"Seeing the aurora borealis is the visual equivalent of bagging big game for tourists who come to Alaska in the dead of winter." var google_hints = "Northern+Lights,Travel+and+Vacations,Spas,Fairbanks+(Alaska)";
"Seeing the aurora borealis is the visual equivalent of bagging big game for tourists who come to Alaska in the dead of winter."
The black, starry sky was barely visible through the billowing clouds of steam. But then it appeared: an eerie, neon-green cloud, rolling silently across the eastern sky. It seemed to pause directly overhead. Huskies up and down the narrow valley began to bark and bay at the apparition.
It was an electrical storm, charged by the sun and driven by solar winds: the aurora borealis. At this latitude — in Chena Hot Springs, Fairbanks — the aurora appears an estimated 200 nights a year. This night, it broke into three parallel streams and flowed across the sky like a river for two hours. Then it evaporated.
Seeing the northern lights is why I'm here, braving winter's bleakest hours. But I am not alone. Those tourists in the hot springs with me are from Japan. In fact, Japanese visitors pack this whole resort, even though it's located down a dark and icy two-lane road, miles from the nearest town.
“The aurora is a natural phenomenon, but very mysterious,” said Fumiko Ohashi, a vacationing office worker from Nagoya. “It moved surprisingly fast and kept changing shapes. Wow!”
Futaba Inota, on a tour with a group from Tokyo, said: “I am so impressed by the scale of nature. You can't see the aurora in Japan — it's something I wanted to experience at least once in my life.”
North central Alaska may seem like an improbable winter destination, given its frigid weather, almost round-the-clock darkness and summertime attractions that are shuttered this time of year. But tourists do come — especially the Japanese.
Last year, Miho Kataoka of Finland to see the aurora, only to miss out because of bad weather. This year, she decided to try Fairbanks instead.
“Here, the aurora was all over the sky — amazing!” she said.
The area around Fairbanks is a jumping-off point for Japanese winter tourism in the state because it affords the best chance for viewing the northern lights. It enjoys clearer weather and less precipitation than cities farther south, like those on the Panhandle or in the Anchorage area. And with its recently upgraded facilities for air travelers, Fairbanks is possibly the world's most accessible destination for aurora followers.
At least 10 chartered 350-passenger Japanese Air Lines 747s are expected to arrive at Fairbanks International Airport this winter season, carrying groups from Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya. Another 3,500 or so Japanese tourists are forecast to arrive this season on weekly commercial flights
Fairbanks also offers a popular winter carnival that includes ice carving, ice fishing, snowmobiling and dog races like the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest between Fairbanks and Whitehorse, in the Yukon Territory. Winter tourism doesn't peak until late March.
Japanese wintertime tourism in Alaska first gained popularity in the 1990s, after a Tokyo television crew broadcast live pictures of particularly intense and colorful auroras caused by a major solar disturbance. After 9/11, Japanese tourism in the Fairbanks area “dropped to zero,” according to local tourism officials. But this year, they said, promises to be the first in which Japanese tourism returns to pre-9/11 levels.
Since Christmas, Japanese tourists have helped fill the inns, hotels and bed-and-breakfast lodgings in and around Fairbanks. They play outside, so bundled up they look like the Michelin Man. The mood is festive, despite the fact that skies can be dark nearly 20 hours a day. Ice and snow covers everything: the ground, the roads, the buildings, the cars, the trees.
In summer, hundreds of thousands of tourists from the Lower 48 circulate around central Alaska like patrons of a giant amusement park — rafting, fishing, hiking, biking. In winter, they vanish. (A spokesman for Gray Line of Alaska, which organizes hundreds of summer tours, said the company was “intrigued” by the possibilities of four-season touring in the Fairbanks area, but currently senses insufficient demand to expand its offerings.)
But the Alaskan winter — recent overnight lows ranged from 25 below to 45 below zero — is high season for the Japanese. Somehow, that has given rise to some fanciful notions about why they come to Alaska.
