Meet Japan's oldest residents

We travelled to Ogimi, Japan's "village of longevity", to discover the secrets of a long, healthy and happy life

  • Elisabeth Knowles

On 23 April, 1993, a public declaration was made in the small village of Ogimi, in northern Okinawa. The framed statement is hung on the wall of a roadside café. It reads:

At 80 years old, I am still a child. When I come to see you at 90, send me away to wait till I’m 100.
Let us keep going strong as we get older, and not depend too much on our children in old age.
Come to our village in your old age, and we will provide the blessings of nature and teach you the secrets of longevity.
We, the senior citizens of Ogimi, proudly declare this the longest-lived village in Japan.

At the time, Ogimi was home to six people over 100 years old – the largest number of centenarians per capita in Japan. Not bad for a village with a population of just over 3,000. There are nine centenarians living in Ogimi now; the eldest is 107 years old.

Theories abound as to why Ogimi residents enjoy such long lives. It could be the climate, some say. As Japan’s southernmost prefecture, Okinawa is subtropical, with temperatures rarely falling below 15°C in winter. Throughout the year, Okinawa enjoys average daily temperatures up to 10°C higher than mainland Japan, and humidity rarely drops below 43%.

The climate encourages outdoor activity. Exercise is part of everyday life, and many Ogimi villagers work on farms until well into old age. Food is fresh, with villagers growing their own vegetables and fishing for seafood. While meat consumption is high, it is supplied locally. Processed foods are generally not part of the diet.

A relaxed vibe is evident throughout Okinawa. Ogimi Village architecture is mainly single-storey and a few double-storey homes on quarter-acre blocks separated by forest and farmland, with a pretty stretch of coast alongside. The residents’ choice of clothes is a kind of island uniform – men and women, old and young, tend to wear lightweight shirts with tropical prints, loose pants and sandals. Men often top off their outfits with Panama hats; women wear floral headscarves.

But the best way to learn why life is so good here is to ask the people of Ogimi themselves. We met five villagers who live life to the full.

1. The singer

Sayo Miyagi, 99 years old

Sayo turns 100 next year. She is a tiny, polite woman who welcomes us happily into her home. She lives alone – after raising eight children, she deserves a break!

When asked for her secret to a long and happy life, she says: “Don’t rely on other people – do everything yourself.”

Most of her children have moved away – five live in Naha, one lives in Nara, one is in Tokyo, and a son lives in the same village but in a different community.

“I don’t want to trouble my children,” she says, then tells us that her biggest fear about growing old is becoming senile. “To prevent this I do things with my hands, such as craftwork, and keep my brain active.”

When asked how she exercises her mind, Sayo replies that she sings. She stands and retrieves an old songbook from a shelf. In a quiet but confident voice, she traces lines of musical notes with her fingers and sings us a beautiful Okinawan folk song, completely in tune.

2. The food and craft lover

Misako Miyagi, 84 years old

Still young by Ogimi standards, at 84 Misako takes part in a community program for the elderly. Anyone 65 or older can join the Roujinkai (Ogimi Village Elderly Association), which provides activities such as craft, dancing and music lessons.

“I already know most members,” says Misako. “We went to the same junior school together.”

Misako lives alone in the same single-storey home she has occupied for the past 45 years, adjacent to an empty plot where she picks wild, bitter-green salad leaves called nigana, which she tosses with silken tofu and sesame dressing. Also on her table: nmukuji (sweet potato fritters), mooi dofu (jellied tuna flakes in bonito stock, seaweed and carrot), goya champuru (stir-fried bitter melon with tofu) and satoimo (taro root).

“People don’t buy vegetables, we grow them,” she says. “The key to long life is to be self-sufficient.”

It is common for elderly women in Ogimi to live alone. Sadly, Misako’s husband died when she was 36, and she raised four children on her own, by selling insurance during the day and souvenirs in a hotel gift shop at night.

Her eldest child left home 40 years ago, but this is not a lonely house. It’s decorated with paintings, photographs from her travels, a shrine to her husband and crafts she has made at the community centre – calligraphy, pinwheels and paper flowers.

Misako smiles when our translator says a handmade Christmas wreath “looks like a bought one”. She shows us a more prized possession – a drawing by her grandson, which says: “Grandma, please live long.”

3. The traditionalist

Hana Miyagi, 91 years old

Every villager we’ve met thus far has the surname Miyagi. When we meet Hana, we joke that perhaps it’s that name – rather than the food or climate – that makes Ogimi’s villagers enjoy a long life. She laughs: “Half the community is called Miyagi, but we’re not all related.”

We’re invited to a family lunch to celebrate the autumnal equinox. Hana has been cooking since 5am, and the feast includes tebichi (pork feet), maguro (deep-fried tuna), rafute (pork belly) and yomogi mochi (mugwort and rice dumplings).

“There’s no doctor in this village, so we pick and eat mugwort straight off the plant,” she says. “It reduces fever, and works for every ailment.”

When she was young, Hana says she soaked hibiscus leaves in water to create shampoo. As we eat, she shows us a DIY manicure – wrapping her fingers in housenka (garden balsam) leaves to stain her nails bright orange. “Every plant has a use,” she says.

4. The crafts master

Toshiko Taira, 94 years old

One of the most beautiful handicrafts in Okinawa dates back to the 15th century, during the Ryukyu kingdom. Bashofu is an organic-dyed textile created from ito-basho (Ryukyu banana plant fibre), which is used to make fabric for casual and formal wear, including obi and kimonos.

The Kijoka Bashofu Trade Association is a family-run factory, where textiles are created entirely from scratch, using local plants for fibre and dyes, and wooden looms for weaving. The factory is quiet, as everyone intently works on producing fine-quality fabric.

A true artisan, the Miyagi family’s grandma Toshiko works here every day. She threads yarn by hand and mixes dyes, which are stirred then left to rest in large earthenware pots in a dark laundry room. We’re told the dye’s secret ingredient is awamori, a local rice spirit.

“Indigo is the most difficult colour to create,” Toshiko’s granddaughter tells us as her grandmother stirs the dark, bubbly liquid in a pot. “She can tell just by the smell whether the colour is correct.”

5. The athlete

Chosei Hentona, 92 years old

Chosei is a bit of a legend in Ogimi Village. We hear from a few different people about this incredible old man who is so fit in his old age that he can walk on his hands. Phone calls are made and we meet Chosei in a park.

He may be missing a few teeth but Chosei’s sense of humour is intact. When we ask his secret for a long life, he laughs and says, “If you don’t die you will live long.”

He happily performs a few push-ups for us, and laughs a lot, before cutting our interview short. “I do not want to miss the sumo tournament on TV,” he shrugs as he waves us away.

See for yourself

To find out more about Okinawa, visit en.okinawastory.jp opens in new window

Travellers can book a home visit with an elderly Ogimi resident through travel agent Jumbo Tours Okinawa. Plan at least 2–3 weeks in advance (+81 (0)98 917 5575jumbotours.co.jp/welcometojapan opens in new window)