Friday, September 30, 2011

Right Place, Right Time

On a whim, I found myself on Tanegashima.

Where is Tanegashima?

Well, it all started when my good friend mentioned that she wanted to visit Yakushima, a small island south of Kyushu. It may not be know to westerners by name, but if you've heard of the movie, Princess Mononoke, by famed director Hayao Miyazaki, you at least know of this island--it served as the inspiration for the main island in the film.

Princess Mononoke Trail... With a convenient picture spot

So that sounded cool, but that still doesn't explain Tanegashima. Well, she just so happened to mention that she wanted to visit a nearby island, Tanegashima. I was a bit hesitant at first. What's there? It was an expensive addition of another Jetfoil on the way to Yakushima. Besides, no one we know has even heard of it. And then she mentioned that it's a Japanese surfer's mecca.


While trying to book an accommodation, each hotel was sold out. For a place that's supposedly not touristy, it made no sense. When I pressed for a reason, the receptionist would talk about the "rocket," and how that was why they had no rooms available. I was confused. How did the Jetfoil cause a shortage of rooms (appropriately named, ロケット)?

Well, it turned out, they were talking about an actual rocket. Tanegashima has its own space center and also has the distinct honor of having one of two launch pads in Japan. For the entire month of September (and part of August), the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Association, JAXA, had been trying to send a shuttle into space. However, due to the typhoons that kept tearing through Japan, it had been postponed several weeks in a row.

The next rescheduled launch date: our last day in Tanegashima.

When we arrived, the weather was terrible... I mean, just look at this.

Who am I kidding, the weather was amazing.

By terrible, I mean terrible for surfing. Just missing Typhoon Roke, there was no wind or waves. But while such calm weather makes for terrible surfing, it meant perfect weather for a rocket launch.

And to be honest, I was giddy like a school child. I had never seen a rocket launch live before, and now that it seems that NASA has discontinued the shuttle program, I figured I'd never see one. (Note: I was ignorant as to which other countries launch space ships other than the US and Russia, and I didn't realize at the time that NASA will still send satellites into space, just not people.)

3km away from the launch site

The next day, we worked our way to the viewing area in the south of the island by bus, a bit of walking, and eventually taking up an offer for a ride by a stranger. By the time we got there, everyone was already seated and waiting. The announcer called off the countdown from 30 minutes. Then 20. Then 10. As if the anticipation wasn't killing me enough, at around 3 minutes, she started to countdown seconds. And then finally, we heard 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1...

Pardon the strong language... it was pretty exciting...

And that was it. All that work and hype for that one minute.

Totally lucky, and totally worth it.


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