P—W  V° 03:10

My very healthy 86 year old great-aunt

by Aiko Masubuchi

Excerpts from a conversation on March 7, 2023 in Tokyo

“The first time I went to the pool was in elementary school. There was a pool in my neighborhood in Akabane, a public pool. A 20 meter-long pool. It’s no longer there. We would go play there. We’d go jump in. I was in fourth or fifth grade, right after I came back from being evacuated to the countryside. WWII ended when I was in third grade so I must have been around that age. There weren’t many pools back then. Pools were still pretty unusual. I went with my friends and siblings. The pool wasn’t new though. It seemed like it was there before I came. Back then, the pools didn’t have chlorine and all that. We only knew how to kick our legs around or just float on our back. That’s what we’d do.”

“In middle school, I went to a pool sometimes in Ōji. The water was pulled directly from the wells so I remember the water being so cold. By that time, I had other fun things to do though. What’s now the View Hotel used to be the Kokusai Theater. Stars like Hibari Misora and Chieko Baisho and all these people used to perform there. If I went to their back door and showed my brother’s business card, they would give us free tickets because he worked for the city. So my friends and I would go watch shows there. The Shochiku Kagekidan performed there—they were an all-female troupe like Takarazuka. So, I didn’t go to the pool much in middle school.”

“It wasn’t until I was 60 years old that I started going to the pool again. That was when I really learned how to swim. I joined a club. All old folks there. The pool was old too. But you know, everybody there was really nice. I think that people who frequent the pool are all physically healthy so they’re mentally healthy too. Something in me changed when I started going to the pool there. I looked forward to lunch with everyone after swimming, too. There were about 30 people in the class. We’d swim for about two hours but we’d chat a lot too. I wanted to learn how to swim properly because I wanted to go to Hawaii and it would be embarrassing if I didn’t know how. It was only when my instructor watched me underwater, that he could tell me why I wasn’t able to come up for air. He said it was because I wasn’t breathing out all of the air underwater. He told me to breathe out all the air so I would naturally come up for some more. And it worked. The instructor actually lives near me and sometimes when I bump into him, he likes to remind me that I owe him. “I taught you how to swim better than even my wife!” he says. When I finally went to Hawaii, the pools there were all luxury pools and short and there was barely room to swim.”

“My pool friends and I were a group of seven. We’d chat about silly things like what we were going to make for dinner or complain about our husbands. At my peak, I could swim 1200 meters in two hours, going back and forth along the 25 meter pool. It was an old pool though, so they eventually shut it down.”

“At the turn of the millennium, there was talk about a new sports facility being built in our district. It was originally going to be for Olympic athletes and professionals to train in but a petition went around saying that we only want the facility if it will be available to the public too. I, of course, signed the petition. The city agreed and so I joined this new pool when it opened. But the water was cold because it’s for young and professional athletes. It was a lot colder than regular public pools. It was too cold for me. So, I quit after six months.”

“Our group found a different pool in Kawaguchi, just across the river from Akabane. It was called the Kawaguchi Sapporo Pool. It doesn’t exist anymore but in the two years that we went there, they would hand out little cans of Sapporo beer for free. I always made sure to get one on my way in and another on my way out.”

“At the end of my sixties, a pool opened right by Akabane station. So our group started going there. That was seventeen years ago. Out of the seven, three of us are still alive and we still go to the pool together. There was one woman who could do breaststroke across the 25 meter pool who was the best at swimming. She was surprisingly the first of us to pass away. There was a Korean woman in our group who was so nice but passed away early too. There’s one woman who I go with who’s widowed and lives halfway down the hill from me. She doesn’t swim anymore but she does aqua aerobics. I can only swim 100 meters now but I always follow it up with 45 minutes of aqua aerobics too. I stopped swimming on my back five years ago though, because you need muscles in your stomach for that.”

“I said earlier that people who go to the pool are all nice people because when your body is healthy, your mind is healthy too. But there are some mean people, especially in aqua aerobics. When the classes don’t fill up because the teacher isn’t very popular, four rows of students become three and the people who booked a spot in row four have to come up to row three, where I am. The people should fill up the empty spaces in row three but one woman had the audacity to take my spot! When I told her that’s the spot I booked, she got really mean but I stood my ground! Since then, we don’t talk. She talks to everyone else all the time though. She’s so disruptive. I heard that she’s been warned by the instructors. I think she’s a widow so she doesn’t have people to talk to outside of the class. But I know why she tried to take my spot. She likes to use the few sit-down showers. I’ve seen her push people to the side so that she can get to those first after class. She’s selfish like that. I don’t care though. I just need my spot to be close to the toilet. A woman’s world can be tough like that. There’s two men in our class. They’re really awkward and funny to watch. One of them has improved so much. So I went up to him once to compliment him by saying, “You’ve gotten so good!” I think he liked that.”

“The widowed friend who lives down the hill from me, calls me whenever she needs a lightbulb changed or needs to reach something, because I’m taller. I try to help her out whenever I can. These days, she says to me, “Don’t die before I do.” She’s only five months younger than me. Our other friend is two months older than me. We’re all the same age.”

Motoko still swims twice a week with her friends.

2023 © A.Masubuchi