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Japan - The Snow Crystal Tour
-- by Kenneth G. Libbrecht,   January, 2002

   Snow crystals are popular in Japan, and recently I took my family on a "Snow Crystal Tour" of Japan, during which we visited several snow crystal tourist spots (yes, they do exist!).  This page is something of a travelogue documenting our adventures.  The Snow Crystal Tour was conceived in early 2001 when my wife was lobbying for a family vacation to some foreign land.  I proposed a two-week trip to Japan during Christmas break, since flights from Los Angeles to Tokyo are relatively cheap, and I wanted to visit two snow crystal museums I'd read about during my research into snow crystals.  So we were soon planning a rather unusual tour around Japan, mostly on the northern island of Hokkaido.  It became apparent at the outset that Hokkaido in wintertime is not your typical vacation getaway -- it's cold, snowy, and a bit out of the way.   But when you live in sunny Southern California, a vacation to a cold climate can sound pretty appealing, so off we went.
   We left Los Angeles on December 20, 2001, and after getting our bearings in Tokyo our first destination was to the Ishikawa prefecture, to visit the Ukichiro Nakaya Museum of Snow and Ice. (Note I will skip most aspects of our trip that involve non-snow-crystal activities -- for example, visits to shrines and other more typical tourist activities.)  Ukichiro Nakaya was the first scientist to really study snow crystals and their formation, and was the first to make artificial snow crystals in the lab (see Early Observations).  His book describing his research, Snow Crystals, published by Harvard University Press in 1950, is a classic science story, and Nakaya enjoys some renown in Japan for his studies.  Much of Nakaya's original laboratory equipment and notes are on display at this museum.
The Nakaya Museum
   The Ukichiro Nakaya Museum of Snow and Ice is located in Nakaya's hometown of Katayamazu in Kaga city, approximately 500 km west of Tokyo on the west coast of the main island of Honshu, near the larger city of Komatsu.  The region is a fairly popular with Japanese tourists, containing many museums and spas.  From Tokyo the trip is about five hours by train, most of the distance being covered in a Shinkansen, the Japanese high speed bullet train (peak speeds over 300 km/hr).  We found all the trains in Japan, and especially the bullet trains, to be very comfortable and phenomenally punctual.  If the schedule says your train leaves at 8:18, then there's no need to worry if the train is nowhere in sight at 8:15.   The train rips into the station just before 8:17, stops for 70 seconds, and tears back out again at 8:18; you can set your watch to it.  Signs on the platform show you not only where your particular car will stop, but where the door of your car will stop.  And you'd better be right there when it does.
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  From the Shinkansen we got a fabulous view of Fuji-san from different directions as we traveled around it. The pictures immediately above show: 1) a map of the region around the Nakaya Museum; 2) a picture of my family (Rachel, Max, and Alanna) as our train pulls in; and 3) a shot of Fuji I took while traveling (I noticed, while taking photographs in particular, that the train windows were always very clean as well).  Most of the pictures on this page were taken with my Nikon CoolPix 990 digital camera; I typically reduced the resolution by a factor of two for the high-resolution versions, just to keep the file sizes reasonable.
Some museum pictures:
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  The museum is a quick taxi ride from the Kagaonsen train station, and consists of three linked hexagonal buildings.  The first picture above shows the author next to a sign guiding one to the museum, and the next two are different views of the buildings.  You can see that two of the buildings are topped with hexagonal glass skylights.  The last is a shot of the museum entrance, showing its decorated doors.

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   The first picture above shows one of the hexagonal skylights from below, representing the hexagonal molecular structure of the ice crystal.  Inside the museum one finds photographs and memorabilia from Nakaya's life, and many of his original notes, equipment, and photographic plates.  The captions are all in Japanese, as the region isn't very well traveled by non-Japanese tourists.

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   The first picture above shows a close-up of a page of Nakaya's original notes, with photographic prints glued in.  Of course a number of nice snow crystal images are also on display.  The fourth picture shows Nakaya's original apparatus for growing artificial snow crystals, which I had a special interest in.   The machine appeared to be well preserved, and a look in the microscope eyepiece (last picture) shows a suspended snow crystal replica.

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   A 20-minute film describing snow crystals was showing in the small auditorium of the museum, and one could also watch a video describing Nakaya's snow-making apparatus (first picture above). We were very fortunate to get a personal tour by Mr. Tetsuo Kuchino, who owns the local hardware store and volunteers at the museum.  He fired up several interactive displays that were inactive during our first pass through the museum.  This included a great display of the Tyndall phenomenon shown in the next two pictures above.  In this demonstration we took a piece of single-crystal piece of ice and shined an infrared lamp on it.  The infrared radiation heats dust particles inside the ice and nucleates melting.  The melting produces liquid regions that follow the crystal axes and look very much like stellar dendrites.  The ice sits on an overhead projector that projects the melted patterns to a screen (third picture, which doesn't really do justice to the real thing).   The last picture shows Mr. Kuchino along with another museum experiment, this growing diamond dust (tiny ice crystals) in a top-opening freezer.


The Nakaya museum's schedule is listed on the web at  this page.  I don't know of any other web pages describing the museum, however.
Click for the Next stop of the tour -- The Snow Crystal Museum in Asahikawa
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