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Living Okinawa's Anti-Aging Diet

Where do you go for an ageless perspective on aging? To this string of islands off southernmost Japan, home to the coolest old ladies on earth.

Southern Japan

A moment of peace for performers during the harvest festival in Kunigami District.

It takes very little time in the port city of Naha to begin to fathom how different the remote archipelago of Okinawa is from the rest of the world. In the dark buzz of a subtropical evening, I feel like I've landed on a chunk of Hawaii that floated away on a wooden raft in the 1950s and got hooked on a string of rocks here in the East China Sea, nearer almost to Taiwan than Japan. On the monorail, I'm surrounded by Don Ho/Don Draper hybrids in aloha-style shirts called kariyushi; patterned with local lucky symbols, they're standard office wear on the main island. Away from the electric signs of the Kokusai shopping strip, in a maze of narrow back streets, I duck past a red lantern and into a nameless restaurant. The matronly owner arches her eyebrows and wordlessly serves me fat pink slices of maguro sashimi, followed by a signature dish called goya champuru, a stir-fry of bitter melon, tofu and Spam. The Band-Aid pink colour and mechanically compressed texture is instantly recognizable, but this flash-in-the-wok treatment is a stunner. Soon she's plucking out a tune on her sanshin –a traditional three-stringed instrument that sounds like a banjo-ukulele – squinting intently at sheet music despite there being no discernable beginning or end to the song. That plinky-plonk soundtrack, treble notes to match the bassy waves of the ocean, winds up following me throughout my trip.

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Shutter-happy visitors snap up the sun and sand on Kouri-jima.

Zoom out on Google Maps, and this string of around 160 islands quickly disappears. Zoom in close with a visit, and you'll discover a quirky place rich in cultural history, jungly wilderness and spectacular coastlines where teenagers get surf lessons and seniors collect seaweed, the ruins of 13th-century castles in the background.

 

RELATED: 5 Ways to Stay Young in Okinawa

 

This was the Ryukyu Kingdom until the 1600s, when it was invaded by the feudal domain of Satsuma; it officially became Japan's southernmost prefecture 150 years ago. A long trading relationship with China and parts of Southeast Asia are palpable in the food, design and arts. The American military presence, dating back to the devastating invasion of March 1945, adds another layer of poignant kitsch (along with the Spam). But what has given this offbeat destination more psychic space than it could ever occupy on a map is the fact that Okinawans, particularly the women, live longer than anywhere else in the world: Fifty- and 60-year-olds are referred to as "babies," and the big birthday celebration happens at 97.

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Left to Right: In Ogimi Village, the longest-lived women in the world offer lessons on staying stylish; scavenging for seashells on the coast of Yomitan.

While I'm not planning to go gentle into that good night any time soon, I have to admit I'm slowly approaching a limbo bar set somewhere between young and young at heart. In the coming decades, there will be a day of reckoning when someone describes my outfit as "jaunty" or my step as "spry" (compliments you never hear the elderly give themselves). Fortunately, I've always thought I would make a fabulous old lady. Leafing through a book titled The Okinawa Program: How the World's Longest-Lived People Achieve Everlasting Health – and How You Can Too, it seems I've come to the right place, and if I did live for 100 years, there's plenty to explore here. Before I set off for the countryside, my host, Kazuya Oshiro, buys me a round of liquor called awamori, a distillate of long-grained Thai rice and black koji that tastes like it was aged on an old fishing vessel in clay pots that once contained soy sauce. He points out that Okinawa has its own dialects: The Japanese word for delicious is oishii; here you'll get big smiles for saying ma-san. And the attitude is noticeably positive: When I comment on papaya trees recently mashed by the typhoon, he mentions a fun typhoon party (a ritual I'm almost sorry to have narrowly missed). Okinawan time is different too; being five minutes late doesn't precipitate panic, and people here enjoy pointing out how laid-back they are.

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Kids rock out on a hidden beach near Cape Kiyan.

