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The Story of a Comet Hunter's Life

My 50 years with Comets

Part 23: My memories of Comet Honda

    Among the comets discovered by Mr. Minoru Honda using the mysteriously disappeared 15cm comet seeker, Comet Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova discovered in December 1948 deserves a special mention. This comet has an elliptical orbit with an orbital period of no more than 5 years. Since the discovery it has returned many times and excited us comet enthusiasts. It is hard to believe, though, that this comet had not been found even once before 1948 because the 18th to 19th century Europe and U.S. were full of great comet searchers and this comet brightens considerably at each apparition. Or is it because the orbit was different due to planetary perturbation.

    Since the 1954 apparition when it was recovered by Mr. Tetsuyasu Mitani of Kwazan Observatory, I have been observing this comet at almost every apparition. In August 1969 I found it at my home, three days earlier than Mr. Mrkos did, but unfortunately my report of the recovery was delayed. And, in 1980 I was fortunate enough to recover it using Geiseifs 60cm reflector. However, I have a sad memory about this comet.

    At the 1990 apparition, the comet was glowing bright in the pre-dawn sky. When I sent Mr. Honda mono-chromatic photographs of the comet, which he had asked for earlier, he was very delighted. I observed the comet at that apparition thinking of sending him color photos. When I returned home in the early morning, unexpectedly I got the news of Mr. Hondafs passing. Under a sky with Comet Honda shining beautifully, he was lured by the comet he himself had discovered and left this world. I wasnft able to show him the color photos of this comet before his passing, but a few days later at his funeral service, I was there with the color photos of Comet Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova in my chest pocket.

    I often visited Kurashiki. I took in sights there attracted by the white plaster-wall storehouses reflected on the surface of Yanagigawa river. I always headed for the observatory. One autumn day when I visited him he was digging potatoes with the children of his kindergarten inside the observatory compound. Another day in summer, I visited him at the kindergarten and found him in a small principalfs room looking intensely into a microscope to look for a nova on the film. He must have exposed a lot of film because he observed every night. If he didnft check the film even in a little spare time during the lunch hour, it would become impossible to check all of them. Because I am not working for anybody, I can use my daytime flexibly, but still the large amount of nightly observation would make it impossible to complete processing and measuring of the film in one day. This would be much more difficult for amateurs with a daytime job. Unlike leisurely visual observing, observers engaged in doing some serious observing comparable to research like Mr. Honda will be extremely busy to check the nightfs observation.

    One of the minor planets discovered at Geisei is gKurashikih. These days, I rarely visit Kurashiki. Kurashiki, with the beautiful white-plastered walls of the houses in this ancient city and its fame as a gcity of artsh, was fascinating and continued to live in me because Mr. Honda was there. Whenever I saw him, we would be always talking about the stars. One day, on our way back from a visit to Kiso Observatory, we mistakingly took an express train going in the opposite direction at Kiso-Fukushima station. Mr. Honda said to me, who looked rather pale due to this grave mistake, gWell, Seki-san, itfs done is done. Not much we can do. Please forgive me for this mistake, as I will tell you something special I have never told others until now.h He sounded as if the whole thing was his fault and told me his memories about his comet discoveries.

    The train is now heading for Matsumoto city. While I was worried and anxious about the consequences of the mistaken train ride, he told me unusual stories as if he were trying to calm me. Even now I think I was lucky we took the wrong train. The stories Mr. Honda told me have been often quoted in this series of my essays. This is exactly gBad luck turned into goodh. Arriving home late at night, I went to the observatory and phoned Mr. Honda to thank him for accompanying me on the trip. He had left for gSeijin-soh, his mountain observatory, for observing. gIfm not going to the observatory because Ifm just back from the trip and exhaustedh or gObserving is off because I am having a visitor tonighth, this sort of excuse is not acceptable to Mr. Honda. No matter how busy he was he would give priority to observing. This is what makes him different from an ordinary person like me and this is the quality of an extraordinary person like him who had made discoveries ahead of the world. Often I hear people say they cannot do observing because their workload has increased. For us amateur astronomers, it is nothing unusual to have a huge workload. Thatfs why observing is all the more fulfilling. A few of my friends in my younger days left astronomy saying a personal promotion at the workplace was more important than astronomy. I sometimes wonder where these people are now and what they are doing. I am a wanderer without a social prestige or wealth. But I am rich in heart and have a joy to watch the stars all my life. I am convinced I have made a right decision for myself. My occupation is guitar music. It is not a kind of job that can be considered completed when you have done so much. If you donft practice with passion and work hard, your level of skill will decline. My abilities are divided into astronomy and guitar on a 50-50 basis.

