“Okinawan elders are among the world’s longest-living people and suffer far less from common diseases associated with the aging process,” wrote Craig Willcox in The Okinawa Program. The book is based on a twenty-five-year Japanese Ministry of Health–sponsored scientific study of centenarians in the region. While it offers some incredible insight as to how lifestyle correlates to a longer lifespan, I aimed to find out more about the key to “everlasting health” by visiting Okinawa in person.
A HEALTHY LIFE BEGINS WITH LUNCH
After a thirteen-hour flight that left New York and its greasy takeout, long work hours, cosmetic surgeries and antiaging pills far behind, I found myself sitting at a table in Emi No Mise, a restaurant in tranquil Ogimi, an Okinawan village with a reputation as a land of perpetual youth. I was joined by two of the owner’s oldest friends and suppliers of many of the restaurant’s fruits and vegetables through their respective farms, 96-year-old Shinfuku Tamaki and 95-year-old Katsu Yamakawa.
What I learned from these two experts, both born and raised in Ogimi, is hardly surprising: The way to a better life is through a healthy diet, exercise, hard work and happiness. While listening to the wisdom offered by both soon-to-be centenarians, I indulged in Chef Emiko Kinjo’s mouthwatering Longevity Lunch, a bento box filled with 15 different elements, each one said to promote vitality. This included tantalizing items like fried dumpling filled with beni-imo (purple sweet potato) mixed with tapioca, along with other creations that might give pause to someone who’s used to a slice of pizza for lunch, such as the mixture of reddish seaweed, carrot and chiragaa (skin from a pig’s face).
When it became time to move on, Katsu invited me to join her again at the restaurant for her one hundredth birthday, and I thanked her for the kind gesture. But by the time I turned to say my goodbyes to Shinfuku, the old gentleman had disappeared in a cloud of dust as he zipped away on his motorbike. Talk about being young at heart!
ENTER THE DOJO
As Okinawa is the birthplace of karate, it would have been a sin to not take advantage of the opportunity to practice the ancient martial art in a dojo. During my afternoon tutorial, I quickly learned that Okinawan karate, when taught by the right instructor, demands extreme devotion. Fortunately, my instructor, Kevin Chaplin, was patient and encouraging. His dedication certainly can’t be called into question, as this former mathematician moved from Britain to Okinawa specifically in order to pursue his passion for karate by training with one of the greatest senseis in the world, Kenyu Chinen.
Chaplin confided to me that the “wax-on, wax-off” approach made so famous by one of my favorite films, The Karate Kid, was a fairly accurate depiction of how one must practice menial movements again and again until they become second nature. As such, he added, students don’t typically master karate until the age of 40 or 50, due to the time and patience required to grasp the intricacies of these small movements. No doubt, the amount of hard work and rigorous exercise required of practitioners over time has contributed to the overall well-being of Okinawa’s population.
OKINAWA REEF ENCOUNTERS
Of course, if happiness really is part of the magic formula that equates to long-lasting health, then perhaps the fountain of youth is just as likely to exist in the waters off the coast of Okinawa. In order to find out firsthand, I contacted the team at Reef Encounters (reefencounters.org). They paired me up with diving instructor Toyo Hirohashi, who briefed me on the logistics of scuba diving, covering everything from equipment usage and underwater safety to what would happen if I began to laugh underwater.
Armed with the knowledge Toyo had passed on, I felt absolutely confident in what I was doing—that is, until we started to take the beach entry plunge near the Sunabe Sea Wall. As I started to descend into the ocean and the choppy surf repeatedly knocked into me, my breaths got shorter and shorter. Dependent upon an air tank as I was, short breaths seemed natural—but, as Toyo had warned me, I should have been doing the opposite. I had to work hard to remember his advice: Take long, calm breaths.
Once I did that, a new world unfolded before me. We swam over blossoming coral, a water snake and schools of colorful tropical fish. I was soon glad that Toyo had taught me how to laugh underwater, because, contrary to what Disney might have you think, little Nemo the clownfish is none too kind in real life: When it started snapping, I just couldn’t help but laugh.
I only spent a week in Okinawa, and yet as I walked through the security line at Naha Airport en route to JFK, I felt a pang of sadness. Okinawa may be only a two-and-a-half-hour flight from Tokyo, but it sets itself apart from Japan’s mainland with a rich culture, adventurous food, diverse landscape and inspirational longevity practices. I came looking for the key to everlasting health, and I left with that and fond memories to boot. I look forward to returning someday—perhaps in time for Katsu’s centennial birthday celebration.
Pick up The Okinawa Island Guide
by Chika Kobayashi for even more information on the enigmatic island. oki-islandguide.com