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July 2006

July 30
Black monster
    The annual Summer Astronomy Class was held at Geisei Observatory. In spite of the summer heat, nearly 40 participants gathered and the observing session ran smoothly. I should specially mention that a trial CD of the song Minor Planet "Oruki" *was played at the astronomy class for the first time. The Kochi Shinbun Newspaper had solicited names from the public for one of the asteroids I had discovered and the name Oruki was chosen. The CD will be released in August by the Newspaper. Luckily, the participants in the Astronomy Class were able to listen to this music ahead of the general public. The music of Comet Ikeya-Seki composed by a Cuban musician was also played for the first time. A 5-day-old moon and Jupiter were beautiful during the observing session. A number of Aquarids were observed, too.

    When there is a lively crowd like tonight, creatures in the forest would not come out. As expected, I didn't see the shining eyes of the "master of the forest" tonight. I can work feeling secure and safe on public viewing nights. But what is the identity of the creature with the eyes shining in the darkness? What is that dark shadow which always appears on the observatory's window at 3 am? This mystery had long been unresolved and my fear had kept building up. Soon after, the dark shadow ceased to appear and its presence had gradually faded from my mind. But one day....

    Deep into the night in mid autumn, I was searching for minor planets operating the 60cm reflector as usual. Suddenly I heard ear-piercing screams tearing the tranquil midnight air. It seemed to be coming down from kemonomichi or the path of beasts. It was a blood curdling cry of a mysterious creature meeting a terrible death. "What is that!" I forgot my fear, grabbed a flashlight and opened the door. I dashed out heading toward the direction of the cry. It indeed was coming from Kemonomich. In the powerful light of my flashlight I witnessed an incredible sight, so terrible I had no words for it. The screaming creature was a young tanuki (a raccoon-like dog). A large monstrous beast was holding the tanuki around its waist in its jaws, although I couldn't figure out at first what it was because it looked black and difficult to see. The tanuki kept screaming. Frightened, perhaps, by the sudden appearance of a human, the black creature gave up on the tanuki, began walking down the path dragging its heavy feet, and disappeared into the thicket.

    What in the world is that black creature? It is not a dog or cat. It cannot be a deer or wild boar. Then, is it a bear? Bear! A bear appeared near the observatory in Geisei village? By that thought I was stunned in disbelief, though it was confirmed that there were about 10 bears living deep in the mountains near the Kochi-Tokushima border. Did one of them come down to the foothill looking for food? If it wasn't a black bear, would it be a badger? I haven't seen any bear in the past 30 years, though occasionally I have seen a herd of several serows (Japanese goat antelopes), foxes, or wild boars. It was the first time I had seen that bear-like fierce black creature. Was it the beast I called the "master of the forest" with the shining eyes? Ten years have passed since, but I have become more and more puzzled.

    This is a digression, but about 30 years ago, a wood cutter working in the mountains in Iya village, Tokushima prefecture, witnessed a mysterious thing. He noticed something like a long black sash hanging from a tree branch about 8 meters high. Wondering what it was, he watched it for a while. Suddenly, this black dappled "sash" began slithering. Believe it or not, it turned out to be a huge snake over 5m long. "Snake!", screamed the woodcutter and ran for his life down the mountainside

    This witness account appeared in Kochi Shinbun Newspaper. It seems to be a python. The woodcutter told the villagers about his experience, but they would not believe him and said "there shouldn't be such a big snake in Shikoku. You must have seen something else." However, there were some people who claimed they had seen a big snake. To find evidence villagers always carried a camera when they worked in the mountains. Gradually, people stopped talking about it, as their memory of the incident faded.

    I wonder if the python in Iya village and the bear at Geisei would ever appear again and eventually be forgotten for good.

    The next story in my diary is the horror of a "dappled rope" at the observatory, which will make your hair stand on end.

    *oruki: 48482 Oruki was discovered in 1992. "Oruki" means "I will stand by you no matter what", implying the importance of one's presence and reassurance. The word has long been loved and used in the Tosa (Kochi prefecture) dialect.

