On Japan’s tropical islands the lifestyle and diet add up to a long and healthy life. 

Words by Pamela McCourt Francescone
Photos by Pamela Mcourt Francescone and Archivio

A scattering of islands in the Pacific would seem to hold the secret to longevity.  A secret, it seems, that lies in fighting free radicals, those troublesome molecules that damage and break down our tissues and our DNA.  They are the islands of Okinawa where the inhabitants live longer than other Japanese  – and we all know that the Japanese live longer than anyone else. Because, on this tropical necklace of islands, lying at roughly the same latitude as Florida, there are 34 centenarians for every 100,000 inhabitants while in the USA the ratio is only 10 centenarians for the same number of the population. Then the islanders’ life expectancy of 81.2 years is the highest in the world, and they also have dramatically lower incidences of cancers, diabetes and heart disease. But that’s not all. Okinawa’s elders are also amazingly fit as walking, gardening and tai chi are a vital part of their daily rituals. Spirituality too plays a major role, helping to explain why they are masters at facing life’s difficulties with remarkable control.  But the real secret could be how they eat. Their traditional diet is based on grains, fish and vegetables, with very little meat, eggs and dairy foods, and lots of tofu and other soy products that contain flavonoids, nutrients known to fight certain types of cancer and heart disease.  Fish are another element, particularly cold-water varieties such as tuna, mackerel and salmon which are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and help reduce the risk of heart disease and breast cancer. So it comes as no surprise that Okinawans refer to food as nuchigusui which means “medicine for life.” Other staples in their diet are pork, sea cucumbers and bitter melon Yes, pork!  But it is slow-boiled for hours to remove harmful fats and then served, meltingly soft and  smothered in flavoursome sauces. Sea cucumbers, which are distantly related to sea urchins are called hai sen in Chinese which means sea ginseng, and are considered aphrodisiacs. They are also packed with vitamins and chondroitin sulphate which alleviates joint pain and arthritis.  And bitter melon, which looks more like a prickly cucumber, is an essential ingredient in the delicious local Champuru stir-fries.

So Okinawans certainly have a lot to smile about.  And  a local expert, Dr. Makado Suzuki, together with two American geriatricians Craig and Bradley Willcox, has written a best-seller documenting Okinawans’ unique approach not only to longevity, but also to healthy living and weight loss. Suzuki maintains that the Okinawa islands’ foods are the best and healthiest in the world, although he does not hide his admiration for the Mediterranean diet.

Okinawa’s main island is Okinawa Honto and access is through Naha’s International Airport, with All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines flying daily from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, and connecting flights to other islands in the archipelago. The island has a relaxed atmosphere and is user friendly as the main thoroughfare, Highway 58, runs from Naha City the capital of the prefecture in the south, to Nago in the north, passing through most of the areas of interest.  It is a holiday island with crystal-clear waters, top-notch scuba diving, endless stretches of beach and historical sites, many of which are UNESCO World Heritage branded.  There are also excellent golf courses and quality hotels like the Busena Terrace Beach Resort, a handsome white colonial-style property, with luxury accommodations on a perfect half-moon sandy bay. Newcomers soon to debut on the scene are the  Hoshinoya Okinawa, a contemporary approach to the ryokan experience with 48 villas and dining options featuring Okinawa’s high-vegetable, low-fat cuisine. And the new Ritz-Carlton, which will be located on neighboring Ishigaki Island, the main hub for the Yaeyama Islands which are also in the Okinawa prefecture, and will have 97 guest rooms, a spa, and an 18-hole golf course. Okinawa is famous for its dragon dances and dragon boat racing which were influenced by the Chinese culture and its five UNESCO heritage sites, of which the most impressive is the Shuri-jo castle which dominates the hills above Naha.  Until 1879 Okinawa and its islands were the Ryuku kingdom which was abolished when Japan annexed them as a prefecture, suppressing the local language, customs and culture. One of the traditions the Japanese banned was the possession of arms.   To which the inhabitants quickly replied by inventing their own unique form of defence, the martial art of karate, the name of which means “empty hands,” and can be as lethal as any weapon.