For Japanese newlyweds Jun and Chisako Shibata, the perfect honeymoon meant standing on a steep Alaska mountain in the freezing darkness, gazing up at the dancing lights in the sky.
“Amazing,” Chisako Shibata said of the aurora borealis, or northern lights.
“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, as all around the couple other Japanese tourists gasped at each twist in the shimmering curtains of green and plum.
Growing numbers of Japanese tourists are visiting Alaska this time of year to see the aurora borealis, helping to create a lucrative winter tourism market in a cold, cold state that is primarily a summer destination.
Japanese culture is fascinated with natural wonders, and the aurora borealis — a luminous phenomenon produced when charged solar particles strike the upper atmosphere near the North Pole — is celebrated in travel and adventure shows in Japan. Many Japanese save for years or take out loans to see the aurora. For some, it is almost a spiritual quest.
“Some of them have heard about it so much, they feel it’s one of the things they must see before they die,” said Pete Redshaw, a guide at the Chena Hot Springs resort deep in Alaska’s interior, 60 miles northeast of Fairbanks. “Others want to see something so magical, something so unimaginable. I’ve seen some people cry when they see it.”
Japanese tourists account for 90 percent of the guests at the resort as well as at the Aurora Borealis Lodge, at Cleary Summit 20 miles north of Fairbanks.
Tourists from Japan have been coming to Alaska for decades to see the northern lights. But the number has climbed sharply since direct flights from Japan that reduce the flying time from about 20 hours to no more than eight became available three years ago.
Now at least 3,500 Japanese are scheduled to take advantage of the direct charter flights to Fairbanks that are running between Dec. 22 and Feb. 25. Those visitors alone are expected to pump about $3 million into the local economy, said Colin Lawrence, tourism manager at the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The aurora borealis is best viewed away from the bright lights of urban centers. With their clear, wide-open skies, interior Alaska and Canada are ideal for aurora watching, and have plenty of other winter attractions to offer vacationers, such as dog sledding, skiing, ice carving festivals and snowmobiling.
In the pre-dawn hours of a recent morning, the Shibatas and other bundled-up tourists waited inside a heated lookout at the top of 2,880-foot Charlie Dome. People took turns venturing out into the subzero cold to watch for the aurora. 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,” 34-year-old Mari Mizuno of Japan said through an interpreter.