Yoshii Sasaki: A 91 Year Old Japanese Lady Living in Atenas, Costa Rica
I remember it as if it were yesterday, the first time I saw Yoshii Sasaki in Atenas. I was having lunch with my mother at Antano’s restaurant in downtown and a group of ladies walked in, one of which stood out in the crowed. She was dressed to the nines in a traditional Japanese kimono. Her face was so perfectly made-up that you would have thought she was a lifesize porcelain doll.
Her hair was a true work of art; jet black and not one strand out of place. As you can imagine in our small Costa Rican town, this is not a common sight. I did not want to be rude but I found myself staring. I was mesmerized. I said “hola” to the group as they made their way to a large table in the corner and continued the conversation I was having with my mother.
Sitting there I realized that I “knew” Mrs. Sasaki’s daughter, Hisano. Hisano owns a successful local bed and breakfast and we had corresponded via e-mail on several occasions. Recently, Hisano decided to put her bed and breakfast up for sale and I finally had the opportunity to meet her mother, the fascinating lady that I had seen a few years earlier and often thought about. During our short visit, I learned that Mrs. Sasaki was an avid painter, singer of traditional Japanese folk music and loved to garden. That was enough to peak my interests and make me want to learn more. I asked Mrs. Sasaki (via her translator, Hisano) for an interview and with a smile it was granted.
How did a 91 year old Japanese lady end up in Atenas, Costa Rica? To answer that question, we must find the story and start at the beginning. I asked Mrs. Sasaki about her life in Japan and she responded “I was born in Hikari, Japan. My father was a farmer. I was raised on a huge farm which was the size of two villages. Specifically, we were potato farmers, but on a lager scale. Not only did we grow the potatoes but we produced products from the potatoes like potato starch. September was the potato harvest. We had many workers and there was nice communication and camaraderie between everyone.
When I was 19 I was married to a man that my father choose and I moved to Baro with my new husband. My husbands family were also farmers and the region they were from was famous for its mint. Unfortunately my husband died when I was 39 and I was left with 5 children and had to take care of them alone. When my husband died my children and I left the farm life and moved to the city. In the city, I got a job at a large hospital where I worked for 10 years.
As my children grew older some of them went to school and others began working. At that point I was living alone. My oldest son was working for the postal ministry in Toyko and one of my older friends said to my son that it was not good that his mother was living alone. My friend suggested to my son that he could find a nice husband for me. My friend introduced me to Mr. Sugiyama who was from Shimizu, Japan. From that introduction and the recommendation of my children I married Mr. Sugiyama. I was married to him for 26 years but then he also passed away. I then left the Sugiyama family and decided to live alone on my own after many years.”
Costa Rica is a long way from Japan, so naturally, I wanted to know how Mrs. Sasaki ended up in Costa Rica? Mrs. Sasaki continued “ In 2008 my physical condition started to go down. I went to my general doctor and he told me I had a serious health issue. He sent me to the hospital. At that moment I thought ‘this is the end of my life’ but at the Red Cross Hospital they saved my life. I had a heart attack. At the hospital they preformed an operation to correct the problem using stints to open my arteries. The procedure was successful.
I went back to my home but my oldest son who was living in Toyko said to me that I could no longer live alone and I went to live with him. One day my daughter Hisano, who had moved to Costa Rica with her family said to me that Japan was too cold and that Costa Rica’s weather was always like spring time and would be good for me. So in November of 2008 Hisano and her family welcomed me into their home here in Costa Rica.
I was skeptical at first but I decided to try it. After a while I realized that the weather is so heathy I feel I am getting better and my health is improving. The neighbors here are so kind and treat me like I am a family member. Even though I don’t understand their language I feel I know them in my heart and am very happy living here.” Mrs. Sasaki looks at me with a big smile and laughs saying “I hope I am doing ok because I have never been interviewed before.” I assured her that she is shining like a star.
I think it is at the core of human nature to be curious about the differences in our cultures, but at the same time to want to find the similarities that bind us to this world. I ask if there are any similarities between the two cultures and living in Japan and Costa Rica? “Yes, I would say the focus on family. Both cultures are family oriented and you have a lot of help from within the family. I think that is a great thing.
In Japan, order and cleanliness are very important. Unless everything is in order you loose time. To the Japanese, time is also very important. In Costa Rica there is time, but it’s not the same as time in Japan. For example, when we say we will arrive somewhere at 10:00 a.m. then we will show up before that time.”
