For living proof that the famously enduring residents of Japan’s southernmost prefecture of Okinawa are in fine fettle, I give you 90-year-old Shizu Koyama. Early on a humid morning on Taketomi Island, my guide and I surprise her at home, calling out as we near the entrance. Traditional homes here have no doors, all the better to welcome your neighbours.
Shizu appears beaming, wearing a pretty floral top and navy pants. Greeting us from the raised opening, she drops to her knees in one easy, fluid movement. She’s already made her breakfast smoothie, using bitter melon (a local hero) and herbs and vegetables from her garden.
Also on the morning agenda is talking to her ancestors, as she places fruit at the altar in her home. Later, she’ll go for a walk with friends and perhaps sew some clothes for her great-grandchildren who live in Naha, the capital of the main island of Okinawa. We should let her get on with her day.
My brief is to return from Okinawa — one of the world’s “blue zones”, where people live to a great age — bearing the secrets to longevity. As I relax into local life, I find the first clue — these islands are remote, but their inhabitants have never been insular. Okinawa has been off the main tourist trail for most visitors to Japan, even to local tourists. It’s subtropical, and closer to Taiwan than Tokyo. There are no direct flights from Australia (yet), so some intent is required to get here.
For your efforts, you will be greeted by natural wonders, sunny people, dancing, singing, beautiful crafts, luxe-to-the-max resorts, easy travel and new taste sensations, including some of the best food you’ll eat in your life, which will be long if you adopt the Okinawan diet.
Learning a little local history at Naha’s Okinawa Prefectural Museum and the Shurijo Castle Park gives some insight into the resilience of Okinawans, who for centuries lived as the Ryukyu Kingdom and were a tributary state of China’s Ming Dynasty. That was a generally beneficial arrangement, but the invasion by Japan’s Satsuma Domain meant that for centuries the Ryukyuans were subordinate, paying taxes to both China and Japan.
During World War II, Okinawa was Japan’s last line of defence in the Pacific, with the starving and downtrodden locals used as cannon fodder. That dark period is remembered at the Peace Memorial Park and Museum, perched above spectacular cliffs on the southern tip of Okinawa’s main island.
On manicured lawns, waves of black granite stones are engraved with the names of more than 240,000 people who died in the battles here. More than 140,000 were local civilians. In the museum, the stories of normal lives ripped apart are heartbreakingly similar to those in other memorials I’ve visited, albeit told from the other side. That familiarity makes the tranquil park’s message of peace even more evocative, and I’m gulping back tears as I watch the school excursions walk through.
Noting that the memorial is to peace, not war, I’m pegging Okinawan optimism as another long-life trait, perhaps rooted in the centuries caught in the middle of many international struggles. Indeed, an annual tourist attraction is a giant tug-of-war in the capital of Naha each October, during one of the numerous festivals that dot the prefecture’s calendar. (Perhaps faithfully observing frequent celebrations is another lifespan-extending clue?) Naha and Ishigaki and other Okinawan islands are well serviced by direct flights from Tokyo and key Japanese cities. There are also direct flights from Taiwan, China, Hong Kong and Korea. • visitokinawa.jp • mellemau.com • hoshinoresorts.com • hyakunagaran.com • urashima.jp
Memories of the privation and pain of World War II still hang heavy in Okinawa, but manifest as a sense that each day is to be treasured.
Food here today is plentiful and delicious, but never taken for granted. Watching the sunset from a vantage point on Taketomi, I see a woman with a line in the water. “Ah, yes,” says my local guide. “She’s taking a fish for her dinner.” Not fishing, she’s just taking a fish.
The same philosophy applies on Marutaka Farm on Ishigaki Island, where cheerful fruit and vegetable grower Tamako Takanishi gives me a lesson in traditional cooking (and a master class in Okinawan eating) in her open-air kitchen. She pops out to pluck a green papaya, and later to cut lemongrass for tea.
If she doesn’t have an ingredient, no worries, her friends are all farmers, and they share it around. For her own lunch and dinner, she’ll usually prepare four or five small dishes. For our lunch, she presents a tray of 15 delicate, delicious dishes, plus tempura and a stir fry on the side.
Tamako is 81 and has 12 grandchildren. Okinawa’s famous long-life leaf, chomeiso, has been picked from her garden for one dish. For mozuku seaweed — a vinegary dish that’s another staple of the local diet — she went to a nearby beach to collect the main ingredient. Whatever she needs, she gathers enough. I’m adding self-sufficiency and appreciative moderation to my list of longevity secrets.
There are no-limits aspects to Okinawa, too. At Hyakuna Garan, a gorgeous luxury hotel on Okinawa’s main island, there are six private rooftop bath houses, facing the ocean and available at no extra charge, with no time limits. I greedily book a sunset bath (before a mind-blowing dinner) and a sunrise one, too. Each bath is drawn for me with the water temperature magically just right, and the tub is vast and deep. I float for the longest time, listening to my heartbeat and looking out to the Pacific Ocean. Healthy excess, surely.
The sky and sea seem endless, too, on Iriomote, Okinawa’s second-largest island. This tropical idyll, an easy ferry hop from Ishigaki, is famous for its mangroves, super-sweet “peach pineapples’’, an endangered native cat, kayaking and hiking through jungle to a waterfall and the hundreds of coral varieties making up its reefs.
Charter operator Kenji Kunii takes us out on his swish American Catalina 29 Sun Tender and is our snorkelling guide. Around the lively reefs, we see a multitude of fish, a turtle and a pair of amorous sea snakes tumbling over each other in the clear water. That mating is a rare sight, as is the mound of tiny bright orange clownfish eggs that Kenji points out beneath waving anemone, much to the annoyance of their protective Nemo parents (worry not, we didn’t touch).
In between snorkelling sessions, Kenji makes us a five-course lunch on the back of his boat. It includes relatives of the brilliantly coloured fish we’ve just been ogling through our masks (but not clownfish).
He caught and filleted the fish that morning and now flash-fries them with local spices. Kenji runs his company MelleMau with wife Yuki and came to Iriomote from