It used be one of the most-favored destinations for young visitors from outside Tokyo and a popular meeting place for locals.
The Gotoh Planetarium and Astronomical Museum, Tokyo’s oldest planetarium in existence, however, will close down next March because of financial difficulties due to a decline in visitors.
“It is sad that we are closing down, but we believe we have served for over 40 years to spread the charms of the world of stars to many people,” said Yoshihito Kamogawa of the planetarium.
Since it opened in April 1957, the planetarium has fascinated a number of people with countless artificial stars filling up its dome.
As visitors gaze at the ceiling from their reclining chairs, a curator guides them through an hourlong galaxy adventure, explaining daily, monthly and yearly movements of the stars over Tokyo.
It is not only fun and educational but is also a short respite from the noisy, bustling city outside.
Apart from such daily shows, the planetarium has been inviting stargazers to special monthly astronomy courses and sessions to observe real stars through telescopes.
For schoolteachers and those aspiring to become curators, it has been a mentor, giving them guidance on how to teach astronomy in the classroom.
Mitsue Kanai, 52, of Kanagawa Prefecture, who was visiting the facility for the first time in decades, said her childhood experience at the planetarium triggered her interest and fondness of stars.
“I first came here on a school excursion when I was a fifth-grader,” she said. “I was so fascinated with the place that for over a year after the first visit, I returned here every month by myself.”
In the early years of its operation, the planetarium attracted over 430,000 visitors annually on average. The number rose further in the late 1960s during the U.S. Apollo space project that culminated with the first landing on the moon in 1969.
There were times when the auditorium’s 445 seats could not accommodate all the visitors in one sitting and people would line up and wait for an hour for the next program, Kamogawa recalled.
“For students from outside Tokyo, this used to be a favorite site to visit during school trips,” Kamogawa said.
When the planetarium began operating on the eighth floor of the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan building right in front of Shibuya Station, it was a landmark in the area, he said.
“People would decide to meet either in front of Hachiko or this planetarium,” he said.
To be sure, the planetarium is not Japan’s oldest; Osaka’s now-defunct Electric Science Museum, established in 1937, is not only the first planetarium in Japan but in all of Asia.
In Tokyo, there was a short-lived predecessor that opened in 1938 near Yurakucho Station, only to burn down during World War II. Thus, the Gotoh planetarium has served as a virtual pioneer in Tokyo.
The number of visitors, however, gradually declined. In the past four years, Gotoh only averaged 132,000 visitors annually.
“Sometimes, there are only two people in an hourlong program,” Kamogawa said.
One of the major reasons for the decline, according to Kamogawa, is the increase in the number of planetariums in other cities.
Currently, over 300 planetarium-equipped facilities exist in Japan, including 32 in Tokyo. With those in the nearby prefectures of Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama, the metropolitan area has a total of 92.
“The number is really surprising, but if there are planetariums closer to home, it’s natural that people go to the ones more accessible. And if they are public facilities, they’re cheaper, too,” Kamogawa said.
He added that the Gotoh planetarium may have been an inspiration to the succeeding ones, providing potential operators with necessary information and instructions as part of its mission of educating citizens on the charms of astronomy.
The emergence of a number of other amusement facilities and shopping sites in Shibuya has also forced the Gotoh planetarium to fade from sight and mind.
Some also point out the decline in the number of children as well as the interest in stars as other reasons for the lessening number of visitors.
“Maybe children nowadays don’t realize that there is fun in observing the stars when you have television to watch and games to play,” Kamogawa said.
But news of the long-standing planetarium’s closure is bringing some old-timers back.
Masahiro Miyagawa, 36, of Urawa, Saitama Prefecture, for instance, brought his 6-year-old son, Yuhi, to the planetarium. It was Miyagawa’s first visit in nearly 20 years.
“My son got very interested in stars since he went to a planetarium near our house from his kindergarten,” Miyagawa said. “I bought him a picture book on astronomy, and he goes through it all the time. He loves to find constellations at night, and now I think he knows more than I do.”
Kamogawa is just happy to see Miyagawa and many others, saying: “It is one consolation if news of our closing is drawing people’s attention to planetariums.
“The experience might become a chance for people to realize the fun of watching the stars. It may provide them with a whole new world, or just the knowledge of stars can help them find stars when they visit somewhere,” he said.
“We’re surely closing down, but it’s not the end of planetariums.”