Sep 15, 2020
I’M SLIGHTLY BUZZED on awamori rice spirits, floating belly-up on pink wacky noodles, and spinning around a resort pool under a moonless charcoal sky twinkling with glittering stars. It may sound like a pool party, but it’s actually part of an unusual and very intense Tinnu Floating treatment at the Hoshinoya Resort Taketomi (doubles from ¥25,200) on Japan’s island of Taketomi. During the 30-minute pool time, floatees like me lose their sense of gravity and “fall” into infinity’s distant galaxies, red dwarves, blue super giants, Subaru (Pleiades), and other celestial objects visible to the naked eye. It’s surreal and slightly nauseating at times, but positively life-changing. I emerge from the pool a night-sky nerd.
For two weeks, I’ve been exploring Japan’s coral-ringed Yaeyama Islands, located in the southern extremities of Okinawa Prefecture just 270 kilometers east of Taiwan, spending the majority of my time pursuing earthly pleasures. Chasing endemic Ryukyu scops owls and magenta-winged kingfishers through Buddhist temple caves. Snorkeling through aquamarine waters eyeballing Technicolor nudibranchs, damselfish and loggerhead turtles. And dreaming of glimpsing the amber-eyed yamaneko, an endemic and critically endangered wildcat living in the slushy mangroves of neighboring Iriomote Island.
But there comes a time in a naturalist’s life when his gaze suddenly shifts from Earth’s cabinet of curiosities to the inky infinity of space. And until I got in the pool on this blackest of nights, I hadn’t really noticed or appreciated the wild clarity of a night sky, which is not only beguiling and divine in its own right, but partially what made the habitats of all this wildlife I’d been chasing possible.
It turns out, that night sky’s clarity is no coincidence. The Yaeyama Islands are home to Japan’s first Dark Sky Park, Iriomote-Ishigaki National Park, a 253-square-kilometer patch of wilderness designated in 2018 that has some of Asia’s strictest light regulations. While my own celestial epiphany occurred in that pool a few years ago, others have since discovered astronomy, or astrotourism, as an excellent post-COVID-19 form of “slow travel,” and a way to deepen the appreciation of nature without hopping on a plane or jacking up their carbon footprint.