When I first met my host mother, Akiko-san, and host sister, Saki-chan, I was very surprised- probably because they were both complete opposites from what I had imagined, but also because they both are dynamic people and blew me out of the water. Even right after I had met them at the Center and was in the car, driving with them to their vacation home located near Yamanaka-ko (literally, lake in the depths of the hills) together with Saki-chan’s friend, Yokohata-chan, I had already noticed that they seemed to be in a different frequency than everyone else. I had trouble – still have trouble, actually- following their conversations because topics switch every few seconds and therefore keeping up with them is near impossible. They both also love to use big words, so when every once in a while they stop to explain everything in a way I can understand, I am very grateful.
We were stuck in traffic half of the way to Yamanaka-ko, probably because it was the weekend and all of the city folks craved fresh air in the countryside. When we finally arrived after noon, I got my first glimpse of the hills, lake and Mt. Fuji in the distance. Yamanaka-ko is one of the lakes situated at the foot of the famous Japanese volcano, and the vacation home is located in one of the hills near the lake. Because of the trees all around, the scenery reminded me of home.
Saki-chan showed us around their massive house, which has three floors including the basement. But before entering the house, there was a genkan- entranceway- where I removed my shoes, stepped up onto the platform of the wooden house floor and carefully put my feet into house slippers. The Japanese cannot live without cleanliness, so wearing dirty shoes inside the home or touching the floor with dirty feet is a huge no-no. After putting on the slippers, Yoko-chan and I were showed the kitchen, living room- which contained a ping pong table- and bathroom on the first floor, and the bathroom, Japanese style tatami mat room and luxury bedroom on the second. Though I refused profusely, I was made to sleep in the luxury bedroom- which held a huge, soft bed and a gigantic closet, with a lot of room left to spare.
Akiko-san prepared a delicious chicken dish for us to eat along with lunch and then Saki-chan, Yoko-chan and I honed our ping pong playing skills until we decided it was time to explore the area. So, explore we did! Saki-chan grabbed a gigantic stick and told us to follow her lead and grab similar ones to brush aside plants on our way down the vegetated hill. Every once in a while, when I spotted an interesting plant- a leaf with a berry growing smack dab in the middle of it, for example- I asked about it, and Saki-chan told me its name in a heartbeat, along with some facts about it, which I found impressive. The walk down lead to a library, where I checked out a fashion magazine and a Jake Shimabukuro CD.
Returning home, Saki-chan’s bird marking friends- and older man named Saito-san and a younger, kind-looking man named Mineo-san – were waiting. Both men work to catch wild birds in nets to put tiny, metallic markers on the birds’ feet in order to track their progress and habits. Saki-chan went with Mineo-san to set up the net while Yoko-chan, Akiko-san and I rested at home for a bit.
Soon enough, though, we were headed for the bird marking field, where about ten thousand swallows flew in giant circles overhead, so close that I felt as if i could reach out and touch them. On the other side was a great view of Mt. Fuji in the sunset. After we stared in awe at the beautiful scenery all around, Mineo-san explained to us that swallows live for about three to five years, but that about eighty percent of the swallows in the sky above were just born this year. He explained further that only twenty percent of the ten thousand that came to our location that night would return the coming year. When I asked why so many came to this field, he replied by saying that the swallows had made nests on top of the tall grasses. They slept in high places in order to escape becoming dinner for small mammals, mostly raccons. The grasses below us included wild herbs, so as the wind moved the leaves softly, a natural, calming smell enveloped me.
Where we stood, we could see the net that they had set up earlier, and by using binoculars, we sighted swallows caught in the net, unable to untangle themselves. When it was dark enough that the swallows dissappeared to sleep instead of flying around- so therefore none of the swallows could be caught in the net- we walked to it, Saki-chan and Mineo-san carrying small bags for gathering the birds. Yoko-chan and I watched while Saki-chan and Mineo-san carefully removed limbs and wings from the net and gently placed each bird into bags.
After gathering them all, we returned near the car, where a desk was set up. The bags were placed neatly side-by-side so not to overheat the swallows. Then the marking process began in the light of a kerosine lamp. Saki-chan took out a swallow and help its head between her pointer finger and middle finger gently- which immobilized it. Next she took the metal marker and clamped it onto its tiny foot. (Swallows have smaller feet than the normal bird, Mineo-san explained, because they fly for long distances and need larger wingspans. ) Saki-chan then informed Mineo-san of the swallow’s age and marker number. Gender is impossible to tell when the swallows are young, so that was not recorded. The deeper the red tint of its neck, the older it is. When Mineo-san finished marking a swallow, he offered me a chance to hold it, which I gratefully accepted.
Its head was adorably tiny and soft between my fingers and its innocent eyes looked at me in wonder- and only a second into holding it, my heart was taken. I could not let it go, so I held it in my hands and wondered it if would make the trip down to the Phillipeans safely, if it would return here next year, refreshed, already an adult. Then I let go of its head and placed it upright in the palm of my hand and bid it goodbye, but it just stood there, dazed, its little feet grabbing the skin of my hand. It walked on my hand, then crossed over to Akiko-san’s hand. We ooed and ahhed until suddenly, the swallow took off- flying into the black of the night.
I held about ten other swallows and released them all into the air, each time feeling a mix of sadness and joy- while Saki-chan and Mineo-san marked about fifty or sixty swallows in all.
After parting with Mineo-san and thanking him for the amazing opportunity, we ate dinner ( I called Mommy for the first time in the diner), bought fireworks, built a fire outside the house, let off the fireworks, took baths…and finally, went to bed. As I settled into the soft cushions, images of swallows danced in front of my eyes- pictures of these small life forms struggling to survive, eyes full of innocence and hope- and I wished with all my heart for another meeting, someday.