Into the great white
Cross-cultural encounters under the northern lights
Hiroko, my Japanese wife, is stretched out on a plush black sofa at Aurora Borealis Lodge, and I’m tucked into the other end. In front of us are long windows looking to a haunting black-and-white landscape of ghostly birch trees, the outline of receding hills, snowfalls of stars. A group of visitors from India is crashed out behind us, and so too is our host in Inner Alaska. But everyone else in the room is Japanese.
Outside, alone on a terrace, a single figure stamps his feet in the minus-17C dark and stares out into the silence, barely stirring, for 3½ hours. Looking for the northern lights around Fairbanks, Alaska, is the best way of meeting adventurers from every corner of Japan. Signs in the middle of nowhere spell out “alpenglow” in Japanese katakana script. Every room at Chena Hot Springs Resort, more than an hour away, features a 48-page guide to the resort in Japanese, much more extensive than the rather desultory English version. “Several years ago, 99 per cent of the visitors for the lights were Japanese,” says the owner of Aurora Borealis Lodge, Mok Kumagai, a native of Japan’s Chiba prefecture.
Just as we’re heading out the door, the parka-swathed hermit from the deck shuffles in. He’s a tiny character with a wispy white beard who looks like a wizard escaped from a fairy tale. He’s from Tokyo, it transpires, though he’s been in Alaska for 45 years, hunting wolves and bear with native tribes. “How old are you?” I ask, as Japanese protocol dictates. “Seventy-seven,” replies the sage, in eastern-accented Japanese. Then he looks up to the heavens and says, in English, “Soon I’ll be with you.”
We don’t see the northern lights that evening, despite our 210-minute vigil. But it hardly matters.
The previous day, within hours of arriving in Alaska, my wife and I were dog-mushing through the woods, driving snowmobiles through the falling dusk, to within 6m of a moose and her newborn, and walking around an extraordinary museum at Chena Hot Springs, complete with life-size depictions of jousting knights on rearing horses, all made of ice. Twice before 10am, we soaked in delicious, medicinal hot springs in weather so cold our hair instantly turned white and icicle-sharp.
Most of all, though, I get to see the Japanese people, among whom I’ve lived for 30 years, as they look when they’re joyously themselves and unbuttoned amid nature’s miracles. Exactly 30 years, half a lifetime ago, I’d been transported by “white nights” in Iceland in midsummer; now, as a complement, I want to try dark days in midwinter, lit up by the “restless, electric, auroral fires” that galvanised the great naturalist John Muir. Where better to combine a sense of the beauty of the heavens — four hours between sunset and moonrise every afternoon — with a newly spirited and informal experience of my highly civilised neighbours back in Nara?
Our first afternoon in Alaska, Hiroko and I find ourselves with Masako Tokida, who’s been working at Chena Hot Springs for eight years. After Japanese television specials quickened interest in the aurora in the 1990s, she explained, three direct charter flights from her homeland in 2003 quickly became 17. “Some say it was the Japanese interest that helped awaken all Alaska to the aurora,” Masako says. “Previously, no one, not even Americans, was thinking about the lights.” Suddenly, Fairbanks had a winter tourist industry.
For me one of the great tourist sights in the modern world is the sight of other tourists in unexpected contexts, such as Chinese women, hijabs slipping down their backs, earnestly following an English-fluent guide amid the desert mosques of Yazd, in Iran, or the Japanese who follow hiragana signs on footpaths around the Yorkshire Moors in search of the Brontes. Masako’s husband is a