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Staff writer

It began with a chat among three women in their 50s on their regular topic: What do you want to do when you grow old?

Yoko Kihira, Hiroko Seki and Michiko Iseki, who have been friends for years, agreed that they want to lead independent lives while keeping in touch with society through work, even after they begin to be called “elderly.”

The three baby boomers then discussed how they could use their expertise, and it was a rather natural conclusion for them to open a restaurant serving healthy food for the aged.

Seki, 52, is a cook, and Iseki, 51, runs a vegetable shop that sells only organically grown produce.

“We thought that a healthy diet is indispensable for a healthy life,” said Kihira, 50, a writer-cum-illustrator who is in charge of the restaurant’s publicity.

“But we didn’t put up a sign that read ‘Restaurant for the Aged’ because many elderly people would think they are not old yet, and we didn’t want to scare younger customers away,” she said. “It should be a place for exchanges among different generations.”

Sarah, a restaurant located on a small shopping street in Tachikawa, western Tokyo, opened in February after money was raised from 40 investors.

The restaurant’s menu is very simple, with a choice of fish or meat for the main dish, which is cooked Japanese style and served with small bowls of appetizers, rice and pickles.

Given their purpose of serving healthy food for the aged, the restaurateurs are very selective about their ingredients, using only natural and healthy products.

“Before deciding the menu … we invited a local community group of the aged seven times for taste-testing,” Kihira said.

According to Kihira, an average of 20 to 30 customers come to the restaurant every day, and about half are elderly. Many are old, single men who do not bother to cook for themselves, she said.

“We make careful efforts to communicate with our customers, trying to strike up a chat with people who come for the first time,” Kihira said. “Old men are especially shy about starting a conversation on their own.”

Some have found chatting with other customers very helpful in making their lives more pleasant, and the elderly regulars are not the only ones who enjoy these conversations.

One day a woman came into the restaurant with a gloomy look on her face. When Kihira started talking to her, she confessed she was feeling guilty about putting her mother-in-law in a nursing home.

Another woman who overheard their conversation said she was taking care of her mother at home, but told the woman she should not feel guilty. She convinced her that what she did was not necessarily bad because every situation is different.

“When she left the restaurant, she (seemed to be encouraged) and looked like a totally different person,” Kihira said.

While the restaurant serves as a friendly hangout for the elderly and others, Kihira said it is wrong to see it as a place for old people to huddle together and console each other in their misery.

“A strong bias exists to see the elderly in general as the weak of society who only receive various services from it,” Kihira said.

But there are many healthy elderly people who can contribute to the local community, she said.

She and her friends hope the restaurant will serve as the base for a local community network among the elderly to help them realize their potential, Kihira said.

Classes on baking, kimono-wearing and counseling are regularly held on the restaurant’s second floor. The courses are mainly taught by older people.

Shizuko Shindo, 70, who came to the restaurant earlier this month to attend a birthday party for an 82-year-old friend she met there, said she appreciates the establishment.

She has become a regular since she found out about it in August through an acquaintance.

“I am very shy and had few close friends until then. I had always been with my husband wherever I went. But here, I have already made friends with a lot of wonderful people,” Shindo said. “My husband? He goes to a karaoke bar with his friends when I come here to see my friends.”

Kihira hopes the restaurant will help diversify choices for the elderly by creating more opportunities to eat out rather than eating alone at home all the time.

Yet she does not believe that her restaurant should be their only hangout.

“Coming to our restaurant to have a chat with fellow partons is one choice, but we hope that they will also find other choices to make their daily lives pleasant,” she said.

The restaurant’s Web site can be found at www1.sphere.ne.jp/

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