By Hiroshi Masumitsu / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterSAKU, Nagano — Driving down a winding road along a mountain in Saku, Nagano Prefecture, a white antenna quickly came into view. It rose from the trees to cover the blue sky.
I arrived at Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Usuda Deep Space Center and looked up at it, amazed with its size. The parabolic antenna of 64 meters in diameter weighs about 2,000 tons. I had to go all the way back to the edge of the premises to get it all in one photo.
This is the sole antenna in Japan that can communicate with space probes far from the Earth. The antenna can catch faint and subtle signals from deep space, and was able to find the missing Hayabusa and bring it back to Earth once. Now it will have contact with Hayabusa2, which is about to start its full-fledged mission.
The reason for my trip was to see this antenna up close.
According to JAXA, about 5,000 people come to visit the center annually. They include space fans, as well as those who admire the huge structure.
“[It was built] at a height of about 1,450 meters above sea level. The temperature here is about 10 C lower than the lowland, and the area is comfortable in summer. I want many people to come to visit,” said the center’s chief Yasuhiro Murata, 54.
The antenna slowly moves in accordance with the Earth’s rotation and precisely focuses on the direction of the probe and transmits and receives signals. It made me feel like the antenna was pointing to Hayabusa2.
The former town of Usuda, which is now part of the city of Saku, declared itself in 1985 as “a town of the stars.” The parabolic antenna was built in the year before this declaration, but it is not the only attribute of the town.
About a 20 minute walk from JR Usuda Station sits Tatsuoka Castle’s Goryokaku, one of only two star-shaped forts in Japan — the other is located in Hakodate, Hokkaido — which can be said to be “a star on earth.”
“This castle was designed based on a French castle. The founder and lord Matsudaira Norikata was fluent in French,” said Kazuto Sumi, 77, head of Tatsuoka Castle Hozonkai, a preservation society of the castle.
Three of the five points are encircled by a moat. Construction finished in 1867, making it the last castle to be built in the Edo period (1603-1867). One corner of the castle ruin is now used as an elementary school, and on the premises, a building called odaidokoro or kitchen has been preserved, which provides a reminder of days gone by.
Looking at the night sky
To observe real stars in the sky, I went to the public observatory Usuda Star Dome located in the city. The facility organizes a viewing event every night, allowing visitors to join in without making a reservation.
On the day I visited in June, Toru Tsubone, a staff member at the dome, adjusted a 60-centimeter-diameter reflector telescope onto Jupiter at 7:30 p.m. Visitors took turns looking into the telescope.
“Wow!” one person said, while another said, “Is this real?”
The planet’s stripes and the Great Red Spot were seen more clearly than in a book, and three satellites were seen around the plants.
“The temperature in Usuda is low, but we have less snow. An environment suitable for communicating with probes is also the best location for stargazing,” Tsubone said.
I stayed at Seishukan, the only ryokan inn in the Usuda district, which serves carp dishes as a specialty. The fish is boiled with its scales, and the flesh was chewy.
“Many nutrients that are good for your health are found on the back of the scales. We shouldn’t discard them,” said hostess Miyako Sasaki, 89.
I stayed in an antique Japanese-style room. Curling up in the futon, I recalled my grandfather’s house that I used to visit as a child. I fell asleep thinking about Jupiter and space probes.
Takes about 80 minutes from Tokyo to Sakudaira stations on the Hokuriku Shinkansen line. From there it takes about an hour to JAXA Usuda Deep Space Center by car.
To go to the center by car, take National Highway Route 141 and enter prefectural road No. 121. Follow the “9 km [to the center],” sign, turn right and simply follow the road. Although it is a plain road, cars’ global positioning system may give the wrong directions and mobile phones may not receive signals in the mountain area, so take an access map with you, which you can get on JAXA’s website
It is recommended not to drive on frozen roads in winter.
For more information, call Usuda Deep Space Center at (0267) 81-1230 or the Saku city tourism association’s Usuda office at (0267) 82-3113.
To find out more about Japan’s attractions, visit http://the-japan-news.com/news/d&dSpeech