we were getting off the train, we could immediately smell the sea breeze nearby! There was nothing but rural landscapes around us, and when we looked toward the ocean, a white lighthouse was poised in the distance. How soothing after leaving crammed Tokyo. Space, finally!
The rural setting of the balloon factory at Kimigahama station in Chiba…
… and the lighthouse located at the coast.
Fusao Ito with his wife, Yoko, started the factory over thirty years ago; overseeing both production and sales since then. They make jumbo-sized balloons with original designs and from spring to summer, they also manufacture water balloons. That made us quite excited to see every part of the production process.
First, Mrs. Ito showed us the balloon moulds, which totally resemble science lab beakers: long glass tubes and round balls at one end. These are dipped into warm white rubber and dried in a kiln until they become clear:
These small glass moulds are used for making water balloons.
First, the moulds are turned upside down and dipped in hot rubber.
The moulds are set aside to dry and the rubber becomes clear. Now it is time to add designs! There are containers full of liquid latex in all kinds of colours such as red, blue and silver. The balloons are quickly dipped in these to add colours and patterns.
Watch the process in the clip below:
Recently, almost all of the balloon production is done by machine — everywhere expect in this very factory! Here, the dipping of the moulds and adding the designs is all done by hand. How impressive! We asked Mr. Ito why they deliberately still are making such an effort:
“Since we make our water balloons by hand here, the rubber is more flexible than that in balloons made by machine,” Mr. Ito explains. “And when adding designs, if you use a machine you have to first add colour and then layer the design on top of that, so the rubber becomes quite thick at places. However, when doing it by hand, you add the design first and then layer colour on top of that, so the thickness of the finished product is even.”
Mrs. Ito works quickly and quietly, overseeing several stages of the production at the same time.
We were surprised to learn that this is the only factory in Chiba prefecture making balloons by hand — and were even more surprised to learn that the balloons are actually biodegradable in addition!
Mrs. Ito explains: “Recently almost all balloons are made of petroleum-based synthetic rubber, but here we use only natural rubber from rubber trees. When the balloons are brought into sunlight, the colour changes a bit and after a week or so the become a little sticky, but on the other hand they biodegrade eventually.”
Fair enough, since we usually don’t keep our birthday balloons for the next five years in the attic…
Then, once the designs are added, the next step is adding the colour. After making sure there are no foreign particles floating around in the coloured rubber, the balloons that already have designs added are dipped in. Afterwards, the balloons are dipped in a special liquid to make the rubber harder and put in a kiln to dry. In order to make the balloons stronger, this process is repeated four more times. Though we dropped by the factory on a cool day, it was already rather hot inside. To give you the facts: It produces up to 20,000 balloons a day! In full summer heat, that must be really tough.
Adding the colour: The liquid rubber must be clean and any foreign particles are removed with tweezers.
Then, the balloons are dipped in…
… and slowly pulled out.
Then, they are placed in a kiln to dry.
By the way, we have a funny anecdote for you: Mr. Ito doesn’t just make balloons in the factory. He also appears as a clown at events and parties and makes balloon art:
“Children really love balloons,” he reflects. “I am happy to see them smile when I make a dog or something. At such times, I love balloons too.”
Balloon maker Mr. Ito disguised as a clown at an event.
A balloon dog Mr. Ito made for us on the spot.
Now that the balloons have been shaped and decorated, a white powder is added to prevent the rubber from sticking to itself. Then the “mouth” of the balloon is made, so it can be filled with air: A roller with brushes rotates over the balloons and rolls back the opening, making the mouth. This is it:
We talked to two of the employees of the factory, and they told us that Mr. and Mrs. Ito really love working here. They are kind and warm people, and it seems they have fun chatting and talking. Also, they love the nature and the friendly locals around Kimigahama.
And finally the balloons are turned inside out, and they are finished!
The worker is so quick at turning the balloons inside out.
Finally, when the balloons are turned inside out, you can see the designs.
Thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Ito and their staff for their help! We hope you will make many, many more!
Folks, visit the factory yourself! Moreover, you can try making up to sixty balloons for only ¥800! See this Japanese site for more.