The main place to view the stars in my hometown of Miami is at the local Science Museum. It is located at the edge of a sprawling downtown, so you have to fight through immense traffic just to enter the place. Then, there are the hoards of anxious people trying not to miss the last laser light show of the day. You have to ask an employee where to find the telescope, and they direct you down a dark dirty alley and up a long flight of stairs only to peer through a tiny sad excuse of a telescope.
The Gunma Observatory is quite a different story. It is a serious star observatory located high up in the mountains in the small village of Takayama-mura. The village built the observatory at the turn of the century because of the areas low density population, and upholds a rule of no excessive night lighting making it the perfectly dark place for a star observatory.
To get there, you drive up small mountain roads in total darkness for quite some time until you reach the observatory grounds and parking lot. Do not think your travels are finished there, because the observatory is not close to your parking spot. You have to climb a wooden staircase for about ten to fifteen minutes in order to reach one of the two observatory stations. The whole area is in total darkness, aside from some soft lights on the steps to guide you. Along the way, you can stop and ring one of the chimes placed along the path. It is a really beautiful experience to quietly walk along the path admiring the surrounding trees and the occasional soft chimes in the distance.
As you round up the hill the observatory building will come into sight. Immediately inside the facility there are children’s artistic depictions of space. This was quite bizarre for me to see as I have never heard a Japanese person talk about space in all my time in Japan. One picture I fondly remember features a child’s parents circling the moon atop their bed. Other kids drew pictures of their own renditions of spaceships. There are also many interesting pictures and information about new sightings and special lunar events, which you should be sure to check out.
The observatory itself was designed by a popular architect, Arata Isozaki. While the design is very simple aesthetically, the way space is used is very impressive. I particularly enjoyed the open-air space with the different telescopes. The various telescopes are placed on soft grass, allowing you to peer through the lens and lie down after to watch the stars.
There are other areas and places to see the stars at the Gunma Observatory, all equally impressive and worth a visit. So, if you feel the need to detach from the down-to-Earth Japan for a little while and want a chance to reach for the stars, check out this cool, otherworldly Gunma location.
For a lot more information about the Star Observatory facility (in English!), check out the Star Observatory website.
GAJET is planning an organized star-gazing trip to the Gunma Star Observatory on December 11th. from 7:00pm. When the temperatures drop in the winter, it is the ideal time to view the stars as the skies are usually slightly clearer, so do not miss this chance to visit this amazing place. For more information, gaze upon the event facebook page.
Thanks to Stephen Ho for the great photos!