6 ways Okinawa can help you live longer

Here are six ways to sample the culture and diet of the people who live on the Japanese tropical island Okinawa that might help you live to a ripe old age.

A little kid sitting on the beach.
  • Deborah Dickson-Smith and Paul Robinson
  • September 2018

One of Japan’s most fascinating prefectures has an international culture, a year-round subtropical climate and locals who are said to live longer than anyone else in the world. Okinawans credit their longevity to an active and healthy lifestyle (the warm climate making it possible to enjoy the great outdoors 24/7), a healthy diet rich in fruit and vegetables, an adventurous spirit and an all-round positive attitude.

An island in the Ryukyu archipelago opens in new window, Okinawa opens in new windowwas part of the independent Ryukyu Kingdom, and had a mutually beneficial relationship with imperial China from the 13th century until the island was invaded by samurai and made a protectorate of the Shogunate in 1609. The considerable Chinese influence here can still be seen in the local architecture. Today, Okinawa is promoted as Japan’s ‘tropical side’. Often compared to Hawaii, it’s a sprawling archipelago of idyllic tropical islands, surrounded by white sandy beaches and pretty coral reefs. On the main island, Okinawa’s capital of Naha is a vibrant, modern city, which you could also compare to Honolulu. The city’s main drag, Kokusaidori (International Street) is a lively place after dark, with an abundance of restaurants, bars and nightclubs, many catering to US defence personnel on the island (Okinawa hosts a major US military base).

Here are six ways to sample Okinawan culture that might help you live to a ripe old age.

Tempt Your Taste Buds With Okinawan Cuisine

According to Okinawans, one of the secrets to a long life is a well-balanced diet – rice, vegetables, sea vegetables, seafood, tofu and the “proper amount of meat”. So, if you’re hoping to learn how to live to 100 sampling Okinawan food is scientifically important.

Despite the understandable influence of American food, Okinawa has a fantastic range of dining options, serving everything from sushi to shabu shabu (a hotpot dish) and teppanyaki. On Kokusaidori, there are several izakaya-style eateries where you can enjoy live entertainment from local musicians while you eat. Okinawan beef rivals wagyu in texture and flavour, and is so tender it melts in your mouth. One of the best places to taste some is at the award-winning Motobu Farm restaurant, but be sure to book as it’s always busy.

The Okinawans have always been self-sufficient, indeed, the residents of Okinawa’s so-called Longevity Village, Ogimi, credit growing their own food as a contributing factor to their longevity. So, it’s no surprise to find a chain of buffet-style restaurants serving every imaginable type of Japanese food, all made from local organic produce. At Daikon no Hana, you can choose from udon, soba or ramen noodles, sushi and sashimi, katsu chicken and pork, Japanese curry and a wide selection of sales.

An aerial shot view of okinawa island.
An aerial view of the beach along Okinawa.

Explore The Coral Gardens Of The Kerama Islands

Swimming is one of the best ways to stay fit and agile in a tropical climate, so it’s no surprise the Okinawans are strong swimmers. In fact, Okinawans invented wooden swimming goggles more than 130 years ago to protect their eyes while spear-fishing. These miikagan were first made by local diver Yasutaro Gusukuma in 1884 from the monpanoki (octopus bush).

Kerama Shoto National Park is an island-dotted marine park west of Okinawa, a short ferry ride from Naha. Being a marine-protected area, the biodiversity in the coral gardens that surround these islands is incredible. The coral is in pristine condition with soft and hard corals of all shapes and sizes. Huge schools of reef fish surround each coral bommie in clouds of yellow, orange, purple and blue while sea turtles glide by through the crystal-clear water.

Try Your Hand At a Craft

Okinawa is famous for its pottery, glassware and woven textiles, and there are several places in Naha where you can try your hand at these crafts.

The Tsuboya pottery district is not far from the bustling centre of Naha, but coming here is a bit like stepping back in time as the cobbled streets are lined with studios and shops selling all kinds of ceramic wares. At Ikutouen studio, you can watch the artisans at work and take a pottery class. The studio will glaze and fire your creation and post it home to you.

If textiles are more your thing, try a coral-printing class at Shuri Ryusen studio. Create intricate patterns on a T-shirt, tote bag or length of cloth by stretching the fabric over a piece of coral and dabbing it with colourful inks.

