ANCHORAGE - For newlyweds Jun and Chisako Shibata, the perfect honeymoon meant standing on a steep Alaska mountain in the freezing darkness, gazing up at the dancing lights in the sky.
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"Amazing," Chisako Shibata said of the surreal aurora borealis display a short drive from Chena Hot Springs Resort deep in Alaska's interior. All around them were other Japanese tourists gasping at each twist in the shimmering curtains of green and plum.
The Shibatas, from Tsu, Japan, are part of a growing winter market in Alaska, where the coldest months are mostly experienced by, well, Alaskans. Hordes of Japanese tourists arrive this time of year, lured by the aurora. For many, it's akin to a spiritual quest sparked by a cultural obsession with natural marvels and documented in travel shows in Japan.
Alaska is primarily a summer destination, its visitors contributing $1.6 billion annually to the economy. But a number of businesses here are only too happy to cater to visitors lured north in winter, more so since direct flights to Alaska from Japan became available three years ago.
The northern lights are on a list of global wonders many Japanese residents plan to view firsthand, said Pete Redshaw, a Chena Hot Springs guide. Many save for years or take out loans to see the aurora.
"Some of them have heard about it so much, they feel it's one of the things they must see before they die," Redshaw said.
Japanese tourists, in fact, account for 90 percent of the clientele at the resort as well as the Aurora Borealis Lodge, a viewing-only facility at Cleary Summit 20 miles north of Fairbanks.
"We get folks who keep coming back from Japan," said lodge operator Mok Kumagai.