The Great Honshu Circumnavigation

May 21, 2012

When I looked at a map of Japan to find Niigata, I noticed that a train line ran all the way from the coastal city hosting our conference to Kyōto, the tracks flirting with the shores of the Sea of Japan (日本海, “Japan Sea”).  I’d been encouraged to visit Kyōto, and as this was my third trip to Japan without yet visiting the ancient capital, I figured now was the time to go.  With a week-long JR rail pass, I decided to take the trains from Niigata to Kyōto, rather than pass back through Tōkyō and down to Kyōto, a route I’d taken eight times in the last ten months.

After the eclipse, I boarded a local train in Niigata.  Past flooded rice fields, mountains flecked with snow, and a placid coastline, the trains rumbled and sped, me as practically the only passenger in most cars as we passed the tail end of springtime on Honshū (本州, “main province”), the main island of Japan.

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Annular Solar Eclipse (金環日食) 2012

May 21, 2012

The moon passed in front of the sun right at the end of Asteroids, Comets, and Meteors.  The forecast was for a perfect annular eclipse as seen from Tōkyō, but the weather forecast for the eastern capital was far from clear.  We elected to spend the night of the 19th in Niigata, and the next morning, Cristina and I set out early to watch the sunrise and hand out glasses to passersby to watch the moon pass in front of our sun.

The kanji for this astronomical event–金環日食–translate quite literally as “a golden ring making a meal of the sun”.  The geometry of our solar system sees our moon dieting on our stellar neighbor.

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Wisteria of the Northern Culture Museum

May 18, 2012

Asteroids, Comets, Meteors in Baltimore in 2008 had a cultural “excursion” to a baseball game; ACM 2012 had one to a well-preserved mansion near Niigata known as the Northern Culture Museum.  Preserved through a partnership with an American donor, this expansive manor and its grounds showcase life in the late 19th century in north-western Japan.

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Asteroids, Comets, and Meteors (小惑星、彗星、流星)

May 16-20, 2012

Asteroids, Comets, and Meteors is a scientific conference held every three years, organized with support from the International Astronomy Union (IAU), the same folks who in 2006 voted to demote Pluto.  Planetary definitions aside, I was excited when they announced a conference in 2011 in Japan; small solar system bodies and the Land of the Rising Sun, what could be a better combination?  Then the Tōhoku Disaster of 2011 happened, and the conference was postponed until 2012, a year of uncertainty for me.  I cobbled together a project, support, and submitted an abstract on observations I’d taken earlier this year on a binary asteroid system, (22) Kalliope and its moon Linus, and packed my bags for Niigata, northwest of Tōkyō through the alps.

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A seven-hour layover in Honolulu

January 5, 2012

Sometimes the stars align, even when the clouds and minor planets do not, and on your flight between Narita and San Francisco you can swing a seven-hour layover in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi for cheaper than a direct flight.  After the damp and chilly weather of Kyushu and the icy cold of Tokyo, a few hours in the warm sunshine were all I wanted.

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Kagoshima University Observatory and the (20000) Varuna occultation of 2012

January 2, 2012

Like a number of research universities, Kagoshima University has its own observatory. Nestled in rolling hills reminding me of Marin County and surrounded by beef cattle fields* (also a university property), the observatory is home both radio and visible wavelength astronomy facilities. A large radio telescope downhill from the optical observatory faded into the evening light.

Our telescope was a 1-meter reflector, operated by a posse of graduate students.  How to change the mirror configuration?  Put one of said grad students on a ladder, then grab his belt loops so he doesn’t fall into the primary mirror.

Why travel several thousand miles by squeezing onto Shinkansen like sardines to visit this observatory? A minor planet, known by its number (20000) or its name Varuna after a Hindu god, was predicted to pass in front of a particular star, occulting the distant stellar object’s light. Varuna’s shadow as cast by the star would sweep across the Pacific Ocean that night, ostensibly visible from Japan, Hawaii, China, Thailand, and other neighboring countries.  The actual occultation only occurs for a few seconds.

(20000) Varuna's shadow predicted track across the Pacific

Measuring this dip in brightness helps inform better orbital models for Varuna, search for companion moons, and even probe the existence of an atmosphere around the tiny, icy world.

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New Year’s Eve at Nitta Jinja

December 31, 2011

I’d spent the evening calibrating the telescope and making everything worked, so Hayamizu-san took me to the local shrine for a New Year’s Eve celebration.  The Nitta shrine (Jinja) was in honor of turtles and required climbing up several flights of steps on a hillside to the top.  Over 650 years old, this Shinto shrine and its 700-year-old tree had survived lightning strikes and World War II bombings.

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Sakurajima, an active volcano in Kyushu

December 31, 2011

There’s an active volcano (活火山, lively + fire + mountain) a ten-minute train ride away from Satsuma-sendai.  Named Sakurajima,  (桜島, literally, cherry blossom island), this formerly island volcano is home to giant radishes, tiny satsuma tangerines, and numerous hotsprings.


While Sakurajima continually erupts today, ejecting clouds of ash and smoke, its most recent major eruption was in 1914.  Locals knew before the big eruption that it was time to leave: they’d heard stories about the giant 18th century eruption when the islands’ wells boiled, shoals of dead fish washed up on shore, and earthquakes rattled their towns.  In what was a rare eruptive event for Japan, home to explosive high silicate lava, Sakurajima belched a veritable flow of lava (溶岩), which covered villages and caused the island to grow, eventually connecting via isthmus to the mainland.  The volcano erupts more than daily, spewing ash over Kagoshima-shi in the summer and further south in the winter.

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Arriving in Kagoshima-ken, Satsuma-sendai-shi

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.

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