Page last updated at 23:35 GMT, Thursday, 4 September 2008 00:35 UK

Japanese island faces eclipse influx

By Chris Hogg
BBC News, Japan

A view of the port on Akusekijima
The rocky islands lie far off Japan's southern city of Kagoshima

Next summer a once in a lifetime event will occur, and the best place to witness it will be a small group of remote islands off the coast of southern Japan.

Just before 1100 local time (0200 GMT) on 22 July 2009 the skies will darken for a total eclipse of the sun.

The eclipse will follow a path along a narrow corridor through northern India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and China.

It should be visible from big cities like Varanasi, Chengdu, Chongqing and Shanghai.

The best place to watch it, however, will be a small Japanese islet called Akusekijima, where it is predicted to last six minutes and 25 seconds. There will not be a longer eclipse until 13 June 2132.

But the islanders are nervous. Akusekijima has a population of about 70. Its total area is just 7.5 sq km (2.9 sq miles).

It is one of 12 small islands, all of which will enjoy the longest views of the eclipse anywhere. They are known as the Tokara Islands.

Only seven of them are inhabited, by a total of about 650 people. Their only connection with the mainland is a small ferry with a capacity of 250 which runs twice a day.

You will find them on a map where the Pacific Ocean meets the East China Sea south of Kagoshima.

So far at least 150,000 people have expressed an interest in visiting the islands to watch the eclipse. The islanders fear they will be over-run.

Hidden perils

Keiko Nishi runs a small inn on Akusekijima. They have room for 18 guests, but they have never ever been full before.


"I am most worried about water," she said. "We don't have enough to start with. When so many visitors come how am I going to cook?"

She is worried about the safety of her children. She moved to the island because it was so peaceful. Everyone knows everyone else there.

"We don't even have any policeman on the island," she said. "What's going to happen?"

Wataru Higo from the Toshima Village Office, the council that represents the islands' inhabitants, believes it is a great opportunity for them, but that it is also going to be very difficult.

"There are so many things to sort out - water, security, electricity, garbage and first aid facilities to start with," he said.

"We are hoping to accommodate 1,000 visitors, but such a small number isn't going to give us much of a boost for our economy, so we are going to have to ask visitors to pay quite a lot to cover all the costs."

It's as though we are about to be hit by a natural disaster
Local official

The Village Office has already published a set of rules on the internet, warning that "any kind of disturbance arising from the large number of visitors that may cause complications for the local residents is to be strictly avoided".

Private boats will be banned from approaching the islands for several days before the eclipse. Visitors are told they will have to bring their own tents to camp, their own supplies and take their rubbish home once they have finished.

The temperature could rise to more than 30C, the leaflet warns, and if that was not enough, part of the islands are inhabited by poisonous "Habu" snakes, or pit vipers.

Years of waiting

In order to try to avoid a disaster caused by crowds of over zealous eclipse watchers, the villagers have handed over control of the event to a Japanese travel agency which plans to hold a lottery for tickets for the right to attend.

A lighthouse on the island
The mountainous islands are very sparsely populated

They hope to start the process formally later this month. The numbers are still being finalised but the package is expected to cost between $3,600 (2,020) and $2,700.

Yasuyaki Tachibana from the Kinki Nippon Tourist Company says visitors who want to see the eclipse may have to stay as long as a week.

"Basically on Akusekijima they can accommodate about three times the population," he said. "A few more on other islands."

Village officials say an event they thought would boost the local economy is now feared. "It's as though we are about to be hit by a natural disaster," one said.

But despite her worries Keiko Nishi is determined to enjoy the actual moment of the eclipse with her children.

"We've been told about the eclipse for many years, but it's still very hard to imagine what it will be like," she mused.

"But no matter how many customers we will have, I will stop work to watch it."

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