Iskandar Setiadi

Flag #25 - Journey to the Northern Land: Chasing the Aurora

Have you ever thought that we're fortunate enough to live in this modern era, where we have electricity, air travel, and even internet? Hundred years ago, most people wouldn't have the opportunity to experience places thousand kilometers away due to the limitation of cost, time, geopolitical situation, and language barrier. Earth has been around for a billion year and it's always amazed me to think that we have only reached this kind of technology advancement in our era. Perhaps, are we living in a simulation? (that's a topic for another day)

Years ago, I wrote several items in my travel bucket list such as visiting 47 prefectures in Japan, visiting 7 continents, and experiencing aurora. The first two are a bit more straightforward (not sayin' easier) since they are always there. Aurora is very unique since we don't know when or where we can see them. I used to think that you just need to go north (e.g.: Europe) / south (e.g.: Australia) for seeing aurora, but it's not as simple as that.

To start with, aurora mostly occurs between 3° to 6° wide in latitude and between 10° to 20° from the geomagnetic poles. For other area outside the auroral zone, it occurs very rarely. For example, there's a news of aurora sighting in Hokkaido last year and they mentioned it's the first time seeing it again after 20 years. One other aspect is the solar cycle of our sun, which has an average of 11 years per cycle. For the current solar cycle, it's predicted that 2023-2026 will be its maximum activity, which means there are higher chances for aurora to occur in this few years. On the other hand, since COVID restrictions have been lifted, I decided that this might be the best time to embark for an aurora chase!

Image from

In the Europe, the auroral zone passes through a few areas such as Iceland, Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Scotland, and Siberia. This list pretty much narrows the option down to a few places and most of them are in the Scandinavian countries. Since I have a university friend who is currently living in Sweden, that's pretty much simplifies it and shout out to my friend who has helped me a lot during this trip!


Since Indonesia passport is notoriously weak, the first step of travel is reading the visa requirements for the destination countries. As Sweden is part of the Schengen area, there's not much surprises: flight reservation, hotel reservation, itinerary, etc. After doing some research, I noticed there's only 1-2 flights connecting Stockholm and Kiruna and the schedule is not convenient at all. This brought me to another thing in my bucket list: trying out a sleeper train! I checked their website out and decided to book 17-hour sleeper train between Stockholm & Kiruna instead since it's actually cheaper than airplane. Pro-tip: Book early, as sleeper train tends to sold out fast.

Various compartment options in the sleeper train

One of the interesting part was the reservation with the Embassy of Sweden here in Japan. They only opened 1 slot every week and the earliest available slot was 2 months ahead. I guess the demand is pretty scarce here as Japanese doesn't need a visa to enter Sweden. Since the schedule was quite tight (mid-November 2023 to February 2024), I sent an email to the embassy and suddenly they opened a few slots 3-4 weeks earlier than the previous one, which were around the end of December 2023. I was the only person that had an appointment with the embassy on the day and it took 30 minutes for them to confirm everything out. The staff is pretty nice though as we talked various things about Sweden, living in Japan, and aurora. She mentioned she never saw one since it's too cold, which is completely understandable after I experienced it. Anyway, the pain of weak passport...

Journey to Stockholm, Sweden

As far as I'm aware of, there was no direct flight between Stockholm and Tokyo and the cheapest option back then was Finnair via Helsinki, Finland. Due to the tension between Ukraine & Russia, the flight took a roundabout way via the north pole and it was a 13-hour flight, 2 hours longer than the old route. Helsinki is 7 hours behind Tokyo so the flight departed around midnight from Tokyo and arrived early morning in Helsinki. When the plane almost landed, I like how the pilot announced the weather is a bit cold (emphasize a bit) on the ground and it was actually -20 degrees Celcius. That was definitely a record cold which I have experienced, up until that point. Flight from Helsinki to Stockholm was quite straightforward and I arrived there at 7 AM local time (another 1 hour timezone difference).

Stockholm is said to be the largest capital between Nordic countries but coming from Jakarta / Tokyo, you can definitely feel the differences in terms of population. As a comparison, greater Stockholm has a population of 2 million people while greater Jakarta has a population of 11 million people and greater Tokyo has a population of 37 million people. The unique aspect of Stockholm compared to other cities which I have visited so far is the balance of modern & old style architecture. For example, one can easily visit the old town (Gamla Stan) 15 minutes away (walking distance) from the central Stockholm station.

Fun fact: If you know Yorushika, a lot of their albums cover is based from places in Sweden as n-buna used to live there.

