What do the world’s old­est peo­ple eat? Keshia Han­nam trav­els to Ja­pan’s sub­trop­i­cal Ok­i­nawa Is­land to find out.

Crave - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - Words Keshia Han­nam Il­lus­tra­tions Tim Cheng

The culi­nary se­crets of Ok­i­nawa and its world-beat­ing cen­te­nar­i­ans

Less than three hours’ flight from Tokyo and two hours from Hong Kong, Ok­i­nawa is the an­tithe­sis of these fre­netic cities. Ja­pan’s most southerly re­gion boasts hun­dreds of is­lands, un­spoiled co­ral reefs and a unique food cul­ture that com­bines dis­tinc­tive lo­cal in­gre­di­ents with tra­di­tional Ja­panese eat­ing habits and ethos. But what re­ally sets Ok­i­nawa apart is its warm, leisurely and grounded peo­ple.

The ar­chi­pel­ago has the famed hos­pi­tal­ity of Ja­pan’s more northerly is­lands, but with a sub­trop­i­cal cul­ture and cli­mate: think white beaches, turquoise sea, palm trees and sun­shine.

The is­land it­self is sur­pris­ingly ur­banised for such a salt of the earth place, par­tic­u­larly to the south. The north re­mains sparsely pop­u­lated with large ex­panses of for­est and open coast­line. North and south both op­er­ate at a pace that is mea­sured and re­laxed, and ac­cord­ing to res­i­dents, the pri­mary dis­cord is at­trib­ut­able to the mil­i­tary pres­ence that has ex­isted since The Bat­tle of Ok­i­nawa in 1945. The 32 Amer­i­can mil­i­tary bases that ac­count for a quar­ter of the is­land’s area have been a point of on­go­ing con­tention with res­i­dents. Though a source of rev­enue for the pre­fec­ture of Ja­pan, a weighty con­sid­er­a­tion given they have the low­est em­ploy­ment rate and av­er­age in­come (as well as youngest and fastest grow­ing pop­u­la­tion), the un­pop­u­lar­ity of the bases stems from their po­ten­tial im­ped­i­ment to in­vest­ment and the de­vel­op­ment of tourism.

Ok­i­nawa Is­land has a rich agri­cul­tural in­dus­try. Veg­eta­bles are highly re­garded and the lo­cal diet is heav­ily fo­cused on plant-based food, with pro­duce such as bit­ter melon, hibis­cus, sweet potato (yam) and a va­ri­ety of salad leafs, pulled from the earth and dropped straight into the cook­ing pot.

Per­haps these eat­ing habits con­trib­ute to its peo­ple’s fa­mous longevity. Ja­pan has the most cen­te­nar­i­ans in the world, at 48 per 100,000 peo­ple, and Ok­i­nawa Is­land is said to have the high­est con­cen­tra­tion in Ja­pan.

But ask­ing an Ok­i­nawan to name the is­land’s top dishes is like ask­ing An­nie Lei­bovitz what In­sta­gram pic­ture she likes best: re­duc­tion­ist and bor­der­line of­fen­sive. To be im­mersed in Ok­i­nawan food cul­ture means un­der­stand­ing the im­por­tance of eat­ing with the sea­sons, trust­ing in the tech­nique of those who craft the food and a will­ing­ness to be ad­ven­tur­ous. This an­cient agri­cul­tural wis­dom, bol­stered by cre­ativ­ity with sea­sonal lo­cal in­gre­di­ents, has cre­ated dishes passed down from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion. Au­then­tic without be­ing staid, these dishes of­fer an ed­u­ca­tion as much as in­dul­gence. Dishes such as the goya cham­paru, which uses the na­tive goya veg­etable and in­cor­po­rates lun­cheon meat, are in­di­ca­tors of the US pres­ence on the re­gion.

To zoom out, Ja­pan’s food cul­ture has de­vel­oped from a deep, long-term re­la­tion­ship with the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment, of which is mostly flat with ar­eas of hill and for­est. Based on the be­lief that any­where with soil can be­come a gar­den, peo­ple sowed seeds, waited pa­tiently as they be­gan to sprout, and cul­ti­vated the plants with care. They prayed for pros­per­ity and pro­tec­tion, fos­ter­ing hu­mil­ity and grat­i­tude, and har­vested what was needed as it was ready.

Many of these tra­di­tions seem alien to city-dwellers, but as vis­i­tors at­tune to the rhythms puls­ing through the gar­dens and coastal ar­eas, of this sub­trop­i­cal is­land, a sense of har­mony is as dif­fi­cult to avoid as the genki (en­er­getic) peo­ple that bus­tle through the streets of the most pop­u­lated part of the is­land the Ok­i­nawa Pre­fec­ture. Wit­ness­ing the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Ok­i­nawans and their en­vi­ron­ment – both land and sea – leaves its mark, prompt­ing an urge to carry on in the the wis­dom of this way of life, and its ac­com­pa­ny­ing pace.

Though Ok­i­nawa wouldn’t be cat­e­gorised as small as far as is­lands go, it’s pos­si­ble to drive across it in two to three hours. Head north from the main Ok­i­nawa Pre­fec­ture (where the air­port and the ma­jor­ity of busi­ness goes on), and loi­ter along the coast­line, pass­ing through Nago­dake up to the Ku­nigami district, which is dot­ted with in­trigu­ing food pit stops that tell a bet­ter story of Ok­i­nawa past and present than any mu­seum, such as Emi­nomise’s restau­rant and the Shikuwasa Park.

Get off the beaten track with a bike. Most ho­tels rent bi­cy­cles, and plenty of ren­tal boats and planes hop around the pre­fec­ture’s 150 is­lands. Taste the pro­duce of Ok­i­nawa’s fruit farms: eat a pineap­ple and drink fresh, tart shikuwasa citrus juice. And get wet. The snorkelling is among the best in the world, with a large va­ri­ety of marine life, in­clud­ing manta rays, trop­i­cal reef fish and bar­racu­das, pop­u­lat­ing the clear blue wa­ters.

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