Eighty-year-old Tetsuo Sugitani has spent half his life helping to keep time in Kyoto.
Specifically, Sugitani is in charge of caring for Kyoto University's clock tower, a local landmark.
For years, Sugitani felt he could profit from a visit to London to see the inner workings of "Big Ben," as the four-sided clock tower at the Houses of Parliament is commonly known.
Big Ben, in fact, is the name of the 13-ton bell at the top of St. Stephen's Tower.
Sugitani was recently granted the rare privilege of being allowed access to the Victorian mechanism that is used to keep time, and which is marked on the hour by Big Ben.
Kyoto's clock tower, built in 1925, was destroyed during student demonstrations in 1969. Because the clock is electric, Sugitani was asked to repair it. He operates an electrical appliance store in Kyoto.
In a sense, Sugitani has served as the "main physician" in repair work over the past 40-odd years. He said 95 percent of the restoration work is now complete.
However, he did face one puzzle: what oil to use to ensure smooth rotation of the cross-shaped shaft that moves the hands simultaneously on the four faces of the clock.
Using ordinary machinery oil was out of the question because it dripped, leaving a mess on the floor.
It was then that his thoughts turned to Big Ben, which was first heard striking the hour in July 1859.
Its shaft is about four times the size of the clock tower at Kyoto University.
Sugitani thought that smooth rotation of such a huge shaft would require using oil with much higher viscosity.
Some years ago, Sugitani came across an image on the Internet showing the inner workings of Big Ben. He caught a glimpse of oil, the surface of which reminded him of the texture of Japanese "mizu ame." He felt certain that this was the oil he should use for the Kyoto University clock.
The next problem facing Sugitani was gaining access to Big Ben. That privilege is normally reserved for British citizens. For foreigners, permanent resident status in Britain is required. Even in such cases, the police will conduct thorough background checks before approving such a visit.
Officials of the Japanese Embassy in London read about Sugitani's plight in The Asahi Shimbun and contacted staff at the British Parliament to secure special permission for Sugitani to visit.
In mid-October, Sugitani arrived in London for the first time.
Like others before him, he had to climb the 290 steps to the machine room that operates the clock.
After looking at the shaft, Sugitani asked Paul Roberson, a clock maker who is in charge of Big Ben, the question that had been in his mind for so long: "What kind of oil do you use?"
When Roberson said motor oil, Sugitani had an image of oil dripping.
Roberson then acknowledged that a different oil was used for some of the work.
Sugitani asked, "What is the international standard number?"
Roberson was hesitant to answer, so Sugitani came right out and asked him, "Is it secret?"
Roberson finally admitted that "slide oil" was used.
According to Sugitani, slide oil is used for precision machinery.
"I had never imagined that type of oil was being used," Sugitani said. "They likely came across it after repeated trial-and-error over the 150-year history of Big Ben."
Sugitani left feeling he had made a huge discovery, one that would help him in his mission to keep the right time in Kyoto.
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