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The Sun went out over Japan recently.

On the morning of July 22, 2009, the longest total solar eclipse that will occur in the 21st century took place, with most of southeast Asia taking in a partial viewing, and the path of totality (where the total eclipse is visible) passing very close by the most populous islands of Japan. According to the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan [ja], a number of small islands including Yakushima, Akusekijima, and other Tokara Islands [en][ja] were treated to a viewing of the total eclipse just before 11:00am.

Solar Eclipse Global Visibility - July 22, 2009

Solar Eclipse Global Visibility – July 22, 2009

This total eclipse was the first in 46 years to pass over Japan, assuredly generating a great deal of enthusiasm and interest. Beyond the infrequency just from a regional perspective, there are a lot of reasons to be excited about a total solar eclipse simply as a natural phenomenon. To be able to see such features as the diamond ring effect (the final flash of light before entering totality), the corona [en][ja] (the sun's glowing hot outer atmosphere) and the explosive solar prominences [en][ja] during the eclipse is reliant upon the the moon's distance from the earth, and naturally, the earth's distance from the sun. On the geological time scale, this is certainly a temporary state. There was a time in Earth's history when the moon was too close to the earth to ever really appear to match the sun's size so nearly. In the distant future, there will be an eventual end to all total solar eclipses, as the moon's orbit draws increasingly distant from the earth, and the sun's size itself increases, complete apparent coverage of the sun by the moon will become impossible.

That said, there are those who appreciate Earthen eclipse-viewing for its cosmic value and rarity, and those who appreciate a beautiful and eerily dim daylight sky, and both types of people were interested in viewing the eclipse in Japan – with such enthusiasm in tow, preparations began.

From Flickr user emrank.

From Flickr user emrank.

While not total lunar coverage, brilliant partial eclipses were predicted to be visible [ja] in all of Japan's most populated areas: roughly 50% lunar coverage in Sapporo, 60% in Sendai, 75% in Tokyo, 80% in Kyoto, and nearly 90% in Fukuoka. Special eclipse-day weather reports and historical archives [ja] were pored over and compiled, and the forecasts (based on past conditions) spelled out less than encouraging cloud and rain presence for much of Japan, particularly the cities on Honshu and Hokkaido.

This bad weather forecast, among other things, had some feeling apprehensive even months in advance. Blogger Nosuke assembled his thoughts [ja] in April regarding viewing the eclipse on a package tour with all the others clamouring to see it.

で、とりあえず、無秩序の中でいかに生きていけれるかを考えたとき、自信がないです。w
それと、高い料金。さらに、雨降ったらどうしようって考えると。。。
[...]

そんな小さなことを考えているので。今回は、遠くから見ます。TVで見ます。人生でもう一回肉眼で見れないかもしれないけど。

Right now, thinking about making it through that chaotic process, I'm not feeling very confident. That, and there is the high cost. And when I think about what to do if it rains…
[...]

Thinking so much about such small factors, this time I will be watching the eclipse from afar, on TV. That said, I may not have another chance to witness it personally…

Safety warnings also became rather ubiquitous in many online documents and publications. 2009 is the UNESCO-designated Year of Astronomy, and the Japanese site has a series of information pages, with a cautionary page [ja] created to alert potential eclipse-viewers of the hazards involved in doing so.

As they are wont to do, tour companies were quick to establish a commercial hold on eclipse-viewing excursions. KNT [ja] (Kinki Nihon Tourist) set up a dedicated page [ja] on their website for eclipse-related tour packages. One of the key tour locations (and prime viewing spots globally) was to visit and stay on the minimally-populated, naturally-pristine Tokara Islands, with prices [ja] ranging from JPY340,000 to upwards of JPY410,000. Depending on the package selection, groups sizes ranging from 10 to well over 100 people could take trips lasting between 4 and 10 days.

