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To experience Northern Lights, Japanese brave the Alaska cold

Hordes of tourists fly north in winter to see the shimmering curtains of green and plum.

February 11, 2007|Rachel D'Oro | Associated Press Writer

ANCHORAGE, ALASKA — For newlyweds Jun and Chisako Shibata, the perfect honeymoon meant standing on a steep Alaska mountain in the freezing darkness, gazing at the dancing lights in the sky.

"Amazing," Chisako Shibata said of the surreal aurora borealis a short drive from Chena Hot Springs Resort deep in Alaska's interior. All around them were other Japanese tourists gasping at each twist in the shimmering curtains of green and plum.

"I saw it on television a long time ago and it was so beautiful, I knew I wanted to come and see it in person," the bride said before heading back to the resort, 60 miles northeast of Fairbanks.

The Shibatas, from Tsu, Japan, are part of a growing winter market in Alaska, where the coldest months are mostly experienced by, well, Alaskans. Hordes of Japanese tourists arrive this time of year, lured by the aurora, best viewed away from the bright lights of urban centers. For many, it's akin to a spiritual quest sparked by a cultural obsession with natural marvels and documented in countless travel and adventure shows in Japan.

Alaska is primarily a summer destination, its visitors contributing $1.6 billion annually to the economy. But a number of businesses now cater to visitors lured north in winter, more so in the last three years, since direct flights drastically cut travel time from Japan to Alaska.

In the predawn hours of a recent morning, the Shibatas and other well-bundled tourists waited inside a heated lookout at the top of 2,880-foot Charlie Dome. People took turns venturing into subzero temperatures to watch for the luminous phenomenon, produced when charged solar particles strike the upper atmosphere near the poles. (At the South Pole, the lights are called the aurora australis.)

No one inside the lookout dared to remove their arctic gear, knowing that the aurora could vanish just as suddenly as it appeared.

A man ran in, yelled, "Aurora!" and everyone dashed out. Swaying ribbons of green light cast an otherworldly glow on the landscape amid occasional flashes of reddish purple. The show lasted several minutes.

"That was a dream come true," Mari Mizuno, 34, of Atami, Japan, said through an interpreter.

The Northern Lights are on a list of global wonders that many Japanese residents plan to view firsthand, said Pete Redshaw, a Chena Hot Springs guide. Many save for years or take out loans to see the aurora.

"Some of them have heard about it so much, they feel it's one of the things they must see before they die," Redshaw said. "Others want to see something so magical, something so unimaginable. I've seen some people cry when they see it."

Japanese tourists, in fact, account for 90% of the clientele at the resort as well as the Aurora Borealis Lodge, a viewing-only facility at Cleary Summit 20 miles north of Fairbanks.

"We get folks who keep coming back from Japan," said lodge operator Mok Kumagai.

But mass marketing the aurora and other winter attractions to the Japanese was an idea that took the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau years to sell, said the bureau's tourism manager, Colin Lawrence. Several airlines in that country were courted but no one wanted to take the first risk. Then, in 2004 Japan Airlines agreed to offer three direct flights, which were quickly booked, prompting the airline to offer seven flights last winter.

Now at least 3,500 tourists are scheduled to take advantage of 10 direct charter flights to Fairbanks from Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya in the season running through late February. Lawrence said those visitors were expected to bring about $3 million to the economy.

The charters have cut the flying time to Alaska from about 20 hours to no more than eight hours, said Hisashi Yamada, an executive at the airline's Anchorage office.

"Alaska has become an attractive destination for Japanese tourists," he said. "Winter is better because Japanese people love to see the aurora. Maybe it's because of the mystery."

There are plenty of places in the circumpolar north to view the aurora, but the interiors of Alaska and Canada are ideal for vacationers, said Roger Smith, director of the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Those regions are beneath active aurora pathways and offer clear skies in abundance along with other winter attractions like dog sledding, skiing, ice carving festivals, snowmobiling and, at the Chena resort , natural hot springs.

"It's a combination of the likelihood of seeing the aurora and the availability of other features," Smith said. "Travelers have a sense of participating in arctic life in a broad range of things."

Kimiko Akin has long recognized the need for aurora excursions for Japanese tourists. Akin, originally from Chiba, Japan, has been ferrying independent travelers to popular viewing sites since 1990 through her Fairbanks-based Japan Alaska Tours. After seeing the lights, she said, her clients "are so impressed. They say, 'I don't mind to die any time now.' "

Akin witnessed her first aurora in 1979. "I never get tired of it," she said.

Perhaps that mystical pull can explain an uncredited myth: the Japanese believe the lights bring good fortune to relationships, especially when a child is conceived under the aurora. Redshaw said he had asked scores of hot springs visitors about this over the years and had yet to find anyone who bought the story. Few had even heard of it.

The story might be a myth, but it's a good one, as far as resort operator Bernie Karl is concerned. Seeing something so powerful is a magical experience, he said.

"When the Northern Lights are totally around you, it's like you're consumed with them," he said. "If you don't feel like there's a higher power there, you never will. There's no hope for you."

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