D700 + 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 38 mm, heavily cropped — 1/160 sec, f/5, ISO 6400 — full exif
Today saw a total solar eclipse visible across a thin sliver of earth, starting in India, cutting across China, then clipping a few southern islands of Japan.
Before I talk about the eclipse, allow me to rant about one of the most asinine aspects of Japanese culture, one of those “it's just the way it is” things that distresses and inconveniences everyone, but still never changes...
The tiny World-Heritage jungle island Yakushima, 50 miles off the southern coast of the Japanese Mainland, lies just within the northern end of totality, while the larger Amami Oshima 150 miles further south (half way to Okinawa) lies across the southern edge of totality. In between there are a dozen or so scattered postage-stamp islands, only a few of which have some human presence.
More than a year ago, Fumie was able to secure a hotel reservation on Yakushima by winning a lottery for one of the last rooms available on the island. This was more than a year ago, mind you. We were excited, me mostly because of the eclipse, but both of us because Yakushima has long been on our want-to-visit list. Its dense-forest ecology is believed to be unchanged since ancient times, and it's apparently quite beautiful.
Some time during last winter, I went to actually get our plane tickets there, and found out that I couldn't: Japanese domestic tickets go on sale at 9am two months prior to the day of the flight, so on that day (May 22) at 9am, those who had been planning for years would vie with those who thought about it the previous day on a whim, for the few tickets available.
I say “few tickets” because as I mentioned, Yakushima is a World Heritage site, and frankly, they don't want people visiting very much. There are seven small-body flights a day, and the number would not be increased for the once-in-a-dozen-lifetimes event. (Actually, Yakushima gets an unfair share of the world's eclipse experiences, because they'll be treated to an annular eclipse in just three years, and another in 2074; the next total eclipse visible there is in 2218.)
So, if you want one of the tickets: at 9am on the day, you try to get through on the phone or the website, and if you're luckily enough to do so, you will find that between the time you're told there are seats available and when you actually get finished entering your contact and payment info, they will be gone. This has happened to us in the past, just looking for normal flights to a normal destination on a normal day; gone by 9:03am.
People in the know have a travel agency use their special computer to get the tickets at 9am, knowing that by 9:01 they'll be gone. By the time I checked (with much help from my friend Shimada-san) last winter, every travel agency had a waiting list to try to get tickets, with the somber realization that they'd be lucky to get a ticket for just the first person on the list. It was a total waste of time unless you counted on being very, very lucky, in which case you'd do better to play the lottery.
It's even worse than that, though. Yes, there are a huge number of people vying for only a few seats, but even those few seats might not be available, as government agencies and pseudo-government agencies like NHK (national TV channel) will likely appropriate many of the seats.... at least those that the airline doesn't hold back for itself. There well may have been zero seats available.
Okay, so what about by boat? Here's the kicker: boat/ferry tickets don't go on sale until 9am, one month prior to departure. I should interject that there's no law or requirement that it be this completely moronic; it's just Japanese convention. The Way It Is. The very knowledgeable travel agent I spoke at length with said that the huge overflow of those unable to get flights would all line up again in a month to try to get ferry tickets, and that she'd be happy to try to get one on my behalf (she'd have to call the ferry company just like I would), but that chances were exceedingly slim.
As I sat in her office, the totally asinine nature of this system seemed so apparent, not just for special things like this eclipse, but for everyday travel. The Japanese holiday system groups most people's travel into two times: Golden Week in early May, and Obon at the end of August. (And, to a lesser extent, during the New Year's holidays). If you have a normal job your vacation travel is limited to those times, along with the rest of the population, but you can't make any definitive plans until one or two months ahead of time, and if you can't do it then, you're left scrambling. At least much of the population's needs are served well by the shinkansen (bullet trains) which can carry thousands of passengers each, and during peak times depart every five or ten minutes. (Despite the volume of people they can move, they're still often sold out, but in this case, the worse is that you move your travel half a day one way or the other, to a less-peak time.)
I asked the travel agent “Isn't this really inconvenient for everyone involved?” and she readily agreed, showing empathy to my predicament, but it was in some way as if I had asked “Isn't it inconvenient that the tide keeps moving the shoreline back and forth?”. She didn't like the situation, of course, but had no angst about it (at least not anymore, or that that she showed) because It's The Way It Is and she can't do a single thing about it. There's no use getting angry because you can't hold back the tide or move a mountain. It Is What It Is.
The situation may be old hat to her, but it's fresh to me.... just ridiculous... infuriating... disgusting.
Maybe I should have played the lottery. Maybe I should have actually tried to get a flight or ferry. Maybe I should have coughed up the $4,000 to an exclusive private boat tour that would stop at the aforementioned uninhabited postage-stamp islands for eclipse viewing. But I didn't. This slice of Japanese culture so defeated me... so disgusted me... that I lost my will to even bother.
Here's the uncropped view of the photo above:
Nikon D700 + Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 38 mm — 1/160 sec, f/5, ISO 6400 — full exif
in Kyoto, at my in-laws', 400 miles from the path of totality
The aqua label on the screen says “Broadcast Live from Iwo-Jima”. In eastern Kyoto, I was 782 miles away.
My area of Kyoto got about 80.8% totality, which perhaps sounds like a lot, but you could have been outside all day and you wouldn't have noticed it unless you knew to look for it. It did get a bit darker, but with the overcast, it was decidedly of the “looks like a storm's coming” type.
Nikon D700 + Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 24 mm — 1/2500 sec, f/2.8, ISO 200 — full exif
thunderstorms the other day darkened the sky more than this
Some parts of the sky were less gloomy than others, and for a bit, I could look straight up and see the shape of the sun through the clouds. The clouds made for great eye protection, so I could just look directly.
D700 + 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 70 mm, cropped — 1/2500 sec, f/9, ISO 200 — full exif
Nikon D700 + Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 70 mm — 1/3200 sec, f/9, ISO 200 — full exif
These pictures make the clouds look really freaky, but they weren't. They were just normal, bland overcast. And I'm joking about “great eye protection” – it was probably pretty stupid to look as we did, risking a sudden parting of the clouds.
Watching news reports later in the day, it seems that Yakushima was totally rained out. A friend in Amami told me that it was completely clouded over during totality.
One report from an island whose name I didn't catch showed fast-moving wispy clouds, but mostly you could see things, and the reporter was awestruck. Just offshore was a cruise ship with many hundreds of people that had apparently intended to dock to allow the passengers to experience the eclipse from land (something I'd certainly want to do in preference to a boat, but it'd be especially important to anyone hoping to take pictures), but it couldn't due to the choppy seas, so just sat out there, pitching in the waves.
So all in all it was a pretty big bust. I guess I'm glad that I didn't waste thousands of dollars going to Yakushima or Amami, but frankly, I don't feel the better for it. I was well aware of the likelihood of cloud cover and was more than willing to take my chances, and I would much prefer a washout than the total disgust I have with this travel slice of Japanese culture.
Maybe I'll have better luck next time. In three years there will be an annular eclipse – one where the moon is just a touch too far away to fully obscure the sun, so you're left with a ring of sun instead of totality – that will be just visible from my place in Kyoto. if I were another few miles north, I'd miss it. (It'll also be visible from a large swath of the western United States, including Reno and Albuquerque.)
At my house in Kyoto the eclipse will be fully annular, but the ring around the sun will still leave about 6% of the disk visible (put another way, 94% totality), which is still really really bright, and as such you can't look directly without ample eye protection (such as an overcast day like today!). An annular eclipse is phenomenally less interesting than a total solar eclipse, but you take what you can get: when it comes to nature, there's no sense getting upset, because That's The Way It Is.