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