“I've heard lots of stories,” said Kristin Fischer, a guide at the Alaska Public Lands Visitor Center, in Fairbanks. “One explanation says they want to conceive under the northern lights, so they're more likely to have a boy. Another version was for a gifted child. There's also supposed to be a belief the child will be well off.”
She added: “I've also heard it's a complete hoax.”
Debbie Eberhardt, the proprietor of A Taste of Alaska Lodge, a few miles north of town, called the rumors about Japanese fertility beliefs “a crock” and said, “The Japanese come to Fairbanks in the winter because they love the extreme cold, not to make babies.
“They do things like throw boiling water in the air and watch it freeze like marbles before it hits the ground. They blow soap bubbles, which freeze solid and roll around on the ground like Christmas ornaments. They put bananas outside to freeze and then use them as hammers to pound nails into two-by-fours.”
Most popular, however, is anything to do with aurora watching, Ms. Eberhardt said.
“They'll sit out all night, around a roaring fire, and watch the sky,” she said. “We taught them how to make s'mores last year, over the campfire. They loved that. I saw them the next morning with chocolate and marshmallow dripped all down their jackets, because they were trying to eat them while looking up.”
A typical charter group will spend four or five nights in the area. Their activities include aurora watching atop the Mount Aurora ski hill near town, attending aurora seminars at University of Alaska Fairbanks and the internationally known Geophysical Institute there, or soaking in Chena or one of the other area geothermal springs.
The Chena Hot Springs Resort also features the adjacent Aurora Ice Hotel — the only one of the half-dozen in the world that stays open all year.
Any of the Aurora Ice Hotel's four rooms rents for $575 a night (or $878 for two nights) and includes “survival gear” like quilted bedding, passes to the nearby hot springs and a backup room in the resort's 82-room Moose Lodge. Since the ice hotel reopened year-round in 2004 after an unexpected meltdown, only about 200 hardy guests have booked rooms there, said Kaylene Nuss, the resort's marketing person. “Only a handful stayed all night,” she added.
The ice hotel, which is a balmy 20 degrees inside, also doubles as a museum and “ice bar” serving $15 apple martinis in glasses made of ice (tours, $15; $7.50 for children). It features medieval and erotic ice sculptures, popular with tourists, particularly the Japanese.
“But the Japanese don't start arriving in force until winter really hits, and the temperature plunges to, like, 50 below,” said Ms. Nuss about the post-Christmas-period cold snaps, worthy of a Robert W. Service poem. “The colder, the better for them.”
The tour groups are mainly composed of single students, well-to-do older couples or retirees, said a spokesman for Dai Ichi International, a Portland, Ore., travel agency that is a packager of Japanese aurora-viewing tours. Baby making is not on their to-do list.
Dr. Syun-Ichi Akasofu, the recently retired director of the International Arctic Research Center of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, which operates a Web site predicting nightly auroral activity (www.gedds.alaska.edu/auroraforecast), calls the procreation story a “joke.”
“It was started by ‘Northern Exposure,' ” he said.
The 1992 episode in question of “Northern Exposure,” a popular TV series of the era, was written by Jeff Vlaming, a screenwriter now living in Pasadena, Calif. Reached by phone, Mr. Vlaming said he didn't invent the baby-making rumor.
“I picked up a copy of Alaska magazine, and there was this quarter-page article in there about some ancient belief that was held by the Japanese that if you conceived a child under the northern lights, it would be a gifted child,” he said, referring to an article in the November 1991 issue of the magazine. “I thought, ‘This is great — exactly the colorful type of thing I'm looking for.' So I put it in the script, and ‘Northern Exposure' bought it. It was one of their best episodes ever, I think.”
Mr. Vlaming still receives residual checks for reruns of that episode. He is also certain that since the rumor has now had 15 years to germinate, grow and spread worldwide, some Japanese have come to believe it.
That is possible. “In early December we did have a Japanese honeymoon couple, who said they came for the aurora,” said Ms. Eberhardt, the skeptical innkeeper. The couple did not speak much English, she said, but she was able to tell that the reason for their honeymoon visit was to “be here” for the aurora.
Not just to see it.