Photo/IllutrationThis Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019 image made available by NASA shows the Kuiper belt object Ultima Thule, about 1 billion miles beyond Pluto, encountered by the New Horizons spacecraft. (NASA via AP)

It must have been a day of heavy snowfall when poet Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) had one of his disciples over at his home and welcomed him with a haiku that went like this: "You make the fire/ And I’ll show you something wonderful/ A big ball of snow."

A "yuki maruge," the expression the poet used for the big ball of snow, is made by rolling a packed ball of snow on the snowy ground until it reaches the desired size--just like building a snowman.

The poem evokes an image of this haiku master frolicking in the snow like a young boy.

It snowed, mainly in the Hokuriku region, during the year-end and New Year's holidays. I imagine many children built snowmen while visiting their ancestral hometowns. Even adults find it surprisingly fun to help the youngsters in this activity, which is enjoyed around the world.

Earlier this week, NASA released close-up images of a small celestial body shaped like a snowman captured by their New Horizons interplanetary space probe.

Named Ultima Thule, meaning "the extreme limit of travel and discovery," it is located about 6.4 billion kilometers from Earth. Formed by two different-sized orbs, it actually looks quite cute.

As the name implies, it lies at the extreme edge of our solar system, and is the farthest heavenly body ever observed by a space probe.

Scientists say Ultima Thule may provide clues to the origin of the solar system.

In another breaking news story this year related to space exploration, an unmanned Chinese space rover landed on the far side of the moon.

While this achievement raises hopes for new discoveries, it also reminds me of China's intense competition with the United States over space hegemony.

Thoughts of far-away outer space stimulate the human imagination. But when the matter concerns planets relatively close to ours, we immediately become wary. This is one sad aspect of being human.

Ultima Thule certainly looks like a snowman. But probably because it's right after the New Year's holiday season, I also cannot help noticing its resemblance to "kagami mochi"--a traditional Japanese New Year decoration consisting of two round "mochi" rice cakes, the smaller atop the larger.

Once this short festive season is over, I suppose we will all go back to fretting over U.S.-China frictions again.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 4

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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.