The Moon Beach Resort is one of a number of hotels near Onna village on Okinawa that take advantage of the white sand beaches, clear water and coral reefs of the East China Sea. Okinawa has some of the best diving in Japan and is a major domestic tourist destination – but sees only 300,000 overseas visitors.
Okinawa – Long Read

Island of the Immortals

Photo by Karen Kasmauski

Okinawa – Long Read Island of the Immortals

Hello Okinawa, whose residents are noted for having not only the world's longest life expectancy but also the world's longest health expectancy. Having the same latitude as Hawaii and Florida, it enjoys sunny climate, coral reefs and relaxed lifestyle, but what is the special ingredient that makes it the "Island of the Immortals"?

Graeme Green
Graeme Green Travel Writer

Driving along Route 58, I notice first a Hollywood sign, then the Statue of Liberty. They look strange, out of place; they might make sense if this was America, but I am in Okinawa in southern Japan. The American influence is strong here from the US soldiers who stayed on after World War II and the military families who live and work in US military bases across the island. But although still associated in many people’s mind with the Battle of Okinawa, one of WW2’s most decisive campaigns, it is not war and death, but life – and a long, healthy one – that Japan’s southern islands have become famous for.

Nutritionists and dieticians around the world are studying Okinawan’s diet for its secrets. In a hotel on the northern tip of the island, I meet teppanyaki chef Yuji Takakura. “Food in Okinawa is very healthy,” says Takakura, as he flips and sizzles Okinawa snapper, seaweed and lots of local veg, including sweet potato, mushroom and goya (bitter melon), on the grill. “We eat more pork in Okinawa, than beef of the mainland. Okinawa pork is low cholesterol. Okinawa people live older, maybe 90, maybe 100, maybe because of the pork and vegetables. Goya is very good for you.”

There is a “food as medicine” way of thinking in Okinawa. Meat, especially fatty beef, is eaten less than on the mainland. The diet contains lots of fish and squid, tofu, seaweed, local fruit and healthy green vegetables, much of it caught, picked or grown locally. Goya, the island’s secret weapon, seems to come with every meal. The diet is low in salt, fat, sugar and dairy. Many islanders habitually drink jasmine and other herbal teas believed to lower blood pressure and guard against cancer.

What they are doing seems to be working. People here live longer, healthier, more active lives than on mainland Japan and the rest of the world and have low rates of cancer, heart disease, strokes and diabetes. Five times as many Okinawans live to be 100 as in the rest of Japan, already a country with one of the world’s highest life expectancies. One Okinawan woman, Kama Chinen, died recently having lived for 114 years and 331 days – the 27th oldest person ever recorded. There are a higher proportion of centenarians on Okinawa than anywhere else in the world. Little wonder the Chinese used to refer to Okinawa as “the Land of the Immortals”.

It is on Okinawa that karate originated

Any dubious carnivores who think a tofu and veggie diet is for wimps should remember that it is here on Okinawa that karate, or “empty hand” combat, originated. There are still dojos across the island. “Karate is a living element of Okinawan culture, just like its dance, music and language traditions,” says James Pankiewicz, a British black belt who runs the Dojo Bar in Naha city.

“The development of karate as a defensive system, with an ethos of peace and avoidance of conflict, reflects important aspects of the Okinawan historical identity as a small island placed strategically between bigger, more powerful neighbors. And karate today is also a fusion of many influences from martial arts from China, Japan, South East Asian countries and the many other cultures that traded goods and knowledge via the old Ryukyu Kingdom trade routes.”

Mr Miyagi, possibly the greatest karate expert the world has seen (albeit fictional, from The Karate Kid films) was from Okinawa. “Lesson not just karate only,” was his approach. “Lesson for whole life. Whole life have a balance – everything be better.” Karate in Okinawa continues to be part of a bigger picture, a holistic approach to living that includes diet. “There’s a strong correlation between lifelong regular karate practice and good health, mobility and vitality in the senior years,” says Pankiewicz.

“Many Okinawa karate practitioners remain fit and agile into their 70s, 80s or even 90s. They don’t seem to suffer much from degenerative physical diseases such as arthritis, for example. But it’s probably not just the daily physical exercise. They tend to look after their diet, be aware of their physical state and also have great social networks through the dojos and karate organizations, so they keep very busy socially too.”

People are generally larger now

What would he say to the idea that fish, tofu and veggies create weaklings? “It’s true that Okinawans a couple hundred years or more ago were known as ‘little people’ even by the standards of their Asian neighbors. But today the diet is more varied and calorie consumption higher, so people are generally larger. The traditional Okinawa diet is very healthy and good nutrition leads to good physique, when coupled with an active lifestyle. There are some very tough guys here on Okinawa, often because they practice karate or Okinawan sumo, but they’re generally also very good-natured, as Okinawa is a peaceful place and people tend to get along with each other well.”

