Photo/Illutration Swans gather at Tataranuma Pond, which straddles Tatebayashi and Oura in Gunma Prefecture, in December 2014. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

When I traveled to an art museum in Tatebayashi, Gunma Prefecture, last autumn, I also visited nearby Tataranuma Pond.

Dusk was falling, and I was mesmerized by the pond’s surface turning orange. A local resident taking a walk told me this was a wintering spot for swans from Siberia.

A few days ago, I heard on the news that their arrival was peaking. I imagine the birds swimming placidly at twilight.

There are said to be more swans this year than usual looking for food at Tataranuma, apparently avoiding the heavy snowfall along the Sea of Japan coast.

“Wintering” is the word that pops into my head when I think of migrating birds as human travelers.

But what those feathered creatures are after is not mild weather, but food. Graceful as they appear, they are desperate for survival.

The “tennyo,” or celestial maiden, of the Hagoromo (robe of feathers) legend in many parts of Japan is likened to a swan.

The maiden alights and starts bathing, but a man snatches her robe and hides it. Unable to return to heaven, she marries the man and has a child by him. But she eventually finds her robe and has to leave.

Folklorist Masaharu Akaba, who has researched the Hagoromo legend for years, says in his work “Hakucho” (Swan) that the tradition of ascribing sanctity to swans has to do with the fact that the birds arrive from the north and return to the north.

The sun rises from the east, sets in the west, the south is warm and the north is frigid.

Akaba notes that humans recognize north as the direction where life is “blocked” and also probably as the place where life starts and ends.

Poet Yuko Kagiwada (1932-2020) likened the swan to “a soft boat” in one of her haiku.

With sanctity, beauty and toughness all on board, the birds are sojourning.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 12

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.