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Sunday, May 1, 2005
Heading for the stars on high
By YOKO HANI
KONA, Hawaii -- The big white 4WD driven by Yasuhiro Nishida left the hotel in Kohala Coast at 2:50 p.m. with 13 people on board. It was another windy afternoon on the west coast of the island of Hawaii -- "the Big Island," as this, the largest and youngest in the Hawaiian chain, is known.
Driving roads ribboned through expanses of black lava, Nishida was headed for the summit of Mauna Kea, the Pacific archipelago's highest peak. Up there, at 4,205 meters, is where Hawaiian legends have it that Poli'ahu, the goddess of Mauna Kea, lives. This party, though, was en route to simply enjoy the view and the stars.
However, as he was aware that Japan's highest peak, Mount Fuji, is a 3,776 meters, and that some of his passengers may be a bit worried about going so high into what is normally regarded as alpinists' territory, Nishida was quick to quell anxieties.
Having worked as a tour guide on star-gazing trips to Mauna Kea for six years, he simply said: "Don't worry about the altitude too much. We go up by car all the way and our bodies adjust to the altitude little by little to avoid altitude sickness. This mountain is not so steep-sided, so we have a very gradual climb that will take about four hours.
"But I want to tell you," he added, "that the top of the mountain is a very special place. It is the peak of a mass that rises about 9,700 meters from the ocean floor. I have climbed the mountain nearly 1,000 times, and I definitely feel it is somewhere different."
As he drove, Nishida talked about the nature, history and legends of this island whose geography is so diversified that it is often described as a "mini-continent."
"Mauna" means "great mountain" and "Kea" means "white" or "pure," he explained, because the peak is snow-capped in winter. The mountain has been regarded as a bridge to the spirit world ever since Polynesians landed here about 1,500 years ago, long before Britain's seafarer supreme, Capt. James Cook, put the Hawaiian islands on Western maps in the late 1770s.
As for himself, Kyoto-native Nishida told his passengers that he felt he had somehow been destined to live on the Big Island, even though he had never thought about it in Japan. Now 37, he said that after graduating from Hokkaido University in 1994, he landed a job at a prestigious Tokyo TV production company -- only to leave the company within a month to live in Paris and New York for several years pursuing his lifelong ambition to be a painter.
Then, in 1999, he moved to Hawaii Island, where he has lived ever since with his wife and two children. And now he works as one of only a handful of Japanese tour guides taking visitors to the top of Mauna Kea while preparing to publish books of his artworks.
"I still feel guilty about leaving the TV production company so soon," he said, "but my life after that was filled with unexpected incidents that eventually brought me here, to the Big Island -- and that has made me feel so happy. Now after 10 years, I really feel that it was the right decision to leave Japan."
As he said this, well-tanned Nishida -- an accomplished snowboarder and aikido martial artist -- indeed just looked so "at home" in those marvelous, natural surroundings.
As the road wound now through meadows -- with both Mouna Kea and 4,170-meter-high Mauna Loa in view -- the weather put on a show of its own as well. One minute conditions were so misty that the road ahead became invisible, the next it was pouring with rain -- and then there were wondrous shows of double and triple rainbows.
Despite Mother Nature's best endeavors, though, the drive made the party feel drowsy.
"That is only natural as we are going up to mountain and the oxygen level is steadily declining," Nishida said. It was 3:45 p.m. and we were at 1,600 meters. "You can have a nap now if you like. But you have to try hard not to in the last 30 minutes before getting to the peak, because that can be dangerous."
After two short breaks and a two-hour drive, Nishida wheeled our white steed into the Visitor Information Center at the 2,800-meter point. The center is also called the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy, because it was built in honor of Ellison Shoji Onizuka, an American astronaut from Hawaii who died when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded on takeoff in January 1986.
Outside, at this altitude, it was c-c-c-cold, and in the center tour group members accepted obento dinners, down jackets and the warming, hourlong break they were given to prepare for the "summit assault."
From there, on the 30-minute route to the top around zig-zag corners, drivers are told to engage low-range 4WD, and to limit their speed to 40 kph. Nishida also advised everyone to keep water in their mouths and swallow it bit by bit to help with oxygen intake.
Then, as ever upward we went, round white objects appeared amid the remaining winter snow, looking like space stations on the reddish-brown ground of some distant planet. Actually, though, they are astronomical observatories, since the summit of Mauna Kea, located at the middle of the Pacific Ocean, is about as far away as anywhere on Earth from the dust and lights of the world's urban jungles. Also, the weather up there is clear for about 95 percent of the year on average, which is why the summit is the site of no fewer than 12 observatories, including a Japanese one named Subaru.
Finally, on the summit in a temperature of around 1 degree, party members stood in awe gazing at the sun beginning to set in a pillow of clouds.
"This is the view that the goddess Poli'ahu saw," Nishida said.
The spectacle was indeed divine, as the color of the sky changed from minute to minute until, after the sun had disappeared, we were treated to a so-called "Alpine glow," when the sky's colors morphed magically through a range of purples and pinks.
"The view from here is different every time. And the feelings I have here are also different every time," Nishida said. "I am not aware of that when I stand here, but every time I go down the mountain, I know I got something from the experience of standing on the top and experiencing nature."
After marveling at the sunset, the tour plan was to observe the stars from the Onizuka Center. That evening, though, cloud obscured the heavens and so Nishida drove down in the dark for 40 minutes to a point at around 1,800 meters where the stellar spectacular came into glorious view, filling the sky in every direction. There, using a searchlight as a pointer, Nishida took his tourists on an astronomical tour, naming the constellations and planets such as Venus and Orion, but also tiny stars spread all over the sky.
"The stars are so bright here," Nishida said. "I was on top of Mauna Kea one morning in January, at around 3 a.m., and believe me, the Milky Way cast a shadow from my body." In summer, though, he explained that our galaxy's light is even brighter -- so much so, he said "that you can almost read by the light of the stars."
Then a tour member who lives in a Japanese city confessed that she had forgotten the sky is actually so full of stars. Me too, I thought, as Nishida explained that in Hawaii, watching the stars is a part of living. "In this island of perpetual summer," he said, "it is essential to see the stars to know the season and the weather."
Sadly, by then it was turned 9 p.m., and it was time to reboard the 4WD and head back to our hotel. Though the drive again made us feel drowsy, it was a balmy state of contentment to be in after a magical 7-hour mystery tour on this island that so often viewed merely as a tropical resort, and a mecca for watersports and shopping.