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The Story of a Comet Hunter's Life

My 50 years with Comets

Part 1: A mystery of Geisei Observatory

    One of Geisei Observatory's mysteries is winter-time fireflies. It is quite strange that we can hardly see fireflies in summer around the observatory. It would be quite a sight if numerous fireflies crisscrossed the sky around the observatory's dome. Unfortunately, however, I have never encountered a sight like this so far. In winter, instead, as if to make up for it, fireflies are seen all over the thickets of weeds around the observatory and their lights look like blooming flowers in the gardens. Their mysterious greenish blue lights flash up against the starry sky. It is timely that up in the sky Orion is present and Sirius is blazing. The lights of the fireflies look as if communicating with the stars to boast their beautiful greenish lights. It is such a magnificent sight. These winter fireflies are actually firefly larvae. They never fly but live through winter in that form.
Constellations of fireflies glowing in the grass, beautiful greenish blue.
This poem was written by Hoei Nojiri, a famous Japanese poet and astronomical folklore scholar.

    What do you think is the most famous thing around the observatory in summer? A ghost of all things! Ever since the opening of the observatory it has been well known that there is always an old man in a white robe wandering around the observatory on the public viewing day. However, he would manage to disappear somehow and nobody knows who he is at all. He is not a scary figure, but rather constructive and adorable, if you get to know him better. It is a little too early to talk about ignis fatuus* (corpse candle) and ghosts. (In Japan summer nights are the best time for telling stories about ghosts.) But I have to tell you the story of this ghost now, which mysteriously haunts the observatory deep in the mountains, as he is deeply involved in my future stories.

    It was, if my memory serves me correct, the summer of 1986, when the whole world was crazed with the apparition of Halley's Comet. A strange thing happened on the observatory's hill, where one day 2000 people gathered to see the comet coming from all over Japan. The observatory stands at a beautiful site about 100 meters above sea level from where you can have a bird's-eye view of the Pacific Ocean to the south. On clear days you can catch the stunning sight of Cape Murotomisaki and to the west Cape Ashizurimisaki in the distance. One summer evening, a mother with two children ran into an old man, around 80 years old, when walking along a narrow lane leading to the observatory from the parking lot below. He was coming down the stone steps in the darkness wearing a white summer kimono. She thought "it is admirable that an old person like him comes to the observatory," and greeted him with "good evening." The old man just passed them without saying a word and disappeared into the darkness. There is one more story. After observing Halley's Comet in the dome, we walked up to the hill to show the constellations to the visitors, as we usually do on such occasions. It was early in September, when the summer in this warm southern region was coming to an end. I found that old man in the white kimono among the crowd, who gathered around us to listen to our talks. They said that he was looking at us intently with a smile on his lips. I thought it was strange and later checked the list of participants but could not find anyone around 80 years old.
    After this incident, this story of the observatory's ghost gradually spread and almost all of the regular visitors to the observatory knew about this ghost. Even children talked about him: "I saw that old man in a white robe" or "he didn't appear tonight but the other day I saw him standing in the dark wearing a white robe. It must be him." The rumor snowballed. Ignis fatuus may be believable, but there shouldn't be a ghost in this civilized world. It is probably some kind of illusion, but I had some clue regarding his identity. To find out about this ghost I have to go back as far as 50 years and visit a "haunted" house.

    * Ignis fatuus: Also called friar's lantern, will-o'-the-wisp. A flitting phosphorescent light seen at night, chiefly over marshy ground, and believed to be due to spontaneous combustion of gas from decomposed organic matter. (Random House Dictionary)

Copyright (C) 2005 Tsutomu Seki.