The secret of long life in Okinawa does not just seem to be diet, but other elements: low-stress island living, staying busy and active, a feeling of community and togetherness, spirituality and a positive attitude towards life. And if they do things differently here from the rest of the world and mainland Japan that might be down to their past; until 1879, Okinawa was the independent state of Ryukyu, more affiliated with China than Japan. The red walls and dragon designs in the island’s Shuri Castle are signs of China’s influence, as are the Shisa, ceramic dog-or lion-like guardians placed at doors or on roofs.

The subtropical Okinawa Islands, including Okinawa itself and the remote Yaeyama chain, are far away from mainland Japan, closer to Taipei, Hong Kong, Seoul or Manila than to Tokyo. Islanders feel they’re culturally different from the mainland: more relaxed, more positive, less stressed and hurried. Some people still refer to themselves or the islands as Ryukyu.

There is a recreation of a Ryukyu village, Ryukyu Mura, on Okinawa, which gives an idea of the clothing, music, culture and beliefs here from 1429 to 1879. What strikes me most is the age of some of the people working here, still a central part of things, busy and involved, not left to one side. One woman here is 93. I talk to active 83-year-old Shige Kanimata, who has worked here for 20 years. “I mainly eat vegetables,” she tells me. “I drink only water – no soft drinks from vending machines. My bones are very strong.” In the gift shop, I check out the ceramic Shisa. One holds a sign, in Japanese, whose message fits with the island thinking: “Don’t worry, be happy.”

The food is organic and local

I eat at Daikon-No-Hana restaurant in Naha city. It is as busy as a McDonalds, but the food is organic and local, with fish, tofu and plenty of goya. Here, I talk to a local teacher, Shoji Ueda, who, like many people, moved from the mainland to Okinawa for a change of lifestyle. “People here are quieter than on the mainland,” says Ueda. “The lifestyle is more relaxed. It’s ok for things to be behind schedule. It’s known as ‘Okinawa time.’ No one complains. There’s less stress. And people have a positive attitude to life. Even after all the trouble here, even the war, they say everything’s going to be ok, tomorrow’s another day.”

The Battle of Okinawa left around 250,000 people dead, including Okinawan soldiers and at least 100,000 citizens, Japanese mainlanders, US and British forces. I visit the Peace Memorial on Okinawa’s south coast where the main battle took place, overlooking the Pacific. The dead are memorialized together, regardless of nationality or rank. It was an important victory for Allied forces, with Okinawa to be used as a launching post to invade mainland Japan, before the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war.

After the war, the US occupied Okinawa right up to 1972. Some soldiers married locals and made homes here. Although back in Japanese hands, Okinawa is still a major strategic location for the US, used for wars in Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan. While the bases bring in money and create jobs on the islands, the benefits are not as great as they were in the past. Even while I am in Japan, the country’s President Shinzo Abe, responding to calls from islanders, makes a public promise to ease the burden and reduce the heavy concentration of bases, although little seems to be happening.

One of the most obvious indications of the US presence is the English-language signage for supermarkets, malls and fast food restaurants. The long life expectancy rates Okinawans are so proud of have started to plummet. There has been a gradual shift from the traditional Okinawa diet towards mainland Japanese and Western food. Women tend to live around 12 years longer than men here, which some put down to too many men overdoing the alcohol, especially the island’s rice whisky Awamori.

Okinawa is suffering from a tsunami of bad life style

But the biggest changes are being seen in young people. “The younger generation’s mortality rate is at a very high level, especially cerebrovascular disease, cardiovascular disease and liver disease,” says Dr Kiyokazu Ishikawa, Chief Medical Officer in Naha’s Nakijin Medical Centre and a specialist in longevity. “There are many causes: lack of exercise, American fast food chains, Japanese convenience stores, processed foods and alcohol. Okinawa is suffering from a tsunami of bad life style and many young people are drowning in it.”

I travel to Ishigaki, one of the inhabited Yaeyama Islands, and explore by car up to the Hirakubo Lighthouse at the northernmost point and around to Kabira Bay. Driving back across the island, I spot strange, colorful creatures and figures by the road and stop in at the studio of local artist Hisashi Katsuren. Some of the statues are Kijimuna, a good spirit that local people believed lived in trees on the island. The larger creatures that look like grinning dogs or lions are Katsuren’s modern take on traditional Shisa.

“I love the traditional Shisa because they’re very strong and graceful,” says Katsuren. “But I’m a bad artist. I couldn’t do them well. So, I started thinking. I wasn’t satisfied with my traditional Shisa, so one day I made them freely with my imagination and I liked it. This was my art. I didn’t mean to make them so happy. It just happened.”