As we continue to talk and I learn more about Mrs. Sasaki, I completely forget about her age. Why you may ask? I think it’s because this dynamic lady is a ‘doer’. How many people do you know move to a foreign country and take up painting with water colors at age 88? Her daughter Hisano says to me “When my mother moved to Atenas, she wanted to take up a new hobby and there was a lady named Mary living in Atenas who would give weekly water color classes at Kay’s Gringo Postres. I encouraged my mother to attend and she did, for 6 months. After that she just started painting on her own.” Not only does she paint, she’s good. Most recently Strive and Thrive, a mastermind group I co-founded here in Atenas hosted a benefit for the local nursing home. When asked if she would be interested in displaying and selling her artwork, Mrs. Sasaki said yes. She set up a stand with many of her water colors and sold them, donating the money she made to the nursing home.
At 91, Mrs. Sasaki still tends to her flowers and raises a good part of the vegetables that the family eats. She tells me “I have many hobbies and in Japan belonged to many clubs. My first hobby was singing. I sing in two styles, Shigin, which is a style of singing old Chinese poetry and Minyo which is the art of singing old Japanese folk songs. In Japan I was in many different singing competitions as well as being on T.V. I also was a singing instructor. It was fun for me.”
I have always had a fascination with the elderly and longevity. Having seen and experienced Mrs. Sasaki’s vitality first hand, I was curious to know her secrets. Has she found the fountain of youth? Mrs. Sasaki’s most important tip on living a healthy life is to “Eat everything you want and love to the degree that your stomach is happy. Your stomach is happy when it is 8/10th full. Also live everyday with smiles!” The idea of eating until your stomach is 80% full, hara hachibun-me, is an idea I have heard of before. The philosophy of hara hachibun-me was the subject of a best selling book on longevity and diet called The Okinawa Program, by Drs. Bradly and Craig Wilkcox and Makoto Suzuki.
As we all know, diet is not the only factor to living a long and healthy life, so I pursued the topic further. I ask if there was an idea, philosophy, or message that has benefited Mrs. Sasaki in her life that she could pass on to the rest of the world? Mrs. Sasaki states “What I want to say is that I was born on a farm and our principles were that we had to create and produce products that are better than the average. The best possible, otherwise we would not be considered professional farmers.”
She continues “To create the best products you must start with the best. You must create a quality base. In the case of farming that base is soil. You must start with compost. Everything in life is like that. We must make efforts and research in the jobs and businesses that we do. For example, our potato farm. Once we had the harvest we would then make potato starch. To create quality starch you must do research and make trials. We had to figure out the drying process, the proper temperature for drying and the duration it would take for the starch to dry. Then you must check for quality.”
“By doing all these things our goal was to produce a first grade product. This was the only way we could get the shell mark (a local grading system of quality) for excellence. After the production was over and the products met the highest standards we would make sure everything was clean. Now everywhere things are much messier than before and to us from my generation this is not as good. The young generation is not used to struggle and they get things quickly. For them this is normal and the way things should be. To be first grade and achieve excellence you must use your mind, think and work hard and that is not always easy. We were always seeking excellence.” For me, in Mrs. Sasaki’s mind, this was not just a philosophy, it was a way of life, just something you do, expected.
I acknowledge to Mrs. Sasaki that this is how I was brought up and that the world seems to have changed in that respect. I can also imagine that the world has changed considerably in her lifetime. On the topic she says “When I was young and we saw foreigners, they were like aliens to us. We were fearful, especially of black people. However, my daughter lived in the United States and she invited me several times to visit. I saw and experienced many different races of people on my visits and realized this did not matter. By having those experiences I realized we are all the same. I have changed.”
She continues “ For those of us in my generation, it was normal that we had to walk everywhere, no matter how far, caring heavy packs. Now everything is by car and ship. That is a big change for me. Electricity, telephone and the computer were also big advances. Before we did things in person. Now you talk and communicate with one another using the computer and you have access to the entire world instantly. That is a great change. I am happy I was born to see all these changes.”
We had been talking for well over an hour and I did not want to wear out my welcome so decided to wrap things up. I asked Mrs. Sasaki if she had any final thoughts or a message that she wanted to leave us with and she said “We cannot live alone, we must help one another. When we see people suffering or having problems in their lives we should, if we can, help these people. Since I have come here to Costa Rica I have been helped by so many people. If I leave any idea in this world that is what I want to leave. Help one another.”
I am always amazed at the diverse and wonderful people that we meet in our little town of Atenas. There is a special draw to Atenas. An energy that connects all of us who live here. The richness of these people and the experiences we have with them makes living here such a pleasure. It is people like Mrs. Sasaki who inspire me and make me want to be a better person, strive for excellence and live a long, happy and healthy life. To all those who enrich my life I say ‘domo arigato’, thank you very much!
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