Largest Telescope in Japan – Bisei Astronomical Observatory, Okayama

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When we ponder places like the Andromeda Galaxy or the stars in constellations, their distance from us is almost impossible to fathom. Even our own moon seems so far away, despite being one of the closest objects to our planet. The universe has fascinated humankind long before history began, and that fascination lives on in places like the Okayama Astrophysical Observatory. Also known as the Bisei Observatory, this is one of the best places in Japan for Sora (Cosmos) tourism. If you’re traveling in Japan and love to stare deep into the magic of space, then put this hilltop hunk of steel and glass on your list. 

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Astronomy in Action: Sora Tourism in Japan

You’ll find many fun things to do in Okayama Japan. There are castles and campgrounds. There is history and there are hot springs. But for anyone interested in astronomy, Okayama offers a unique opportunity. Amongst the many regions of Japan, Okayama Prefecture has some of the clearest skies. That’s one of the reasons that Japan built one of its main telescopes and space research centers here. Perched atop Okayama’s Mount Chikurinji, the Okayama Astrophysical Observatory is home to Japan’s largest astronomical instrument: a 188-cm reflector telescope.

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One of the Most Important Observatories in Japan

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Bisei Astronomical Observatory Staff - Largest Telescope in Japan

In addition to fewer clouds, the area around the Observatory has a regional ordinance limiting light pollution. Large cities like Tokyo, Osaka, and Hiroshima are wonderful places to explore, but your view of the night sky will be obscured by an ocean of neon and LED obfuscation. What illuminates the streets and sidewalks obscures the night skies above us.

In contrast, the vastness of space opens up to you on Mount Chikurinji. This is where elite Japanese scientists track meteors, observe supernovae, and predict the path of asteroids. It’s also one of the best places in Japan for what they call “Sora Tourism.” The Japanese word sora (そら) can mean “empty” or “sky” (空), but it can also mean “universe” or “cosmos” (宇宙). And that’s what Sora Tourism is all about: looking into the cosmos.

Peeking Into the Galaxy

Okayama Astrophysical Observatory

My visit started before dusk on a chilly February evening. The staff showed me a pair of binary stars in the Andromeda Galaxy approximately 350 light-years from Earth. Each stars’ color, they explained, helped indicate its temperature. For instance, the bluish star burned at over 15,000ºC, while the red one burned at around 4,000ºC. By comparison, our own sun is close to 6,000ºC.

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Through the telescope, the stars appeared as brilliant specks on black velvet, but we also looked at items closer to home. For example, before night fell, the astronomers showed me the moon on a smaller telescope. Then we went in the observatory to use something bigger and home in on a specific crater of the moon that was around 100km across. Amazing. 

A 3D Experience

If that wasn’t impressive enough, the next presentation blew me away. Using 3D glasses like in the movies, we were transported through the known universe. As we hurtled further and further from the Milky Way, I was reminded of just how small and insignificant our little corner of the galaxy really is. But what they showed me next left me completely gobsmacked. First, the stars seemed to be flying past, but as our point of view sped further from the Milky Way we began to pass clusters of galaxies thicker than a swarm of locusts.

Eventually, we reached the end of the known universe. Known to us, anyway. There is more out there, of course, but with the present technology, we can only see a fraction of it. The presenter was showing me the furthest point — the point where our science and instruments have gone no further — and I was surprised at how it looked. For lack of a better description, the shape of the known universe resembled…an hourglass. 

The Shape of the Known Universe

Picture the shape of the known Universe this way: imagine two people sitting in a life raft in the middle of the ocean. A dust storm has blown in from somewhere, and the two people, with their backs to each other, shine powerful spotlights into the darkness from opposite directions, illuminating every mote of dust in the path of light. This hourglass-like shape you end up with resembles where our telescopes have reached — and consequentially reported celestial bodies. 

The observatory staff explained why it looks this way. Basically, our own milky way obstructs the view. For example, imagine looking into a forest ten miles deep. Could you count how many bushes are on the other side of the forest? Of course not. There are too many trees in the way! The Milky Way is that forest. Replace trees with stars, asteroids, and planets, and you see why it’s difficult to see very far in certain directions. 

How to Visit Okayama Astrophysical Observatory 

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The Bisei/Okayama Astrophysical Observatory is an hour by car from Okayama Station. It’s also an hour’s drive from the Takahashi International Hotel, which is where I stayed the last time I visited (recommended). I went to the Bisei Observatory one night and then to the Bitchu-Matsuyama Castle the following morning. Entrance to the Observatory is ¥300.

The Observatory is up a mountain and far from public transportation and far from the train. You can arrange a shuttle to and from the Observatory through this site (will update when the English site is ready). At the time of writing their transport and Observatory package costs ¥9,800. This does not include entrance to the observatory, so make sure to have ¥300 ready for each person. 

Where Have You Looked Through a Telescope?

There are incredible telescopes and observatories around the world. Where have You visited? 

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Disclosure: Some of my Okayama activities have been sponsored by JTB, a Japanese tourism agency. However, my opinions are my own and I only recommend things to do in Japan that I think you will enjoy. This post may contain affiliate links. This means, at no extra cost to you, we might receive a small commission if you make a purchase or book a hotel using those links.