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FAIRBANKS - The winter tourism season has officially begun in Fairbanks with the arrival of the first of 18 charter flights direct from Japan.
Saturday's flight aboard the jumbo jet was full, giving tourism officials hope this winter will be a banner season. The destination to Alaska's second largest city is popular in winter with tourists from Japan who come to view the aurora borealis and other activities.
The direct flight takes six and a half-hours from Tokyo and cuts by half the amount of travel time required for a traditional flight via the West Coast.
Tsuchiya and Eiko Katsuyukz were onboard. They have planned an Alaska vacation for awhile.
Like many wintertime Japanese visitors, they said viewing the aurora borealis was at the top of their must-do list.
"No. 1 is the aurora," Katsuyukz said through translator Colin Lawrence, who works for the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau.
A professional-grade camera hanging from his neck, the visitor also said he would like to capture prized images of the dancing lights. "That is the hope," he said with a smile.
The Japan Airlines charter flights hit a bump in mid-December when U.S. Customs and Border Protection denied a routine authorization, apparently for budgetary reasons. The federal agency has to fly Anchorage-based customs agents to Fairbanks to meet the flights.
Gov. Sarah Palin intervened, asking U.S. Department of Homeland Secretary Michael Chertoff to make the authorization allowing the flights to land at Fairbanks. With all six customs stations staffed Saturday morning, the process moved quickly for Fairbanks' first wave of Japanese guests for the season.
Along with aurora-watching, the Katsuyukzs will take a flight-seeing trip south to Denali. A bit of a climber himself, Tsuchiya is eager to lay eyes on the very mountain that claimed the life of storied Japanese adventurer and national hero Naomi Uemura in 1984 during a winter solo ascent.
Also on his Alaska list are a dog-mushing adventure through the woods and a chance to sample reindeer steak.