I'm heading to Ogimi Village, world HQ for cool old ladies. It is not actually a village but a cluster of hamlets with a population of around 3,000. The farther up we go on the main island, the rougher, less populated and quieter it gets… until I slide open the door to the community hall. Suddenly, eight of these octogenarians-plus are all over me with hugs and smiles and little gifts of sweets. They ostensibly gather here to get some exercise, but it's soon obvious they really get together to giggle. After some South Pacific-style dancing – watery motions, soft on the feet with undulating arms – a zippy 89-year-old in a yellow shirt and a kerchief waltzes me around. (I have never felt so tall in my life.) Then someone finds a baseball cap and busts out the hip-hop moves. And then, in what can only be called a throwdown, they form a circle and goad, point, laugh expectantly and motion for more hips from me; only twerking will satisfy them, apparently. Their lack of concern for shame, mine or theirs, is liberating. And they're all mind-blowingly jaunty and spry, obviously.

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A sugar-cane farmer in Itoman, southern Okinawa, tends to his crops after the typhoon.

Along with physical activity and a sense of belonging, the Okinawan diet is credited with keeping people around here acting and looking incredibly immature or at least 20 years younger than their real age. Plant-based ingredients are key, including an amazing variety of local seaweed – mozuku tempura is a must-try – greens, bitter melon and the pale but carotene-rich Okinawan carrot, along with sun-warm mango, papaya, dragon fruit and passion fruit. Down the road from the dance hall, Emi No Mise is a casual restaurant – the sign is propped up on a chair outside next to an herb and vegetable garden – operated by Emiko Kinjo, a former school lunch lady who trained as a chef and nutritionist in Tokyo before moving here to showcase the benefits of the Okinawan diet. In a head scarf and apron with chopsticks in hand, she's preparing doughnuts when I show up in her cottagey kitchen. (Even healthy cultures like their fried dough.) Kinjo is one of those people who makes everything look effortless. She pretty much throws a handful of tiny fish over her shoulder, and they land, perfectly arranged, on a polka-dot plate. All she has to do is garnish with halved shikuwasa, a perfumed local citrus fruit said to have anti-cancer properties, and it's picture perfect, even by high Japanese standards. I sit down for an elaborate bento box that includes sweet-potato greens picked that morning by a 96-year-old, the same 96-year-old who told me she has never had a cold in her life. The motto around here is live long, work long. "Eighty is too young to go," my interpreter says between bites, not using his inside voice.

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One of many unnamed islands that define the view off the coast of Yagaji-jima.

In the nearby hamlet of Yako, homes with red-tiled roofs (from the iron in the soil) are sunk behind low-slung walls, entrances guarded by statues of shisas, lion dogs derived from the idea of a dragon mistranslated from early Chinese texts. A man in a hat with a Mallard-duck band is waiting for me. "My profession is birds; butterflies are my hobby," Noritaka Ichida says by way of introduction. When he moved here from Tokyo well after retirement, he says, locals asked who the young guy was. The default setting of his face is beaming, as though he has a secret, which he does. He ushers me to a compact valley, the jungle on one side a full-tilt boogie of insect ecstasy, the overgrown terraced farms on the other cast in amazing shadows of green. The centre is a grove of knobby little shikuwasa trees, planted 50 years ago. Even without standing on tiptoe, I don't need the mini Japanese ladders to pick most of the fruit. There couldn't be a better poster for pesticide-free agriculture: Don't use it and they will come. Forty different kinds of butterflies live here; the more I look, the more I see. They are not shy about showing their colours: big iridescent blue and black ones, bold and papery manila ones with orange tips, tiny maroon ones, ones that look like desiccated oak leaves when resting but open to reveal gold and turquoise sunsets at the beach.

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Clockwise from left: Conservationist Noritaka Ichida considers the butterfly effect in Yako; sashimi and sea grapes for lunch on Kouri-jima; the Okinawan diet features fresh fish and shikuwasa.

