When poet Matsuo Basho referred to the “silent clouds of stars” he very well could have been referring to the tiny village of Achi in Japan’s Southern Alps.
Located in Nagano near the Gifu Prefecture, this sleepy little hamlet awakens at night as people come from all across Japan to see the sparkling nightly wonders. With clear skies and no light pollution, Achi’s claims fame as one of the best places in Japan for stargazing.
What Makes Achi so Special?
While the closest major city is Nagoya, the actual closest urban area is Iida, Nagano. Truly out in the middle of nowhere, this remoteness enhances the brilliance of the sky. But to make it even better, the numerous stargazing tours take place in areas far from the village, like up on a mountaintop or out in park in the middle of the woods. This reduces light pollution even more, allowing the viewer to see an infinite amount of stars.
The main tour takes place up in the mountains at Fujimidai Highlands Heavens Sonohara. To get there take the ropeway up to the top reaching an elevation of 1,400 meters. The gondola, which starts operation from 5pm, travels a bit more than 2,500 meters and takes 15 minutes. Up at the top there is a restaurant serving cosmic flavors and a souvenir shop full of out-of-this-world gifts and goods. Many people arrive here prior to nightfall in order to have time for shopping.
The last gondola leaves at 7:30pm to make sure that you are there by 8pm for when the show starts. If you do not want to eat in the restaurant, pack yourself a picnic and take it with you. Be sure to bring a plastic tarp, a blanket or something to sit on. It is easy to find a place to sit as there is capacity for up to 3,000 people to watch the show. Also make sure to bring a wind breaker and wear warm clothes as it can become chilly on that mountaintop. You want to be comfortable while you enjoy the 30-minute long sky show.
A Heavenly Stargazing Experience
At 8pm once the show starts, the lights in the building go off in order to make sure it is as dark as possible. The show uses lasers to point things out in the sky and a guide explains what you can see. Of course, the stories in the sky all depend on the season. Since the show goes all year long, seasonal constellations and specific stars are explained. If you are lucky there might be some planets in the sky. Even luckier would be a nebula or a meteor shower. The heavens are well explained.
As long as the gondolas run the shows are held. If the weather is a bit rainy or cloudy the show moves indoors and they have what they call “planation mapping” – a show to explain what should be able to be seen. A full moon also makes it hard to see. Winter offers the best skies, but the most popular time for viewing is between April and October.
Head Out to the Woods for a Special Achi Stargazing Experience
While the stargazing is the same at Namiai Starry Sky Park, out in the forest, the tour is different. First of all, this show is more on the educational side. It is also more likely to have an English-guided show. Within the park there is a campground, a small bakery and the deck where the viewing takes place. There is a building at the viewing area with lockers and two educational rooms where one can learn more about the night sky. These facilities ae scaled down compared to those on the mountaintop.
For both shows tickets must be purchased online in advance. Namiai Park also allows phone reservations at 0265-48-8555 or 0265-43-3001. For Fujimidai, make reservations on this website, and reservations need to be made two weeks prior, or one month prior if linked with a hotel where you will stay. The cost for Fujimidai is ¥2,000 for adults and ¥1,000 for children. Namiai Starry Sky Park is ¥1,000 for adults and ¥500 for children.
Whether taking in an entertaining show on a mountaintop or a learning about Japan’s night skies at a forest park, either way you will absolutely love seeing the dazzling stars. Now that is a trip that is out of this world.
Access: The best is by car. From Tokyo take the Chuo Expressway to the Iida Yamamoto Interchange and follow the signs to Achi. It takes about four hours. Another way is by bus from Shinjuku Bus Terminal. Take an express bus to Igara bus stop and take a 10-minute taxi ride. Total travel time is nearly four hours. Also there are buses to Kamisuwa that take two and half hours then change to a direct bus to Hirogami Hot Springs and Achi. Finally, by train, from Tokyo Station, take the Tokaido Line Shinkansen for about two hours to Toyohashi. Change to an express train on the Iida Line and continue for a little more than two hours to Tenryukyo Station or Iida Station. Then rent a car.