July 24
    What on earth is that dark shadow on the door always appearing at 3 am? I am obliged to tell you about the observatory's surroundings before revealing the identity of this shadow.

    The observatory is built on a 120-meter-high hill at Wajiki of Geisei village. Two kilometers to the south from the observatory you can see the blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Immediately east of the observatory is a valley. A deserted path called "kemonomichi" or the path of beasts leads to the bottomless swamp in the valley. I always feared that something might crawl out of this old swamp.

    One night I arrived at the observatory hill quite late. I drove along a road which I don't regularly use and parked my car on the clearing at the top of the hill just north of the observatory. From there it is an easy walk to the observatory unlike the usual parking lot, which requires a climb along a mountain path to reach the dome. It is only 20 meters to the dome by walking down the southern slope from where you can see the ocean during the daytime. On my way to the dome I have to cross "kemonomichi", which is only about one meter wide. This track goes to the swamp and part of the track is covered by thick vegetation.

"Kemonomichi", the path of beasts, leads to a swamp
at the bottom of the valley. The shining eyes of
a "monster" glared at me here.

   About 50 meters ahead there is a very dense forest. When I turned the flashlight to it, a pair of blue eyes appeared in the darkness. There is a mysterious creature living in the forest, which I call "the master of the forest". The eyes were shining reflecting the powerful flashlight. They were too large for the eyes of a dog or a cat. I have had a fear of being always watched on my way to the observatory.

    Several hours later, when I finished the night's observing and was walking along the same road back to my car, I stopped on the same spot and turned the flashlight again into the forest. The pair of shining eyes were no longer there. They must have moved on. They are not an object on the ground, but eyes belonging to an animal. I thought I might have a chance to see the "master of the forest" someday again. Just about one year later, something happened in early autumn.

July 11
   When summer comes, ghost stories become very popular everywhere in Japan. In my childhood there were always "haunted houses" set up at summer festivals and special events. Children, though very scared, would walk into haunted houses, which are rarely found today. When I was at elementary school, we used to stay at the school for a few nights in summer and would have a "test your guts" class. At midnight we would walk in pairs along the deserted corridors on the first and second floors of the school building armed only with a flashlight. At places along the corridors there were always tricks set up where teachers disguised as ghosts would jump out of the dark and scare you. Actually, I found a long corridor without any tricks often scarier. Even now I remember that gripping terror I felt.

    Geisei Observatory is also a place which tests your guts. The narrow road from the parking lot at the top of the hill to the observatory is 50 meters long, very dark, and scary. On the right-hand side of the road lies a valley and you can hear howlings of some animals rising from the bottom of the valley. On the opposite side there is a thick forest. I am glad there are no pale white gravestones there. If there were, it would be scarier. Once you hide yourself in the dome, you will feel safe, but during observing in the dark dome you will be conscious of what is going on outside. Sometimes you will hear footsteps and a strange barking. Even in the utter silence around the dome, if you listen carefully, you will hear the sound of water trickling down into an artificial swamp at the bottom of the valley. I heard that once a person had jumped into it to end his life...

The bottomless swamp below the observatory
where ghost stories originate

    Always at 3 o'clock in the morning something strange happens. The door at the dome entrance has a frosted glass window and the midnight air faintly glows on it. I often look at the white glow on the door during observation, frightened by a thought that the silhouette of someone or something will appear on the window. And, always at 3 am, I find a dark shadow on the window. It has a pointed head like a small Christmas tree and would disappear in a few tens of seconds. "What on earth is that this late at night?" I am scared and would never open the door. At the end of the long night when the pale twilight begins to envelop the dome, I leave the dome quietly and hurries down the hill. Once in the car I shut the door hard and then calm down feeling safe and relieved.

    The observatory is a kind of place where your courage is tested. Before long, an unimaginable terror struck me. I want to refuse to believe it as real. It was utterly incredible. The shadow was not that of a human...

July 10
    In the afternoon I stood on the rooftop of my house and was watching the eastern sky while the rainy season weather was still lingering. I saw a rather uncommon site of an airship wandering in the sky. I remember that, when I was very young, my grandfather pointed at a large white airship from the rooftop which appeared in the sky over Kochi. It was probably around 1935. Its huge white body looked drifting in the evening sunlight like a comet.