The Japanese word for privileged places like this, where wilderness comes up against human cultivation and finds some kind of new harmony, is satoyama. It's a relief to hear that a conservation project is underway. (Canadian naturalist Robert Bateman and Princess Takamado recently visited.) Okinawa has the highest biodiversity in Japan, Ichida explains. The native wildlife isn't big – you almost want to encounter the venomous habu snake or the ferocious wild boar warned about on signs – but there are a number of endemic species, including the elusive flying fox, to let you know you're somewhere else. Since this is all not magical enough, Ichida steeps hibiscus petals in a glass pot of hot water and then squeezes in shikuwasa juice. The liquid changes from merely crimson into something neon and glowing. I drink the Kool-Aid and then stand still in the valley's softest crook, the air humming with locusts but so absolutely tranquil that I can feel the breeze of butterfly wings on my cheek.

It’s easy to go from remote to remoter here, with barely inhabited islands for surfing and snorkelling dotting the shore. My last stop is Kouri-jima, a small round island that remains a bit of a hideaway despite seeing more traffic since the building of a bridge 10 years ago. There’s something cosmic about Kouri. Maybe it’s the way the road spirals around a central hillock, displaying another distinctive Okinawa feature, family tombs that look like a cross between a UFO and a womb and a clam shell, fully integrated into the landscape. Leading me here is a Canadian connection: Iconic chef Michael Stadtländer and his wife, Nobuyo, are working on a project called Canada House on the island where she grew up, not unlike the Eigensinn Farm project in rural Ontario that the couple is known for. When her mother mimes an invitation to dinner, I enter a three-generation family compound built around a traditional wooden house, constructed with no nails. The first thing to do is to make an offering to the ancestors; then it’s on to the table for a local specialty of black squid ink soup, a mystery wrapped in an enigma in a bowl of white calamari and pieces of pork in a sanguine broth, slow-cooked pig’s trotters and a salad of sea grapes (umi budo), fern-shaped clusters of tiny green pearls that pop in the mouth like caviar. Of course, there’s awamori to help me forget how much I’ve eaten and to help me remember just enough of my interpreter talking about Japanese Vikings called wokou, who roamed these waters hundreds of years ago. I could sit here and stare at the stars all night, but even in Okinawa, time moves on and I’ve got a whole life ahead of me.

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Ancestor worship plays a big role in Okinawan life, including picnics at family tombs nestled into the hillsides.


Travel Essentials

01 On Naha's main commercial street, Aloha Shop Paikaji (wind from the south) is a calm oasis of vividly patterned Okinawan-style kariyushi shirts. (paikaji.co.jp)

02 Don't miss the goat sashimi with mugwort – or dishes like banana fish, squid ink noodles and "little fish on tofu" – at Ryoji, a homegrown Okinawan izakaya chain, which recently opened a Toronto location. (2-18 18 Kumoji, Naha; ryojiofcanada.com)

03 Karate was developed in Okinawa in response to an edict against weapons. Get a lesson in micro movements at Okinawa Traditional Karatedo Kobudo International Study Center, a dojo in a replica of a Ryukyu walled village. (1010 Takashiho, Yomitan)

04 Construction on Nakijin Castle, the residence of the northern king, started in the 13th century. Views of the hills and coastline from the limestone ruins haven't changed much. (nakijinjo.jp)

05 Just over the bridge on Kouri island, Blue Seal ice cream has flavours like sugar cane, choco matcha, pineapple, Ryukyu royal milk tea, Okinawan salt cookies and, of course, shikuwasa. (en.blueseal.co.jp)

06 Where the Pacific Ocean and East China Sea meet, Peace Memorial Park commemorates the losses of the Second World War in landscaped grounds. (peace-museum.pref.okinawa.jp)


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Where to Stay

In the sleepy seaside village of Bise, Ryuukyuuko Minka Chanyaa is a cluster of traditional wooden houses set amid sandy laneways under a canopy of fuguki trees. The tatami-mat restaurant serves heritage aguu pork shabu-shabu and vintage awamori (or shima in local dialect).
580 Bise, Motobu Town. chanyaa.com 

Tags

HEALTH & WELLNESS     JAPAN     OKINAWA    

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