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Community Building By and For the Elderly

An NPO-run cafe in Nishi-Ogikubo shows how spaces for the elderly also attract and support a larger community. This vintage soba shop was repurposed as a cafeteria and center for the elderly while also providing an attractive space where elderly can meet with younger patrons and engage in a range of art courses and other activities.

In stories of urban place making through culinary activities young people are often regarded as the natural protagonists. But in an aging city such as Tokyo we have to look more to the activities led by and for the aged. Also, the concern about food for elderly residents should not be seen only from a health and social welfare perspective but also as part of the cultural and social life of the community. The NPO Momo-no-kai based in Nishi Ogikubo has two projects aimed at bringing community activities to elderly residents. One is a traditional project based on the grounds of the Momoi Number Three elementary school that give elderly and children a chance to interact. The other project is the Kagayakitei Restaurant. 

At lunchtime Kagayakitei serves delicious and healthy “daily box lunches” and usually a sushi or grilled fish box. One special touch is the choice of brown rice from Fukui Prefecture. “We try to think about food safety and security. The fish and all the other ingredients are bought from nearby vendors,” the manager Ms. Fukuda said. The restaurant serves the elderly but hopes also to reach a wide range of customers from the community. Middle-aged regulars often work at nearby businesses, including the manager of one of the famous antique shops down the street. Some students from Tokyo Women’s University also drop in on their way to Nishi-Ogikubo station. 

Kagayakitei feels like an old-fashioned Showa-period Japanese restaurant, and the space it occupies actually was originally a soba shop. Mr. Kobayashi, the owner of the building, visits Kagayakitei almost daily. His father operated the soba shop for fifty-six years. The tables in Kagayakitei are from the old shop, he said, and the counter made of Japanese Zelkova dates from those days.

Kagayakitei is not just a restaurant but is intended as a community center, according to Ms. Fukuda. In the evening, spaces can be rented out for events, lectures, and social gatherings. In the afternoon there are weekly classes in the game of go, postcard art, singing, handicrafts, calligraphy, and “healthy mahjong” (no gambling). The postcard art (etagami) class usually attracts twenty participants. Two teachers come as volunteers, and it only costs 500 yen for students for each class. The singing class usually attracts fifteen students and is taught by two professional musicians with impressive resumes who volunteer their time.

Most of the people who come to the events live nearby. Seventy to eighty percent are women, and it is a significant challenge to get more men involved, the NPO staff we spoke with said. Most Japanese men make all of their social relationships in the company, the regulars said, and when they retire and return home they have no personal friends. It is difficult for men to make friends. While working they are busy, and they don’t have much time to learn the art of socializing with new people. But there are some men who come everyday. One man in his eighties comes from Shinjuku everyday to visit his wife in a nearby hospital. He is an accomplished artist, using cotton to make miniature abstract oil paintings. His art decorates the walls at Kagayakitei, and he has had major exhibits. Since the days when it was a soba shop, he has been coming nearly everyday for 13 years. Another regular is the 104-year-old master at the Aroma Fresh coffee shop, who sometimes comes for lunch. The coffee served at Kagayakitei is from Aroma Fresh. 

Kagayakitei hopes to draw more men into its activities and broaden its reach into the larger community. Already it has created a space in which elderly and younger residents come together on a regular basis, enjoying good food and a variety of activities. (Farrer, Nov. 12, 2015, edited March 15, 2017)

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