    In those days airships played an important role in transportation linking various countries. They were also used for military purposes in Japan. However, accidents continued to occur caused by fires. In my high school days our Japanese language textbook wrote about the famous scientist-essayist Torahiko Terada and airships. In the laboratory Torahiko was always joking while puffing away cigarettes. One day he walked into the lab looking very serious unlike his usual jovial manner and said, "I have been entrusted with a very important job by the military. I want you all to work hard on it," and he elaborated on the "job". In those days many military airships had been built in Japan, but accidents continued where airships exploded in midair and crashed. Similar accidents occurred overseas too. In America the famous airship Hindenburg on a regular flight from Germany to America burst into flames over the airport resulting in the great loss of life.

    Torahiko's investigating team, requested by the military to determine the cause of airship accidents, found that they were caused by the ground connecting radio communications equipment with the body of the airship. The body filled with flammable hydrogen caught fire from sparks set off by metallic fibers. Airships were indeed very dangerous vehicles.

    Several years later, soon after the Pacific War broke out, I saw a long narrow white object glittering in the evening western sky. It sank below the horizon following the setting sun. I had long believed it was an airship, but come to think of it, it was not the age of airships and the sky was dominated by emerging airplanes. During the war a comet called Paraskevopoulos (Comet de Kock-Paraskevopoulos) was reportedly visible in broad daylight, but I wouldn't believe that the comet was what I had seen then. Paraskevopoulos was a Greek/South African astronomer and discovered this comet while flying his plane.

    The airship which appeared over Kochi City was flying leisurely as if it were reminiscing about the heyday of airships. The lush green mountains, towering white clouds...it is a typical midsummer scene.

An airship flying over Hitsuzan (Kochi City)

July 7
My memories of Tanabata festival

    Stars were hardly visible on this year's Tanabata star festival day, but at midnight the moon and Jupiter were brightly shining, sinking low in the southwest. Vega (the Weaver star of the Tanabata story) was shining bluer than usual at the zenith. Is it my imagination that Vega looks especially blue in the rainy season? All we had tonight was clear patches in the clouds of the wet season and this was not an observable night.

    On Tanabata festival day in my childhood the sky was always clear, because it was celebrated on July 7 on the lunar calendar, which was after the rainy season. The Milky Way was visible from city streets, too. Numerous strips of "tanzaku" paper* hung from bamboo branches made rustling sounds in the wind. It was like hearing the gurgling of water running in the river of the Milky Way. It was probably around mid August. By the time the half moon sank in the west the wind became chilly and I retreated from a bench in the courtyard back into the house. Neighbors, young and old, gathered around the benches placed in front of our house and talked away warm evening hours into late night.

    Important fairy tales and ghost stories of Tosa (Kochi) used to be passed from the elderly onto children when they gathered around the benches on hot summer nights. But such opportunities no longer exist and stories about incidents and events in old Tosa are destined to be lost, as they cannot be taught at school. I heard unusual witness accounts of ignis fatuus and mirage which had appeared in my neighborhood. I heard these stories from elderly people who gathered around the benches to while away hot summer evenings. On evenings when a typhoon was approaching, there was always a "meteorologist" among the crowd. I remember well that at such a gathering a man stood up and said: "I will show you how to find the center of a typhoon. Stand with the wind behind you and stretch your left arm. Your arm is pointing toward the center of the typhoon." It was around 1935. Believe it or not, there was no typhoon forecast in those days, no radar, no aircraft flying to observe typhoons; much less meteorological satellites and television to report news of a typhoon. Besides, typhoons were spawn in the southern ocean, which was an enemy territory and war was imminent at that time. We became aware that a storm might be approaching only after strong winds began to blow.

    The story I heard from my grandfather of "kitsunebi" (ignis fatuus) rolling along the street was particularly spine chilling. I will tell you ghost stories of Tosa on boring nights like tonight when rainy weather keeps me from observing.

    Notes: Tanzaku paper is small strips of color paper on which personal wishes or poems are written.

Copyright (C) 2006 Tsutomu Seki.