An alley in Gamla Stan (top: photo by me; bottom: album cover)

The royal palace, which is built around the 18th century, is also located inside the old town area. They also have a guard changing ceremony (music & parade), so make sure to check their schedule if you're planning to visit here.

On the other note, it seemed winter is a low season for tourism in the city itself. Their website actually mentioned that January - April is the lowest season for tourism in Stockholm. For example, the city hall tower is closed during winter. They also have Nobel Prize Museum, but it's also closed partially due to the renovation until Spring 2024. I guess the combination of short daylight and very cold weather in Nordic countries brings us these limitations.

One place that I recommend to visit here is Skansen. Sources mentioned Skansen is the oldest open-air museum established in 1891, which main purpose is to show the way of life in the different parts of Sweden before the industrial era. If you like playing RPG games (e.g.: Final Fantasy), this is perhaps the closest experience that you can get in the real life. This is the time where you can go to an old-style church, meet nuns, take some quests, and go for an adventure!

There are also several other places which are equally good such as Vasa Museum and Fotografiska, but let's leave that story for another time. Enjoy the photo of Stockholm at night!

Journey to the North: Kiruna & Abisko

Since it's a sleeper train, the train departed at night from Stockholm Central station around 10 PM. Each private cabin can fit up to 2 persons, basically, you can unfold the upper part for another bed. It has a private bathroom which is equipped with a shower! While the bed visually looks like a sofa, it's actually much more comfortable than some hotels that I've been to.

In addition, the train has a fancy dining carriage where you can buy late night snacks or breakfast food there. Actually, private cabin ticket comes with free breakfast coupon included and there are 2 ways of exchanging it: dining carriage inside the train or designated hotel at big stations. Initially, I wanted to have a breakfast at the designated hotel instead but there's no big hotel on the outbound trip and the inbound train to Stockholm got delayed by 4 hours, which means the train arrived at 10 AM and it has passed the designated breakfast time. Moreover, the microwave onboard was malfunctioning and there're only cold food options available.

Dining carriage in the sleeper train

The outbound train to Kiruna was also delayed by 1 hour and the train arrived there around 4 PM local time. This is where the fun part begins. As my final destination was Abisko and Kiruna is actually ~60 km away from Abisko, there supposed to be a connecting train departing from Kiruna at 3:30 PM. However, they mentioned the train was stopped for the past month due to a derailing incident and the track is practically unusable. In exchange, they provided a bus to connect the route between Kiruna & Abisko. When the train arrived in Kiruna, there's no connecting bus at all! The clock was ticking and I had a reservation to join aurora trip from Abisko by 6 PM. The weather was awfully cold (-25 degrees Celcius) and a few people including me got stranded in the station as Kiruna was not our final stops. After 30 minutes of waiting and trying to call their support center, we gave up and people started to call taxis instead.


The taxi driver was a middle-aged man and luckily, he's very helpful as he mentioned it's quite a common issue there that train might stop running or got delayed in winter. As temperature can easily drop below -30 degrees Celcius, train services are usually stopped due to the risk of freezing railroad. He also explained that he was a local born there and used to work as a truck driver until 5 years ago. Anything between -20 to -30 degrees was normal there and during the coldest day, the temperature can drop below -40 degrees. In December, there will be polar midnight (no sun) and inversely, there will be a month when the sun never sets in summer. Along the way to Abisko, there are a lot of small fishing houses and apparently, those houses have fishing holes inside it where people can sit and fish inside. When the weather gets warmer in April, they also have a fishing festival where participants flock from various regions.

Finally, I arrived at STF Abisko Turiststation at 5:30 PM! It is a very huge accommodation complex which offers private rooms (like hotel), shared rooms (like hostel), and guest houses (for families). Their website mentioned they have 397 beds in total and it was fully booked on my arrival date. Anyway, one of the receptionist lady asked where I came from and when I explained to her that I was an Indonesian living in Japan, to my surprise, she started talking in Japanese! Later on, she explained that she's half-Japanese (her mother? is from Hokkaido). Actually, I saw a lot of different groups of Japanese people (even more than Chinese) there so the whole place itself seems to be quite famous for Japanese tourist.

STF Abisko Turiststation

By 6 PM, everyone who have made a reservation for aurora dinner gathered and we departed together towards the sky station. The hotel itself is 10 minutes walk away from the base of ski lift and they provide us a full set of ski suit to use. As if the weather was not cold enough, riding a ski lift made it even worse. A windy ride to the top of the mountain at night, combined with the slow moving pace since the ski lift needs to stop for every passengers, was perhaps the coldest point of this trip.