Umbrealla's beach and chair's at the shore of okinawa beach.
The Impossible Archway at the beautiful Sunayama Beach on the island of Miyakojima.

Dive To Discover An Underwater Mystery

The Yonaguni Monument is a large, seemingly man-made structure sitting in about 10m of water. But is it an ancient monument swallowed by the sea or a natural rock formation?

Local dive master Kihachiro Aratake is convinced it’s made-made. He discovered the now famous Yonaguni Monument in 1986, and the site is the subject of several books and documentary films. When Aratake first saw it, he thought he’d found an ‘underwater Machu Picchu’. Some think it might be the Japanese Atlantis, others that it is just Mother Nature showing her creative side.

If Aratake is anything to go by, scuba diving is good for longevity as well. Now well into his 70s, he’s still diving regularly and has recently started teaching himself how to dive with rebreather equipment to stay underwater longer.

Yonaguni is in the Yaeyama Islands, about a 90-minute flight from Okinawa. The monument is a 40-minute boat ride from the port of Kubura.

A colorful light shopping centers and ferri wheel at the back.
Chatan Town is an entertainment and shopping hub.

Sample The Local Liquor

Pickling oneself with shochu must surely (we hope!) contribute to longevity, especially with distilled liquor that’s 60-80 proof (30-40% alcohol).

Okinawan awamori, although known as ‘the island sake’, is different from the sake made in other parts of Japan. It is distilled rather than brewed, using a different type of rice. The Okinawans use long-grain indica rice from Thailand. The technique of distilling reached Okinawa in the 15th century from Thailand.

Being sugar-free, the liquor has only around 60% of the calories found in sake. And being distilled, it has fewer impurities, which means you’re less likely to suffer a morning-after hangover.

There are many distilleries in and around Naha. One of them, the Chuko Awamori Distillery, boasts a wooden storehouse that is the island’s second-largest timber structure (after Shurijo Castle).

An old woman cleaning the fish in yomitan fish market
Okinawa surrounded by warm water ensures a lot of local fish are caught.

Learn Positivity At The Village Of Longevity

There are approximately 740 centenarians in Okinawa, 90% of them women. The best way to learn the secrets of a long life is to visit the village of Ogimi, which has the largest percentage of centenarians in Japan (and possibly in the world, according to World Health Organization data).

The village in 90 minutes from Naha by car and what immediately strikes the visitor in the stress-free lifestyle and positive attitude of the locals. The villagers happily share their various secrets to living longer; some credit an active life and active mind, others say diet – in particular a local citrus fruit, a type of mandarin called shikuwasa – is the secret. The villages are self-sufficient in every way. They grow their own vegetables, fish for seafood and many work on their farms until well into old age. Some claim to stave off senility by singing while others keep their brain cells active learning new crafts at the local community centre.

Cultural hits

WW2 Japanese Navy Headquarters opens in new window

Okinawans certainly have a deep understanding that life is precious. The Battle of Okinawa in 1945 resulted in the deaths of about a third of the population of the island at the time. According to some accounts, most Okinawan males over the age of 15 perished in the fighting.

236 Aza Tomigusuku, Tomigusuku City

Learn about the Ryukyu kings at Shurijo Castle

The original castles of the Ryukyu kingdom were all destroyed, largely by Allied bombing during the Battle of Okinawa. However, the seat of the Ryukyu kings has been faithfully restored to its former glory. The castle is situated on one of the highest points in Naha and has sweeping views of the city. You can learn all about kingdom’s far-reaching influence from the castle museum.

1-2 Kinjo-cho, Shuri, Naha City

Huris castle in the middle of the green garden.
The Shuri Castle's gardens are worth exploring.

Musts to find

Motobu Farm restaurant
2 Chome, 1-3 Kumoji, Naha City, +81 98 943 3897

Daikon no Hana
2 Chome, 5-8 Higashi, Okinawa City

Ikutouen pottery studio
1 Chome, 22-33 Tsuboya, Naha

Shuri Ryusen textile studio
1 Chome, 1-54, Shuriyamagawacho, Naha

Chuko Awamori Distillery
556-2 Iraha, Tomigusuku-shi

Okinawa Ogimi Village
905-1392, Oganeki 157