Shisa, Katsuren explains, are placed next to entrances, usually in pairs. “Traditional Shisa are there to protect house and drive bad spirits of bad fortune away. The one with the open mouth is the male and the one with the closed mouth closed is female. The open mouth is to bring in good fortune or happiness from outside. The closed mouth is keeping the good spirits in.” They seem to be doing their job well here; 69-year-old Katsuren seems content, the opposite of the suffering artist. “The meaning for my search is to make people happy and to make them smile.”

Traditional music plays in the background

I eat at Funakura No Sato, a roadside Japanese restaurant with seats on the floor on tatami mats. Traditional music plays in the background, a recording of sanshin (an Okinawan three-stringed lute). The food – tempura, fish, sashimi, sushi… – is heavy on local ingredients. “Citizens of Okinawa normally don’t pay much attention to what healthy foods or ingredients are in our daily lives,” the owner’s son, Gen Motomura, tells me, simply because healthy ingredients come so easily and naturally on these islands.

“We find and often use ingredients we have easy access to and that can be prepared and cooked easily. This simple style has passed on to the modern time and is one of the elements for creating healthy food. We believe we should take what our motherland offers to us. You were created here and born here, so what goes inside your body should be made here.”

I spend time on several other Yaeyama islands, including remote Yonaguni and hilly, forested Iriomote. Each island has a slightly different character and landscape, but on each, people seem to have something to say about how to live well. Even in a souvenir shop in Ishigaki’s ferry port, I notice a T-shirt that seems very Okinawan in its approach to healthy fun, reading: “Let’s go into the sea after surely performing a warm up.”

One of the most peaceful islands is Taketomi, four kilometers by ferry from Ishigaki. As on the other islands, food here is heavy on tofu, fish and local vegetables. In a café, I try the island’s alternative to ice cream, a heaped pile of shaved ice flavored with local brown sugar and a bottom layer of beans. Hanging in the café are the results of a recent census, from May 2013; the island has precisely 348 people living in 157 houses, with 24 dogs, 79 cats, 27 chickens, 40 goats, 345 cows and 36 water buffaloes.

Other gods are worshipped here

I take a ride on a cart pulled by one of the water buffaloes, a 600 kg female called Yuko whose gentle, ambling pace seems to fit the feel of the island. There’s only one petrol station here, opened for half an hour each day in the afternoon. Grinning Shisa along the way guard homes from bad fortune. Driver Shima Hidetada leaves the cart in Yuko’s capable hoofs, while he picks up a sanchin and starts to sing one of the island’s romantic ballads about a local woman, 300 years ago, who boldly spurned the advances of a government official. It is hard to gauge his age, perhaps in his 60s or 70s, but he looks and sounds in vigorous health.

As we ride around the island, he points out archways, shrines and sacred sites for “the veneration of gods and ancestors”. Rather than the Buddhism or Shinto on the mainland, other gods are worshipped here who many residents believe made the islands. But the main focus is on their ancestors. “Ancestors are the most important thing on this island,” Koji Uesedo, manager of the small local museum, tells me. “We pray to our ancestors. We feel we are connected to each other. We believe: ‘Thanks to our ancestors, I am here now.’ So we pray to thank them.”

I borrow a bicycle from my hotel. It has only one gear, which again seems fitting; it is impossible to race or rush. Still, it does not take long to ride around the tiny island. Any time I park and go off to explore, I confidently leave the bike unlocked. I do not see a single piece of litter anywhere. The village is maintained every morning by the community who work together to sweep, tend and mend. I see one villager tidying up colorful flowers, another trimming a bush into the shape of a buffalo’s head and horns.

They work hard at it, as well as farming or other jobs. “Working hard is deeply connected to a healthy lifestyle,” says Asai Taku at the Yugafu-kan, a local center explaining the island’s nature and traditional culture. “There’s a habit to keep the island beautiful through the ages, so each islander has a high awareness of keeping the island clean.”

A tight-knit local community is especially important

The sense of community here is also vital to good living, Taku suggests. “There are quite a few attributes for the longevity of people in Okinawa but I think a tight-knit local community is especially important. Each islander in Taketomi has a strong connection with other members of the local community, and this relationship eases their stress and brings comfort. A personal connection with a local community is apt to be rarity in a modern society.”

As I ride around the island, I bump into a local man on the beach. Very friendly, he asks me a few questions in English, poses for a photo, then walks off down the beach. I see him again an hour later, at the end of what appears to be his regular evening circuit. Further down the island, a small crowd has gathered on the Nishisanbashi (West Pier) to watch the sun disappearing over the ocean.

There are plenty of tourists and a few locals too. I join them on the pier and, as the skies change color, wonder how much these simple things, like a daily constitutional or pausing to watch the sunset, are just as important as tofu and goya to a long, healthy and happy life.


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