It was a lovely dinner with various people from around the world. There's a couple from UK whom daughter had an exchange to Toyota City in Japan and we ended up talking various things about Japan. The guy who sat beside me mentioned that he's actually half Thai & half Finnish, and he used to work as a bartender in Pattaya before running his own bar. He always tries to analyze all served drinks and makes a lot of passionate discussions with the waitress.

After dinner, it was around 9 PM and more people started to gather around the venue. Statistically speaking, aurora usually appears between 9 PM - 1 AM and by 10 PM, a lot of people were anxiously waiting as there's no sign of aurora yet. Fortunately, the weather was clear and it gave us a slightest hope that we could see aurora on that day.

Venue at 10 PM

Another hour has passed and the clock showed 11:30 PM without signs of aurora. A few groups seemed to give up as they mentioned they have seen aurora on the other days. The ski lift itself will run until 1 AM, so people can wait there until the last minute. Around 15 minutes later, 2 ladies rushed back into the room excitedly and told everyone that they saw signs of aurora on the left side of the building. Everyone ran outside and we could see a faint green color moving on the sky!

Aurora sighting!

It took a few minutes before our eyes could adapt with the darkness and saw the aurora clearly on the sky. It was indeed beautiful but it's a bit different to what we usually see in the videos or photos. To start with, aurora moves quite slowly which means a lot of videos are probably time-lapse ones. With photos, people usually set their cameras to long-exposure mode, which means the resulted photo is actually brighter than the real time one. Aurora itself can have different colors such as red or purple depending on the reaction altitudes, but those are much rarer than green color due to various factors (reaction time, solar storm strength, etc). Overall, the whole aurora show lasted around 15 minutes and I ended up enjoying the show instead of taking more photos.

The next day, I wake up and hardly believed it was not a dream! It was a long journey (13 hours flight from Tokyo to Stockholm + 17 hours train from Stockholm to Abisko) but it was worth the experience. Not limited to northern lights, Abisko itself offers various activities ranging from dog sledding, hiking trails, snowmobiling, ice climbing, and so on. However, I'm not exactly the type of person who likes outdoor activities, so I ended up spending the whole day in the hotel vicinity. Unfortunately, the second night was ended up cloudy and I'm glad I could see aurora clearly on the first day!



Is it worth to see an aurora? While the main purpose of my trip was seeing aurora, I ended up enjoying the whole process much more than the aurora itself. The trip allowed me to explore cities that I've never been to and foods that I've never eaten before. In addition, I met a lot of different people who brought their own stories into the table. While we're strangers to each other, everyone who gathered there came for a single purpose of seeing aurora.

Will I do another trip to chase aurora? Absolutely yes if I have chances to do so in the future! From this trip, I learned more interesting places to visit: Svalbard in Norway, Rovaniemi in Finland, Reykjavik in Iceland, Ilulissat in Greenland, and many more places down in the list.

A few lesson learned that might come handy in the future:
- Transportation, especially train, is pretty unreliable in this weather, make sure to have backup plans (& money). While I could solve my problem above with taxi, one of the other groups got stuck in Kiruna due to the road closure between Abisko and Narvik, Norway. I believe they ended up spending a night in Kiruna instead.
- I should stay for 3 nights instead of 2 nights in Abisko. I was lucky that I could experience aurora on the first night since the second night weather was bad. Initially, I also thought the chance of seeing aurora is high in Kiruna but that doesn't seem to be the case (weather, elevation, etc).
- I should stay for 2 nights instead of 1 night in Kiruna. I miscalculated the delay caused by this kind of harsh winter weather and ended up not having enough time to visit Icehotel in Kiruna. Initially, I considered spending a night there but it was so expensive (over 500 bucks) and unless I went there for a special occasion, it doesn't seem to worth the price.
- Sweden is pretty much a cashless society (as opposed to Japan), I didn't exchange a single cash during this trip and most places only accept cashless payments anyway.
- As someone who lives in Japan, we definitely miss the convenience of Japanese railway system when we travel abroad. Oh, and also, Japanese toilet is the best.

On the flight back to Tokyo, I could see aurora waving goodbye to me! If you're interested, feel free to check out for more photos in my Instagram. Thanks for reading this far!

Author: Iskandar Setiadi - Type: Experience - Date: 29th Apr, 2024

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