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Why Do People Think Japanese Tourists Visit Alaska to Conceive Under the Northern Lights?

Alaska Culture
by Henry Miller Oct 25, 2017

One of the strangest stories to come out of the tourist towns of Alaska is that visitors from Japan, who visit by the thousands every winter, believe that it is good luck to conceive a baby under the Aurora Borealis.

As one local guide in Fairbanks, Alaska told to the New York Times in 2007: “One explanation says they want to conceive under the northern lights, so they’re more likely to have a boy. Another version was for a gifted child. There’s also supposed to be a belief the child will be well off.”

This, the guide adds, may be “a complete hoax”.

Turns out, the guide was right. While Japanese visitors make up the majority of winter visitors to towns like Whitehorse, with 2,000 visiting during 2012-13, they visit for the same reason as everybody else: because Alaska is a unique place full of natural wonders.

For most domestic and international travelers, the high season of visiting Alaska are the summer months from June-August, when the temperatures in Fairbanks can reach a pleasant 73 degrees (F). This season is popular with backpackers, skiers, kayakers, wale watchers and leisure cruisers, many of who leave before October, when the average temperature drops ten degrees before plummeting to the -60s by the middle of winter.

However, it is only in the months between September and March when, 60 miles above sea level, charged particles from the sun skip across Earth’s atmosphere. This creates the fabled Aurora Borealis (aka Northern Lights), which ranges in color from green-yellow to pure red.

While this atmospheric anomaly is obviously something most people would like to see, it has become a coming-of-age tradition for many young Japanese as well as the elderly. Yet it is simply for the mystical experience of witnessing this natural light show that encourages Japanese tourists to brave the dark, deathly cold months of the Alaskan winter.

So how did the strange rumor of a Japanese baby-making season in Alaska start?

Let me introduce you to Northern Exposure, a CBS comedy-drama that aired from 1990 to 1995.

The highly-acclaimed show was set in the fictional small town of Cicely, Alaska, and revolves around the town’s diverse and often quirky residents. Think cutesy, mainstream Twin Peaks without the surrealist humor and murdered teenagers (that sentence probably explains why Northern Exposure isn’t the show that got a reboot this year).

During the 20th episode in the 3rd season of the show, a surge of Japanese tourists arrive in Cicely. Many of them stay at the town’s “Sourdough Lodge” and one evening a main character, Maurice, gives a lecture about his days as an astronaut. In the middle of his lecture, a Japanese woman shouts when she sees the Aurora Borealis out the lodge’s window. Suddenly the entire room of Japanese tourists clears out.

A perplexed Maurice asks his more cosmopolitan friends what has happened. “It’s Japanese folk wisdom”, says one friend, “If you consummate your marriage under the Northern Lights you will have a gifted child.” This is thought by many to be the source of this odd rumor.

You can watch the whole scene below (it starts around 28 minute mark):

Jeff Vlaming, the screenwriter behind this particular episode, claims to have picked up this myth from the November 1991 issue of Alaska magazine. After some diligent reporting, it was found that neither the magazine nor its publisher retained copies of that issue. Alas.

Sorry Northern Exposure, you may have won four Emmy’s and portrayed the second LGBT married couple on mainstream television, but you totally missed the mark on this one. At least you can console yourself with the knowledge that you gave us the best annihilation of an upright piano via catapult ever caught on film.

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