Japan's 72 Microseasons - #13
"Swallows Settle In"
April 5 - 9
Swallows settle in
There’s something about birds. From country to country, culture to culture, their freewheeling flight, vivid colors, and seasonal journeys draw our attentions skyward and beyond. Seen as messengers of the gods, gods themselves, or any number of portents, omens, or metaphors, we seem to have this innate feeling that birds understand something we don’t about the heavens above.
That’s obviously true to a certain degree, in the way it is for all animals. But one of the most useful and reliable bits of news that we’ve counted on birds to deliver us through history is rooted quite firmly not in myth but in nature: the changing of the seasons. Or, as the case may be, a microseason.
As a quick reminder before we dive in, you can always follow along with the microseasons on Twitter as well, if you don’t have time for an essay on bird symbolism and just want a quick update when we’re in a new one.
So let’s talk swallows. Whereas the domestic sparrows' nest-building signals the beginnings of the season, the sudden arrival of swallows from overseas marks the peak of true spring for Japan. Their annual migratory pattern has long served as a guide to farmers’ crop cultivation schedules—swallows come at the start of planting and leave around harvest time. Naturally, this has associated them quite closely as a symbol of not just agricultural bounty but good fortune in general.1 The kitaru (至)2 part of this kō’s name means “to arrive” in the sense of something that is forthcoming, due to come, expected at a certain time.
It’s not just Japan either: in English they’re properly called barn swallows, and are similarly welcomed by farmers (a related species native to Australia, Hirundo neoxena, are actually called welcome swallows).
While their official name in Japanese is tsubame (燕), like many flora and fauna that find themselves representative of the seasons, swallows have a number of nicknames, including the one featured in this kō: genchō (玄鳥)3. The second part, chō/鳥 means “bird” and is read on its own as tori, but the 玄 offers some interesting insight that ties into the cultural meaning the swallow holds in Japan.
The primary definition for 玄 is “black tinged with reddish tones,” but more poetically it is also the color of the heavens, that space farther than the sky.4 It’s a dark, profound color that can also refer to a deep, far away place in the back of a cave or a dense wood. Darkness just beyond the verge of seeing. As a concept, it’s profound in more than just hue: for Taoism, it alludes to the origin of all things—far from us in time and space, beyond knowing, but worth pondering. Perhaps, then, the color came about because it’s similar to what you see if you close your eyes and look into that inner void.5
So why are swallows assigned this profound, otherworldly symbolism? When put into context it makes sense: absent during the cold, dead months of winter, they come from some unseen place to herald warmth, fresh crops, and new life. Traditionally, they were said to make their home in Tokoyo-no-kuni (常世国), the distant land of the dead, the Other Side.
What they’re actually doing, we now know, is migrating to a temperate area full of food to breed and raise their young, after which they’ll winter nearer to the equator where it’s warmer. But even without all the mythological mystery around their behavior and origins, its undeniable that the sight of their swooping in and out of newly built nests is a sure sign of spring. And I think, at least, their brief, sudden stay is no less poetic for knowing exactly where they’ve traveled from.
Even today, widely held folklore says that tsubame nesting at your home or business is a blessing of happiness and prosperity. And that’s probably for the best because they can set up in some…inconvenient places. It’s not uncommon to see areas of shops and train stations temporarily roped off so as not to disturb the parents and fledglings (and avoid people being “blessed” by droppings from above). They’re only around for about three weeks, though, and most folks are more than happy to make accommodations for the new families.
Like many birds, you may hear swallows before you see them. But how can you be sure? There’s a popular mnemonic that, when said quickly enough, resembles their sprightly chirps: tsuchi kutte, mushi kutte, kuchi shibu~i (土食って虫食って口渋ーい), meaning “eat dirt, eat bugs, bitter in the mouth.”
As we did with the uguisu, you’re welcome to have a listen and try at home:
Rather than bugs and dirt, let’s see what other things might be on the menu this season. As ever, if you happen to be in Japan while reading this, keep an eye out at restaurants so you can enjoy these at the peak of freshness.
● Seasonal vegetable
warabi, わらび, bracken | shin-jaga, 新じゃが, new potatoes
● Seasonal seafood
hatsu-gatsuo, 初鰹 (lit. “first katsuo”), young skipjack tuna
● Seasonal flower
kakitsubata, 燕子花, rabbitear iris6
And that’s all for this kō! If not by tsubame themselves, may all your arrivals this season be just as welcome and promising of good things to come. Or, at the very least, don’t leave a bitter taste.
See you next kō~
Keep up with the seasons
It probably helped their reputation with said farmers that they don’t lay waste to crops like sparrows do, instead eating only the insects which could harm those crops and livestock
As with many of the kō, when localized into Japanese that your average person could read and intuit, the old Chinese characters were given altered readings: in this case 至る is typically read itaru, and means more “to reach (a decision)” or “to result in”
Others include tsubakuro, tsuya, tsuba, and variations of tsubakurame, the oldest recorded name for them
As a reminder: if you like these neat, poetic colors, 543 Life has a good little selection of them as well as calendars featuring them
The kanji for this flower is literally swallow-child-flower, and that’s because they bloom right around the time young swallows are taking wing and leaving the nest—a celebratory bouquet as they fly out into the world