Chef Yoshimasa Saito, 85, is the founder of Kitchen Country, a Hungarian restaurant in Tokyo’s Jiyugaoka area. His goulash was once so famous that even celebrities were happy to stand in line for a place at one of his tables. Saito is a true optimist: Neither five years of hard labor in Siberia’s notorious war camps nor the past five years of battling throat and lung cancer have broken his strong spirit.
One becomes a cook by washing the dishes. This is the best spot to study. I worked from age 15, at first in Japanese and then in French restaurants. I licked the leftover in each pot and learnt how the food should taste.
People are the same everywhere: good and kind. Governments are bad, not the people. The Soviets were poor, but they tried to give us scraps of food. Our guards were all kind. If one of us got sick, they touched our foreheads to see if we had a fever and motioned for us to lie down and rest a day or two. They never beat us.
I’m proud when people compliment the rice and not my dishes. The fact that my cooking is good is nothing special, but that the rice is particularly
delicious, now that is a compliment.
They were our friends but they still turned against us. On Aug. 6, 1945, the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and on Aug. 9 on Nagasaki. That same day, on Aug. 9, in Manchuria, suddenly the Soviets, whom we considered our allies, turned around and started shooting at us and capturing us. We were very confused and many of us gave up without a fight. We were taken as prisoners and made to walk to a war camp in Siberia. On Aug. 15, Japan surrendered and the war ended, but we kept on walking. We arrived in Siberia in December.
Marriage is between two families, not individuals. I always felt responsible for all of our relatives. When my wife’s brother died and left behind four children, I took care of them till they were adults. Then we helped my wife’s parents till they passed away.
Real life is more amazing than movies. I was working in one of Tokyo’s most elegant places, Irene’s Hungaria Restaurant in Ginza. We made lunchboxes for the Emperor and his friends when they were playing tennis. At night, we had a long line waiting to get in, a mix of GIs, kabuki and noh stars, famous writers and their foreign friends and members of the Royal Family. In February 1954, Marilyn Monroe and her husband, Joe DiMaggio, came to Japan on their honeymoon and they stopped by, too. Mon-chan, as we called her, was more beautiful in person than on film. I only got a glimpse of her because I was busy cooking.
Jiyugaoka was a place to come to hold hands. On April 10, 1960, exactly a year after Emperor Akihito married Michiko Shoda, we celebrated the opening of our own restaurant. At that time, Jiyugaoka was synonymous with style and love. It still is, although at that time nobody got drunk, not even men. It was the area where Keio [University] boys took their dates, really pretty girls from private schools, and squeezed their hands when nobody was looking.
Laughter is the best medicine, but it hurts. My wife was always kidding but I didn’t show how much I enjoyed her jokes. Now I laugh more than ever, but it really hurts my lungs.
Cooks don’t hold anything heavier than a pair of chopsticks, I used to say. I never held my children in my arms. There was a lot on my shoulders already.
There was so much water so close yet we were always thirsty. The camp was by Lake Baikal, which is the largest freshwater lake on earth. We received about one liter of water per day which we kept in a steel container close to our bodies so it wouldn’t freeze. It wasn’t even enough for drinking so we couldn’t use it for a face wash. We had a bath once a year. We were filthy, covered in sweat, grime, coal and dirt, 364 days a year.
My only happiness came from dreaming of Japan. And I once peeped under a girl’s shirt. As prisoners, we not only mined coal but also worked as lumberjacks and carpenters, fixing up Soviet farmers’ houses. They were mostly widows, who gave us an egg or some bread. It was the first May that I was there, in 1946. We were climbing up a ladder. She was also a prisoner, maybe Polish or Soviet, young and very pretty with white skin. She had a shirt but no underwear on. That is my only happy memory from there.
It was routine work. Once it got dark, we just lied down outside, in the same spot where we were digging. There were no barracks or houses to go back to, just the open sky. About 800 out of the 1,500 of us died that first winter. Later on the survivors constructed houses.
Time is relative. In the kitchen, a day passes instantly. In Siberia, days and nights were endless.
After the war, it was even harder. I felt like I was Urashima Taro, from the fairy tale. Japan was occupied by the U.S. so we soldiers were ignored by the government. We came back from Siberia, poor and hungry. I got 500 yen from the government.
My wife and I had an arranged marriage. She took the boat and train from Hokkaido for our first meeting. We had tea and sweets with our matchmakers and then I took her to Ueno Station. I didn’t say anything and I didn’t write to her. I just sent 10,000 yen for her dowry. It was a very small amount but she accepted.
We had a wedding but I was so busy working in Tokyo that I couldn’t attend. The two matchmakers went to Hokkaido instead of me and she had a farewell party, a sort of wedding reception in her house. That was normal then. Sixty or 70 of her relatives came and said goodbye to her. Once she arrived in Tokyo, we had a ceremony in a shrine.
“Silver divorces” are crazy. Those who want to divorce should do it quickly, soon after their marriage so both parties still have a chance to meet new partners. Stories of people divorcing after decades together sound very sad. It’s as if their whole lives were just a lie.
Buying the newest electronic goods has been my greatest pleasure and biggest extravagance. I bought a TV as soon as it came out, also a transistor radio and a stereo, a washing machine and a microwave oven. Everything improved except the TV shows: the better the technology, the worst the shows.
I’ve had an ordinary life. I have not done anything special. I’ve done what I love: cooking. I’ve spent about 63 years in the kitchen.