Tired of sitting in front of computers all day long? Sick of sucking up exhaust as you walk down the street? Have you been pondering life’s meaning and, above all, our meager existence in this world?
Or have you been simply racking your brain about where to take your kids during Golden Week?
Anyone who answered in the affirmativeto any of the above questions would benefit from a visit to a planetarium, a virtual universe that lets you gaze at a starry sky in the middle of any day.
Modern-day planetariums are no longer dark, musty hideaways for teenage couples, which is what many of them were decades ago. Nor are they an educational facility only for children. Thanks to technological advances — and the creative input of scientists, artists and volunteers — Japanese planetariums, which number around 300, offer a wide variety of fun and educational experiences. On offer at some locations are 3-D movies like those often seen at theme parks that make you feel as if you were aboard an interplanetary spacecraft. One even offers an iyashi (relaxation) experience that combines star-gazing with aromatherapy.
The Megastar-II cosmos projector at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation (more commonly called Miraikan) in Odaiba, Tokyo, is certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the “world’s most advanced planetarium projector.” The machine is capable of displaying a whopping 5 million stars, by far the highest amount in the world, re-creating even the subtle details of the Milky Way and nebula. The position and the brightness of all the stars in the universe are based on actual data sent by satellites, museum staff said, who recommend people bring binoculars to enjoy a better view. Famed planetarium creator Takayuki Ohira and the Miraikan staff jointly developed the projector.
“The point is not the huge number,” said Nae Morita, an official at the museum’s exhibition planning group. “It might be called a Japanese approach to a planetarium, but we see value in trying to re-create things that are intangible, paying attention to nuanced details, depth and subtle textures.”
The program currently running is also unique. Called Guzen no Wakusei (A Planet by Chance), it showcases the birth of the Earth with video images of randomly changing colors and shapes. The show is accompanied by eerie, mysterious sounds created by percussionist Tomo Yamaguchi, who recorded in only one take with instruments he himself made out of junk such as cans, window panels and keys.
The planetarium at the Katsushika City Museum, meanwhile, has drawn capacity crowds every day since it remodeled its facility in March. It combines an optical planetarium that reproduces beautiful stars, with a digital movie system that displays 3-D computer graphics of the universe. The museum uses computer graphic images provided by the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Sitting back in comfy chairs, you feel as if you are actually traveling from Katsushika into outer space.
Visitors at a recent viewing cheered as they were taken out of the Earth’s orbit and zoomed in on each planet of the solar system, while fast-tempo techno music blared in the background.
“Let’s go into the rings . . .” said museum curator Mayumi Iuchi in a soft, DJ-like voice, as Saturn approached. “As you can see here, the rings are made of particles of ice.”
“It was fun,” said Yuri Yamanaka, a 10-year-old from the neighborhood who came to see the program with a friend and her mother. “Now I am a bit more interested in space.”
But some planetariums are popular without gigantic dome-shaped screens or 3-D systems. Katsuhiro Mouri, a curator at the Nagoya City Science Museum, said his planetarium, which attracts 250,000 visitors a year, is meant to make people interested in the actual stars and feel we are really part of the universe. Mouri, who has been a big fan of stars since childhood, says he came to the planetarium many times himself as a boy and enjoyed the unscripted, emphatic explanations of planetary science provided by its narrators.
“It was like a dream when I landed a job at this planetarium. A planetarium’s true purpose is not to make people see a program,” he said. “I would like visitors to become interested in looking at the real sky. You can actually see Venus, and dozens of other stars on a clear night . . . We would like to make people feel our connection with the universe.”
Recommended planetariums for stargazing
Some facilities are crowded, especially on weekends and holidays, so it is recommended that you check with operators on the availability of seats beforehand. Asahikawa Science Center, Asahikawa, Hokkaido
Features a projector by globally acclaimed German lens maker Carl Zeiss.
(0166) 31-3186; www.city.asahikawa.hokkaido.jp/files/kagakukan/index.html Sendai Astronomical Observatory, Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture
The current planetarium will close on Nov. 25 because of its aging system and the urbanization of the area, which has made star-gazing difficult. A new observatory will open in July 2008. (022) 222-6694; www.astro.sendai-c.ed.jp Katsushika City Museum, Katsushika Ward, Tokyo
A remodeled planetarium with a 3-D program that attracts visitors from all over Japan. (03) 3838-1101; www.city.katsushika.lg.jp/museum/index.html Sunshine City Starlight Dome, Ikebukuro, Tokyo
Airs a program incorporating aromatherapy daily starting 7 p.m. through May 27. (03) 3989-3546; www.sunshinecity.co.jp/planetarium/index.html National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation (Miraikan), Odaiba, Tokyo
Features two star-gazing spots: Dome Theater Gaia and a four-dimensional digital-image theater developed by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan. (03) 3570-9151; www.miraikan.jst.go.jp/index_e.html Yokohama Science Center
A remodeled “hybrid” planetarium that combines digital images and an optical planetarium system. (045) 832-1166; www.ysc.go.jp/ysc/e-menu.html Nagoya City Science Museum
One of the most successful planetariums in the country that holds star-viewing events for citizens. (052) 201-4486; www.ncsm.city.nagoya.jp Osaka Science Museum
The oldest planetarium in Japan, now it offers digital video images with narration by the curators. (06) 6444-5656; www.sci-museum.kita.osaka.jp Kyoto Municipal Science Center for Youth
The center’s planetarium is capable of showing 10,000 stars. (075) 642-1601; www.edu.city.kyoto.jp/science Munakata Yurix Planetarium, Munakata, Fukuoka Prefecture