Such a remote and undeveloped location is typically not prone to tourists, and thus does not nearly have the infrastructural capacity to deal with the onslaught of tourists that such a high-profile event might draw. I came across an great article regarding life on the islands, peppered with a bit of historical background, some statistics, and some honest opinions. Traditionally, the only way to access the island is via a ferry leaving from Kagoshima a couple times a week. The position of the islands (between the East China Sea and the Pacific Ocean) affords a largely untouched and unique collection of marine life. The article goes on to emphasize that the undeveloped nature should be appreciated and preserved.

There are many beautiful Southern resort islands like Yakushima, Amami islands, and Okinawa. However, Tokara are real islands with pure nature. There are almost no tourists, and inconvenient transport. Therefore, there is abundant nature, typical creatures, and a special culture which was influenced by North Japan (Yamato) and South Japan (Ryukyu) remaining on the islands. More over, there are only beautiful blue oceans, blue sky and time….

It is said that Tokara is Japan's last mysterious region. Some people say there is nothing on the islands. But some people say there is everything on the islands. Depending what you want to see, you will have a different viewpoint of the islands.

As expectations and plans took on a wide variety of forms, what was the final result? The Asahi Shinbun managed to acquire some beautiful footage [ja] from the skies, on a plane flying over the East China Sea and the surrounding islands. What of the people viewing from land?

Tanaka-san [ja] relates an inspirational eclipse viewing from China's Zhejiang province.

中国で最も今回の日食観測に適しているといわれていた浙江省の安吉で、皆既日食を観てきました

上海をはじめ、残念ながら雨でご覧いただけなかった場所もありましたが、安吉は無事、太陽が顔を出してくれました
[...]

そのうち、あたりが夕方のような薄暗さになり、太陽が線のように細くなって、地平線は夕焼けのようなオレンジに染まりはじめ・・・・・

Apparently, China was the place most suitable to view this eclipse, so I went to Anji in the Zhejiang province, and watched the total solar eclipse.

Initially in Shanghai, unfortunately there were spots where due to rain we couldn't see, however once in Anji, the sun kindly showed its face, there were no problems!
[...]

During the time the eclipse was visible, the light grew dim and dull as if it were evening, the Sun thinned to a linear shape, and the horizon was bathed in an orange colour similar to sunset.

On the Tamtam Hirai blog [ja], they discuss the visibility from Tokyo, eclipses in general, and link to a superb video.

写真だとわかりにくいですが、太陽が三日月のようになっていました!

皆既日食とは、月が太陽を完全に覆ってしまう現象です。太陽が部分的に隠される「部分日食」ならば国内でも2~3年に1度の割合で頻繁に見られますが、皆既日食となると数十年に1度しか起こらず、大変珍しい現象だそうです。

皆既日食は世界のどこかで1年に1度ほどの確率で見られるのですが、同じ場所で起こる皆既日食は100年に1度ほどの確率でしか巡ってきません!

前回日本で見られた皆既日食は何十年も前だったみたいです☆

In the photo it is hard to perceive, but the sun took on the shape of a crescent moon!

A total solar eclipse is a phenomenon in which the Moon completely conceals the Sun. Eclipses which have the sun is partially concealed (partial/annular eclipse) can be viewed in Japan fairly frequently, at a rate of roughly once every 2-3 years, however, total solar eclipses occur only once in a number of decades, an extremely rare phenomenon to be sure.

Total solar eclipses are visible annually somewhere in the world, however…
It may not take place again in the same location again for another 100 years!

It looks as if the last time a total solar eclipse was visible in Japan was some number of decades ago.
Many residents in Osaka that I spoke with reported being unable to see it due to some pretty thick cloud cover, but some people in Kobe apparently had more luck.

For those who wish to look further into the past regarding eclipses in Japan, the Mainichi Shinbun has a nice collection of archived old photos and information. For those looking to the future, the next total solar eclipse in Japan is not until September 2, 2035… plenty of time to book that boat tour.

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