December 30, 2011
A few days before New Years Eve I boarded a plane to Japan, carrying with me a Pelican case containing a camera, a netbook, an assortment of cables, and instructions on how to connect all of it to a telescope at Kagoshima University on the southernmost main island of Japan. The goal was to capture a Kuiper Belt object’s passing in front of a distant star in order to better understand the size and orbit of this icy world known as (20000) Varuna.
Due to restrictions on what carriers I could fly while traveling on federal grants, and the price of plane tickets in general, I wound up flying to Tokyo then taking the Shinkansen for 7.5 hours to the second-to-last stop on the Sakura line, put in place in March of 2011. I flew into Haneda, took the monorail into Tokyo, camped out at the JR pass exchange office, and finally acquired my “gaijin rail pass”. The day was clear with a few clouds. Fuji-san became visible as the sun rose and illuminated the snow-capped mountain.
Trail outlines became readily apparent as the train moved south and west; storms must blow in from the north.
As we moved further south, snow was everywhere, covering rice fields.
The train was unbelievably crammed; I was lucky to have gotten a reserved seat from the Tokyo-Osaka leg, but on the Osaka-Fukuoka leg I had no such luck. Packed like rice balls in a bento box, Japanese were descending en masse on the trains to return home for the New Year’s holiday. I made friends with a girl named Umi, who turns out is a sailor and participated in Volvo youth racing!
At some point in the south, a giant Buddhist statute kept watch over the landscape.
The snow cleared, leaving fallow rice paddies.
I arrived at the train station in Satsuma-sendai (川内; “river inside”, not to be confused with 仙台 where the earthquake happened in March of 2011). “Satsuma” is an old Buddhist term, which is the origin of the name of those tasty little citrus fruits. Ando-san, a graduate student at Kagoshima University, picked me up and we drove up to せんだい宇宙館, the Sendai Space Hall.
Sendai Space Hall was an outreach center with its own little observatory on the roof. Next to playing fields and a petting zoo, it was Kagoshima-ken’s place for getting the public excited about science. It had a beautiful view of the river flowing out to the west, as well as the local nuclear reactor.
At this point, I’d been on trains for about eight hours and wanted nothing more than to shower and sleep for all eternity. Hayamizu-san, director of Sendai Space Hall, was so enthusiastic to have me there that he had his staff take me on a tour of the exhibits. One was a cycling tour of the solar system; you’d pedal a stationary bike to move from planet to planet.
Excitement abounded regarding the solar eclipse of May 2012; the kanji literally means that something is making a meal of the sun.
On the roof, they opened the telescope shed and we looked at the moon.
Group shot time! ハイチェス！
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