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Japanese Head for the Great Bright Way - Alaska’s Northern Lights

May 13, 1991

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (AP) _ The northern lights have seen queer sights, wrote poet Robert W. Service - but nothing quite so perplexing as the newest Alaskan oddity, the arrival of thousands of Japanese to see the aurora borealis.

Enticed by aurora features on Japanese television, aurora travel posters in the Tokyo subway and aurora packages of one of Japan’s most popular cigarettes, the Japanese have flocked to Alaska in recent years.

″Japanese cannot see the northern lights from domestic Japan, so they think of them as mysterious, fantastic. A major phenomenon (that’s) very attractive,″ said Kojiro Abe of the Alaska division of tourism in Tokyo.

″We sent out a questionnaire asking which attractions are most popular with Japanese consumers. The No. 1 answer was the northern lights.″ More Japanese make the trip to see the aurora each winter, and as many as 3,000 were in the Anchorage-Fairbanks area in late April, Abe said.

The northern lights burn brightly and frequently during Alaska’s long, dark winter. The Alaska interior is a particularly good vantage point, located under a wide, auroral belt just south of the magnetic north pole.

Depending upon weather, scientists say residents of Fairbanks, Fort Yukon and Barrow could see the shifting spectral lights - green, blue, crimson and magenta - almost 200 nights a year.

By comparison, Chicago or Seattle might see the lights 25 times a year, San Francisco five times and the Mediterranean and Mexico once a decade.

The colors depend on the mix of nitrogen and oxygen, turned into the equivalent of a giant neon sign by electrically charged particles from the sun.

Carried by the solar wind and then picked up by the earth’s magnetic field, the particles create a gigantic natural generator, producing up to 10 million megawatts of electricity which ionizes the gases and makes them glow.

The lights have been the stuff of legend since the days of the Vikings. Eskimos, who live in high frequency viewing areas, have been passing down oral legends about the displays for generations.

These days, the Japanese and others from the Lower 48 spend thousands of dollars on airfare, lodging and ground transportation so they can bundle up and stand outside in cold, clear weather to ooh and ah, as if to watch fireworks.

Woody Kobayashi, a Japanese tour operator in Anchorage, said a seven-day package runs anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 per person, Tokyo to Fairbanks.

He pronounced it ″a good deal for everybody. It’s wintertime, when airline travel and hotels are cheap. It helps the travel industry even out its year.″

A half-dozen businesses around Fairbanks have begun cashing in on the aurora. They’ve teamed with travel agencies to set up package tours, hired interpreters to help explain the spectral sightings and print their brochures in English and Japanese.

Perhaps the ultimate aurora capitalist, though, is Pam McLaughlin, who runs the Old F.E. Company Gold Camp 37 miles northeast of Fairbanks and is commonly called the ″Aurora Queen.″

McLaughlin and her husband, Larry, are building more cabins, cutting new trails and generally upgrading their 1920s gold camp-turned-rustic resort.

″The aurora just dumps in our front yard,″ she said. ″It’s pretty vibrant.″

They’ve also teamed with a Japanese investor to build a $500,000 log- walled, glass-domed ″aurorium″ just a few feet from the door of the main lodge. By fall, the building should be ready to give observers an unobstructed but pampered view of the northern lights.

″I still have two Japanese here and I’m picking up another one tonight,″ McLaughlin said. ″We quit the tours a couple of weeks ago when we had so much daylight. But we’ll be going big-time this fall, when our aurorium is built.″

McLaughlin said her Old F.E. Camp played host to ″a good 400″ Japanese this past winter, and tours - where a van makes hotel pickups in Fairbanks and brings visitors to a nearby viewing area - accounted for an additional 150 people.

Tours run $45 per person; a night at the inn costs about $50, which includes breakfast and a Jacuzzi, she said.

Shiro and Ryoko Oishi, from Shizuoka, near Mount Fuji, were part of the Japanese contingent at the camp in April. A dentist and amateur photographer, Shiro was celebrating his 60th birthday in Alaska. He wanted to capture the northern lights on film, his wife said.

″It’s a very nice show,″ she said after her first view. ″Indescribable.″

They were seated in the camp’s dining hall alongside George Rondreau, a patent attorney from Issaquah, Wash., with his wife and three children.

″It’s a natural phenomenon ...″ he said. ″It sort of reminds me of a computer-generated kind of light; a laser display but not so predictable.″

Auroras appear year-round, day or night, but are visible only in darkness. The best times of year to see them in Alaska are fall and late winter when nights are long - 18 to 20 hours - and the weather is clear and crisp.

But what nature gives, nature often takes away.

″The aurora operates on a 22-year cycle with an 11-year mid-peak,″ said Neal Brown, with the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. ″We’re right at the top of it.″

Scientists believe the peak will last through 1993, but gradually, the lights will fade. And the industry that has been built around this spectral spactacular may fade, as well.

″It’s a little scary to talk about an industry that may die,″ Brown said.

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