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The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION ASIA -

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

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