MFK Fisher, the renowned food writer, has a book on the art of ageing, titled Sister Age. It is a book that I return to from time to time as I find it comforting: the characters in it are ones that I like to read about and get to know again and again. Another book that I am rereading is Two Old Women by Velma Wallis, the message of which is “to die trying.” Today is International Senior Citizens Day and my thoughts naturally turn on age and ageing and older people.
I have written before about Okuyama-san, the printer, and Goto-san, the cooper, and how I met them in my late twenties when I was living in the Snow Country, in Yuzawa, Akita. Okuyama-san might have been in his late 40s or early 50s, and Goto-san most likely in his 70s. I am grateful to have met them and to have learned from them about how one deals with age, with illness and increasing infirmity. They have taught me lessons on how one can age well and indeed flourish in old age.
Okuyama-san actively cultivated health: his day began with a brisk walk with Pochi, his dog, to his vegetable garden at the very edge of town. On his back he carried a 10-kilo backpack loaded with his tools and on the return home this pack got heavier as he brought back vegetables that he had harvested. He would work in the garden – digging, weeding, deadheading – and that included working in the neighbouring garden as well. It belonged to an older woman who had given him the asparagus roots for his own asparagus beds. Although she had not asked for anything in return, Okuyama-san took it upon himself to tend both his vegetable beds and her own. Only after these two hours of heavy garden work would he sit to breakfast with Miyako-san, and then off he would go to the printing shop. At 5 pm or so, after his working day, he would go back to the vegetable garden, and do another stint of gardening.
Okuyama-san had a curious mind, and he read widely about health and the connection between food and health. These readings he condensed into flyers, illustrated manga-style, and these were enclosed with printing orders and distributed widely as advertising for his shop as well. It’s a pity I didn’t keep at least one of those flyers, but in essence the advice was to eat of a wide variety of foods, but in moderation, and to have a regular physical activity. Besides his gardening, Okuyama-san would take up some sport, every year or so a completely different one. One year it was unicycling and another year it was tennis. Then he took up downhill skiing. At the age of 64, he placed among the first group out of thousands of skiers of all ages in a national competition in Sapporo. I am thankful to have known such a man who embodied mens sana in corpore sano.
I got to know Goto-san the cooper through a huge ink painting of Miyamoto Musashi, the famed swordsman, that I had glimpsed between the drawn shutters in his shop. For a long time the shop looked abandoned until one day, I came upon the open shop. There sitting and chatting were two old men. One was sitting on the floor, using a plane to shave a piece of wood, the shavings curling to the floor around him, filling the shop with the sharp, resiny scent of cedar. The other sat on a cushion. The man with the plane — using it contrary to Western fashion, drawing the plane toward rather than away from him — was Goto-san. Seeing me standing hesitatantly at the doorway, he beckoned for me to come in. A low stool, rather than a cushion, was brought for me, because he said the wooden floor would be too cold. He apologized that he could only speak the local dialect, zuzuben, but I said that was all right. I was content to just watch and listen to their conversation.
Thereafter I came to visit regularly and gradually began to understand his speech. He fashioned miniature pails and decorative containers, for small items like toothpicks or flowers. Finally I got around to asking about the Musashi painting he had hanging on the wall behind him.
“Oh, that,” he said shyly but also rather proudly and pleased to be asked. “I’ve been a cooper all my life. Never used a brush. Never needed to. I’d been ill for a very long time. When I finally got better, I thought I could try my hand at doing something else. Something I’d never done before. So, at 70, I first put my hand to brush and ink. And that Musashi is one of my largest paintings.”
I am so grateful that I got to know Okuyama-san and Goto-san and their wise examples for ageing well. Okuyama-san, sad to relate, succumbed to pneumonia. I had imagined he would live to at least 100 with his healthy regimes, but Goto-san was well into his 90s when he passed on.
He continued his painting, inspired by the traditional huge painted kites of the Snow Country and he flew them with students from the nearby schools. He organized kite flying competitions as well, a traditional New Year activity that took place by the river. With the years, his creativity continued to flourish as he made shakuhachi (bamboo flutes) and played them, and he even branched out into lacquerwork. Not everyone can work with Japanese lacquer because sensitive skins break out, similar to the effect of contact with poison ivy.
Eat a variety of things in moderation, engage in physical activity, and always try something you’ve never done before – I believe that is a brilliant formula for a senior citizen like me. Okuyama-san, Goto-san, domo arigato gozaimashita.