Single Style / Forget Earthly Worries With Stargazing, By Yourself or With Others

Courtesy of Hoshi Kazuo Hayashi
An image of the starry sky taken by Kazuo Hayashi near his observatory in August 2020

I wanted to do something enjoyable quietly by myself and got the idea of looking at the stars. It’s cold outside but the optimum season for stargazing, I thought. With the help of mentors, I experienced the world of stargazing for the first time and found it accessible yet profound.

Saturn in Yokohama

As a beginner, I got a start by attending a stargazing event, which is held once a month or so by the Hoshi Club Yokohama astronomical observation club, in the Yamashita Park in Naka Ward, Yokohama. The area is a popular tourist spot, so there were many couples and families in the park during the day. But as it got dark, they were all gone.

While waiting for the sun to set, Makoto Morooka, vice president of the club, set up a giant reflecting telescope with an aperture of 40 centimeters, a total length of 180 centimeters, and 200x magnification. He pointed the telescope in a southwesterly direction and invited participants to look into it, telling us, “You can see Saturn in the center.”

Looking through the eyepiece, I saw the planet, surrounded by its eye-catching rings. “Amazing!” I said. Passersby also stopped to look through the telescope, one by one. I learned at that time that the views seen through the telescope are the opposite of what is seen by the naked eye, both vertically and horizontally.

As it was bright in the urban park even at night, Morooka covered around the eyepiece with an objective lens cap to block the light and to see the stars better.

The four members of the club taught me how to look at stars in a comfortable position and to slowly move my face closer to the eyepiece. Doing this, I also got to see Jupiter with its stripes.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Reporter Yuki Koike looks through a reflecting telescope at the Yamashita Park in Yokohama. Blocking the city lights made it a little easier tosee the stars.

With a small telescope, I looked carefully at the moon, especially the craters. I put my smartphone against the eyepiece to take a photo and was able to capture a clear image of the moon’s surface.

Twelve years ago, after being fed up with work and wanting a hobby he could enjoy at his own leisure, Morooka bought his first telescope. The telescope had an aperture of 20 centimeters and a length of 60 centimeters. It cost about ¥300,000, including accessories. He says he bought it pretty much on an impulse. Looking through the lens, he told me he saw the vastness of the universe and thought about how “People in ancient times lived their lives while observing the movement of the stars,” and how his own problems began to seem insignificant.

When I researched on the internet, I found that there are also telescopes available from about ¥10,000 to ¥20,000.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
An image of the moon taken by attaching a smartphone camera to the eyepiece of a telescope. Images captured in this way are inverted from what is seen with the naked eye.

A healing experience

Kenichi Hyodo, an amateur astronomer in Seiyo, Ehime Prefecture, told me a story about when the torrential rains hit western parts of Japan, including his town, in 2018.

While staying in an evacuation center with other evacuees, feeling restless with anxiety about the future, his family told him he should do what he liked. As Hyodo took out a telescope he had in his car and looked at the night sky, people at the shelter showed an interest in what he was doing.

Seeing the response, Hyodo held a stargazing event at nearby evacuation centers, hoping that people there would forget, even for a moment, their difficulties. Hearing the cheers of participants as they looked through the lens, he rediscovered the captivating power of the starry night sky, even under crushing anxieties. He continues to hold stargazing events in and around the city.

“Looking up at the night sky even just for a moment may give you the strength to move forward,” Hyodo said.

Courtesy of Kenichi Hyodo
Kenichi Hyodo with a telescope

Achi ‘the best spot in Japan for stargazing’

Wanting to see the stars in a darker place, I headed to Achi, a remote village in Nagano Prefecture. The village ranked first in the 2006 list of “best spots for stargazing” released by the Environment Ministry and has promoted itself as having “the most beautiful starry sky in Japan.” It takes about 4.5 hours to reach Achi from Shinjuku, Tokyo, by express bus and rental car. Transportation costs about ¥20,000 for a round trip.

In the village, I visited a private astronomical observatory built by Kazuo Hayashi, a local resident who runs a construction company. He told me he fell in love with astronomical observation in elementary school, when his teacher showed him Saturn through a telescope. It’s no wonder, I thought: the gas giant is indeed captivating.

The observatory is located at an altitude of 700 meters, about 10 minutes by car from the center of the village.

To my surprise, there was also a specially built open-air bath. “I’d always dreamed of seeing the stars from a bathtub,” Hayashi said with a laugh.

He said that the roof of the second floor can be opened for stargazing, though on the day of my visit, it was too windy to open it.

Around 6 p.m., after dark, we went outside. The temperature was minus 3.1 C. I layered with two down jackets, but Hayashi lent me another one, telling me, “It’ll still be cold.”

I looked up at the sky with my naked eyes. The site is located in a valley surrounded by mountains, where few lights from urban areas reach. There are no tall trees around the observatory, either; I saw countless stars shining in a 360-degree view of the sky.

“The three stars forming a straight line represent Orion,” Hayashi explained to me one after another. “The red one is Betelgeuse,” he said. There were so many stars that it was hard for me to keep up. Even though the telescope could not be used because of the strong wind, I was very pleased by stargazing with my naked eyes.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Kazuo Hayashi’s observatory in Achi, Nagano Prefecture, with constellations painted on its walls