    So much for my own life philosophy, letfs trace the whereabouts of the missing 15cm comet seeker Mr. Honda used to own. The spring of 1955, over 50 years ago, it was a stormy afternoon with pouring rain. My mother came to tell me ga Buddhist priest has come to see youh. gStrangecI have no Buddhist priest friendch. I walked to the entrance and found a young priest in a robe standing there with a smile. He said cheerfully with a vigor in his voice, gAre you Mr. Seki? I am Yamamoto. I have recently been transferred from Koyasan Temple to Chikurinji Temple.h He told me he loved astronomy and since he was a student at Koyasan University he had been admiring me. There is a popular folk song in Kochi called gYosakoi-bushih. It is about a young Buddhist priest seen buying a girlfs Kanzashi ornamental hairpin at Harimayabashi bridge in Kochi.

It goes like this:
At Harimayabashi bridge of Kochi in Tosa
a young priest was seen buying a Kanzashi hairpin.

    The song was modelled after a young priest of Chikurinji Temple in Kochi city. I said to him jokingly, gIs that you who bought the kanzashi at Harimayabashi bridge?h He laughed loudly. The two young menfs loud laughing became a sign of future long-lasting friendship. I was 24 and he was 23 years old.

    Mr. Yamamoto was a planet observer. Chikurinji Temple stands on the 200-meter-tall mountain on along the shore of an inlet of Seto Bay. Seeing there was good. He observed Mars and Jupiter using a 15cm reflector and improved his observing skills keeping in touch with the late Mr. Tsuneo Saheki, a well-known planet observer. Mr. Yamamoto was a member of the Oriental Astronomical Association, too. He was passionate for comet search as well. Whenever he had spare time, he would set up his comet seeker in the garden of the temple and lost himself in observing. He was also known as a collector of reflector mirrors and, apart from his own 15cm reflector, he owned two mirrors given to him by famous observers. One was a 21cm f/8 mirror given by Kazuyoshi Komoda of Kyushu (a well-known Jupiter observer) and the other one a 15cm f/6.3 comet seeker on a good altazimuth mounting. Both were Kibe mirrors. I looked through the 15cm comet seeker and found it an excellent mirror without much less coma for its small F-ratio. The 15cm f/6.3 mirror was a specially ground fast optic and not many of them should exist. I was not able to find who had initially owned Mr. Yamamotofs 15cm telescope, because Mr Yamamoto passed away at a young age of 35. He had been expected to become an expert Mars observer as well as a principal figure of Chikurinji Temple.

    Thinking of these days, I have endless memories associated with him. In 1957 we were very busy observing man-made satellites. When Dr. Issei Yamamoto and Mrs Yamamoto came to a public lecture event, we took them to Katsurahama beach. And in October, 1965 when Comet Ikeya-Seki plunged into the Sunfs corona, he was one of the people who accompanied an observing team and went up to Bandanomori to confirm the survival of the comet. Beginning in 1960 three of us Koichi Ike, Takashi Nishiyama, and me formed a three-man comet observing team and actively observed at every opportunity. After losing Mr. Nishiyama in a vehicle accident, we had Mr. Yamamoto join us in his place. However, before long, Mr. Yamamoto himself passed away. We decided to disband this team feeling a gtrioh might bring us bad luck.

    One spring day, I visited Chikurinji Temple and Mr. Yamamoto kindly showed me Buddha statues and various treasures in the templefs treasure house. Among articles comparable to the National Treasure, I found three astronomical telescopes stored there with great care. It seemed that Mr. Yamamoto himself treated these telescopes as his family treasure. Leaving the temple, Mr. Yamamoto accompanied me all the way down the road from the temple as if not wishing to part with me. I politely said to him, gThank you very much. I will be able to walk alone from here without getting losth and kept walking down the stone- paved road. It was a beautiful scenery with azaleas in full bloom and blue spring skies spreading above us. After walking down the road for a while, I looked back to find Mr. Yamamoto still following me 50 meters away. When I gestured farewell with my hand, he bowed politely. I walked down the mountain road feeling his eyes on my back. I deeply felt the gratitude for being adored by others. This was my last impression of Mr. Yamamoto. Farther down, I deeply bowed to him, which sadly became a farewell forever.

    For a while I could not believe Mr. Yamamoto was no longer with us. When I independently discovered Comet Crommelin, he was so joyous that he bought many copies of the newspapers carrying the news of my discovery and gave them away to his friends. I remember that scene vividly. Even after he was gone, I felt he might be silently hoping for my next discoveries somewhere in the sky silently. I always felt Mr. Yamamotofs spirit around me. I could not refute the idea that, although Mr. Yamamoto was a priest, he did not rest in peace and his soul stayed in this world to help me achieve a success. One day, a peculiar incident occurred which seemed to be a realization of my long-held premonition.

Copyright (C) 2019 Tsutomu Seki.