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Saturday, May 28, 2011

Fukushima observatory chief offers solace of stars


Staff writer

TAMURA, Fukushima Pref. — With neon signs in the city of Fukushima switched off due to power shortages, making nighttime darker than usual, Hiroaki Ohno gazed up one night following the March 11 disaster and felt a sense of awe.

News photo
Looking on the bright side: Hiroaki Ohno, director of the Hoshi no Mura Observatory in Tamura, Fukushima Prefecture, poses May 21 with a telescope that was wrecked by the March 11 earthquake. JUN HONGO PHOTO

From his home he could clearly observe the Milky Way and the constellations. "I thought that maybe we have been using too much electricity and this is the way it should be," Ohno, director of the Hoshi no Mura Observatory in Tamura, Fukushima Prefecture, told The Japan Times last week.

Following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, the 62-year-old has been carrying small telescopes in his car and visiting evacuation sites, encouraging children and adults alike to look at the clearly visible stars above them.

"A bedridden woman came out of the evacuation shelter once in a wheelchair to take a peek. She told me she could distinguish the rings around Saturn," Ohno said.

The planets and stars appeared to provide much-needed cheer in the evacuees' lives, he added.

The Hoshi no Mura Observatory is the closest such facility to the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, about 33 km away.

The observatory is known for its telescope, which boasts a 65-cm diameter objective, the largest in the prefecture. "This telescope can tell the difference between a tennis ball and a golf ball from 20 km away," Ohno said.

But the earthquake broke the state-of-the-art machine in half, with one portion weighing about three tons crushing Ohno's chair and cracking the observatory's floor.

At the time, Ohno was taking photographs of solar flares and fortunately was away from his station, having lunch when the telescope came crashing down. "What I remember from the day is the rumbling sound from the ground that occurred right before the earthquake.

"I knew something extraordinary was going to happen," he recalled.

The observatory staff ran to the parking lot when the temblor hit and the shaking kept getting stronger. The quake created a 1.2-meter crack in the ground behind the observatory.

"It was like being shoved a couple of meters to one side, and then to the other, over and over again," Ohno said. The damage to Hoshi no Mura's facilities was immediately apparent once the shaking stopped.

It took more than a month for the observatory to resume operations and it is likely to take at least a year and more than ¥70 million to repair the telescope, he said.

But above all, the radioactivity leaks have been keeping visitors away from the popular tourist destination. Hoshi no Mura usually draws about 2,000 visitors during Golden Week, according to Ohno, but this year there were fewer than 200. "The physical damage was caused by the earthquake, but visitors are turning away because of the radiation issue," Ohno said, adding he may seek compensation from Tokyo Electric Power Co.

"This area in Fukushima Prefecture is known for its clean air and thick green forests, making it an ideal place for observing the stars," he explained. "To have our area contaminated by radiation is extremely distressing."

While repairing the facilities, Ohno said he recalled how he fell in love with astrology as an amateur. Before taking the job at the observatory when it opened in 1991, he was a kimono fabrics dealer. "I'd often work until late at night (in his previous job) and observe the stars, which made me feel at ease. Even when I was tired it had a relaxing effect," he said.

That is why he decided to resume nighttime operations and opened up the observatory last Saturday after confirming that radiation levels in the area — measured at about 0.2 microsieverts per hour — are safe. "I often wonder about whether there are any extraterrestrials out there, (beings) just like us," Ohno said.

In his opinion, the existence of mankind is already proof there is life in other parts of the universe. In evacuation sites, Ohno often speaks to children and tells them there could be life on other planets, beings trying to overcome disasters like the one that hit the Tohoku region.

Any one of the twinkling stars could be experiencing seismic shifts and people there may be working hard to rebuild their cities, he tells them.

"The stars are undaunted, and that is the beauty. Whatever happens on the ground, they keep shining above us in the sky," he said.



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