Space Tourism in Southern Japan
For travelers interested in anything beyond planet Earth, Kagoshima prefecture’s JAXA Space Centers are the ideal locations to explore rockets, history, and the charms of the Japanese countryside. Rockets are launched from only two places in all of Japan – (1) Kimotsuki Town’s Uchinoura and (2) Tanegashima, an island in Kagoshima prefecture. Here are some of the best spots to experience Japan’s annual rocket launches and learn about the history of the Japanese space exploration industry, all located in the southern Japanese countryside.
Uchinoura Space Center
Along the mountains of Japan’s southeastern coastline, Kagoshima prefecture’s Uchinoura Space Center (USC) boasts annual rocket launches and a collection of rocket launch pads overlooking the deep-blue Pacific Ocean. Uchinoura, part of Kimotsuki Town in Kagoshima’s countryside, is one of two Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) rocket launch sites. As USC is situated in a vast area of rolling green mountains surrounded by the seemingly endless Pacific Ocean, it is easily one of the most beautiful places to enjoy rockets launching satellites into the solar system.
USC is renowned for its annual Epsilon launches. Although the exact date changes yearly due to JAXA’s planning and coordination, Epsilon rockets are usually launched during the winter months (January/February). The most recent launch from USC, Epsilon-4, occurred at approximately 9:50 a.m. (Japan Standard Time, JST) on January 18th, 2019. Epsilon-4 carried seven satellites, including a satellite for space entertainment that will produce an artificial meteor shower over Hiroshima in 2020!
There are three places surrounding USC that offer impressive launch observation experiences, including:
Miyabaru Rocket Observation Site
- Cost: 2,000 yen + Bus Ticket (5,500–6,800 yen)
- Online registration necessary to see the launch from this site
- No cars can park at this site — only buses
- Miyabaru is considered the optimal place to view the Uchinoura launches, but tickets can be hard to come by as they are sometimes distributed by lottery.
- Online reservation, as well as bus ticket information, is available yearly (about one month before the scheduled launch) from this site.
Uchinoura Fishing Harbor
- Cost: 300 yen for car parking, no reservation necessary.
- Viewers can experience the rocket being launched from behind the mountains
- Totally free of charge, the Kishira Coast gives its visitors the feeling of being in a sort of private tropical resort, with misty green mountains that run into the glittering shores of the Pacific Ocean. It is slightly removed from the launch site, but the rocket is fully visible just seconds after launching.
Other areas of interest
Statues commemorating “OHSUMI,” the name of Japan’s first satellite launched into space in 1970, and Dr. Itokawa – the man who led much of Japan’s early efforts in space development.
Satellites that were in use during the 1970s and 80s can still be viewed along the Uchinoura coastline.
Space Science Museum
A JAXA museum dedicated to rockets, specifically, the instruments used in creating rockets and information about the experiments conducted to launch them into space. (This museum’s exhibits are written in Japanese.)
Hours: Open daily 8:30–16:30, except for cleaning days that take place 5–6 times a year. Admission is free.
Access: For visitors coming during a rocket launch, there is a direct bus to Uchinoura that leaves from Kagoshima-Chuo Station during the early hours of the morning. Visitors who are interested in touring Uchinoura’s facilities outside of a rocket launch are advised to rent a car near the Sakurajima ferry terminal. Uchinoura Space Center is about 2 hours from Kagoshima-Chuo Station and 1 hour and 45 minutes from the Sakurajima ferry terminal.
Uchinoura Space Center on Google Maps:
Tanegashima Space Center
Island life meets space exploration on Kagoshima’s northern island of Tanegashima, which is renowned for hosting Japan’s largest space center. Like the Uchinoura Space Center, it is owned and operated by JAXA and features a rocket launch site along with a space museum.
Tanegashima’s main launch pad is the Yoshinobu Launch Complex — Japan’s largest facility for launching rockets that carry satellites for space exploration. Launches occur a few times a year depending on JAXA’s schedule. It is recommended to view Tanegashima’s rocket launches from Hase Park, as the Rocket Hill Observatory overlooking Yoshinobu will be closed to the public during launches.
Space Science and Technology Museum
The Tanegashima Space Science and Technology Museum offers three daily tours in Japanese (with advanced registration, accessible here), but visitors who are truly interested in space, even if lacking in Japanese ability, should not hesitate to take a tour — English pamphlets are available upon request. Like the Uchinoura Space Science museum, Tanegashima’s space museum is a great avenue to learn about the history of rockets and space technology in Japan.
The Tanegashima Space Science and Technology Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, 9:30–17:00. Admission is free.
Access: There are daily flights from Kagoshima airport to Tanegashima airport (30 minutes), as well as daily ferries (1.5 hours to 3.5 hours) that depart from Kagoshima Port. The Space Center can be reached by bus from either the Tanegashima Airport or the Nishinoomote Port (1 hour and 40 minutes).