Forget longevity — Okinawa hides the secrets to happiness

The island is famous for its sheer number of centenarians but Cheong Kamei finds out that Okinawa’s greatest gift to the world just might be something more precious than longevity: the secrets to a fulfilling and purposeful life.

Okinawa
  • Cheong Kamei
  • December 2018

There are some telltale signs that I am in Okinawa — the sounds of the soft waves of the sea outside and a Japanese game show playing on TV in the background, the aroma of the quintessential Okinawan dish goya champuru (stir-fried bittergourd, eggs and pork belly) in the air … and of course, the fact that I’m in Ogimi, the village that shot to fame for having the world’s highest concentration of people over 100 years old.

But instead of checking out the sights that Okinawa is famous for, such as Churaimi Aquarium or its postcard-worthy coastlines, my travel companions and I are hanging out in the living room of people we don’t know. We’ve signed up for the Ogimi homestay experience (kanko.vill.ogimi.okinawa.jp/homestay), and our hosts for the next two days are husband and wife, Morio and Etsuko Taira.


Ogimi village in Okinawa, Japan
The Tairas’ home sits on Route 58, a road that connects Ogimi to Kagoshima.

Just like family

Seventy-four-year-old Etsuko is busy in the kitchen whipping up a feast for dinner but every now and then, she stops to pass me snacks of sata andagi — Okinawan-style doughnuts she’s dyed with the juices of the dragonfruit that Morio grows in his garden — and ume plums she pickles in jars at the foot of the staircase.


Ogimi homestay experience, Okinawa, Japan
The Taira’s have been hosting Japanese students as part of the Ogimi homestay experience but we’re their first overseas guests.

Eighty-three-year-old Morio stops me from stuffing my face with another sata andagi. He hands me a bowl of mozuku seaweed in ponzu to try, and by pointing to the sea his house faces and flexing his muscles, I immediately get that this locally harvested delicacy is supposed to make me strong. Morio and Etsuko don’t speak much English, but we’re clearly well versed in the universal language of food.

This animated orientation to Okinawan snacks and their home continues till dinnertime. By then, I’m so doted on, I’m calling them ojichan and obachan (Japanese for “grandpa” and “grandma” respectively) — a move that surprises me because it seems like a completely natural thing to do. I’d heard Okinawans were friendly but this, I wasn’t expecting.


Farming in Ogimi homestay experience, Okinawa
Morio grows dragonfruit and bananas on his farm, and his wife Taira makes amazing desserts out of them.

I learn from my newly adopted grandparents that this is ichariba chode at work, a key Okinawan guiding principle that means “once we meet, we become brothers and sisters”. It is ichariba chode that differentiates the hospitality you receive in Okinawa and mainland Japan. While interactions in the latter tend to be steeped in elaborate social etiquette and courtesy, Okinawans are more laidback and warm. You’re not a guest. You’re family.

Keeping up with the Okinawans

When an incoming typhoon thwarts our plans of sea kayaking, ojichan insists we jump into his car for an impromptu Ogimi village tour. Ishiyama Observatory with its unobstructed views of Northern Okinawa, the East China Sea and Pacific Ocean, offers ‘gram-worthy moments. The shop where ojichan met obachan is a heartwarming testament to their 52-year marriage. A stop to sample ojichan’s version of candy when he was a boy — leaves freshly plucked from cinnamon trees — is one of the most amusingly random things I’ve done in a while.

But in the same way home isn’t just a place, Ogimi isn’t just a beautiful village. More than the sights, it’s the people who call Ogimi home that leave the deepest impression.


Emi no Mise in Ogimi, Okinawa, Japan
Emi no Mise is a farm-to-table restaurant that focuses on traditional Okinawan recipes made with simple, honest ingredients.

Seventy-year-old Emi continues to work daily in the kitchen of her family-run restaurant Emi no Mise, and on the farm that provides its vegetables, simply because she “enjoys feeding people”. And boy, does she do a great job. The Longevity Bento I opt for comes with 15 components such as bonito-braised bamboo shoots and sweet potato leaves marinated in miso. They’re supposed to be traditional Okinawan recipes that promote a long life. I can’t speak for their efficacy but if that’s how I eat when I’m 100 years old, I’m completely fine with that.


Bashofu making in Ogimi, Okinawa
Because making bashofu is such a lengthy process, only 250 rolls of the fabric are produced a year.

Then there’s Toshiko Taira, who is deservedly recognised as a Japanese Living National Treasure. She returned to Ogimi from mainland Japan after World War II, and single-handedly organised local war widows to revive the ancient craft of making bashofu. Making bashofu — a cloth that’s woven from banana tree fibres — is notoriously laborious and can take anything from three to six months. To this day, 98-year-old Toshiko continues to work at Bashofu Kaikan, a centre for apprenticeships and visitors.


KBG84 — the world’s only centenarian pop group
Meet KBG84 — the world’s only centenarian pop group.

Oh, and if that isn’t enough to put your young bones to shame, boundless energy isn’t just isolated to Ogimi. Okinawa is also the birthplace of the world’s only centenarian pop group, KBG84, who has a sellout Japan tour under its belt. The name comes from the average age of the 33-strong member group, and is a play on teenybopper J-pop girl group AKB48 (because grannies know how to throw shade too).

Have Okinawans never heard of retirement?

The pursuit of happiness

It turns out Okinawans really don’t believe in retirement at any age, and that has to do with yuima-ru — the interconnected circle of humans. The idea is intuitive: because we are all connected, our actions, even the most mundane ones, have an impact on other people. It’s that realisation that we have purpose outside of ourselves that drives ikigai — your reason to wake up in the morning, your reason for doing more … your reason for being. Ikigai is not about pursuing a happy life, it’s about actively creating a meaningful and passionate one.


Japan Okinawa costline
Okinawa is famous for many things such as its stunning coastlines but our Ogimi homestay experience turned out to be the most memorable.

In ojichan’s case, his ikigai comes in many forms — being chairman of the Association of the Elderly, chess on Tuesdays and Fridays, fishing, tending to his farm, and of course, playing host to visitors who sign up for the Ogimi homestay experience. “The day you stop doing anything is the day you feel old,” he shares. I suddenly feel ancient. My young bones could definitely learn a thing or two from Okinawa, and I find myself wondering what my ikigai is. As if he senses my existential crisis, his eyes crinkle into a smile. “Nankurunaisa,” he says. “Everything will be alright.”