It was my turn to go up. Before me was a shrine made up of photographs of Minoko and Zoukou’s ancestors. The household gods, sun-blushed from the light that streams into the home Zoukou built by hand.
I was here to film a short video about the elders of Ogimi village. Usually when you arrive on location it’s a case of getting down to business straight away. Lighting rigs up, cameras on shoulders, mics on lapels. Here, it was a different process. Upon arriving at their bungalow, we removed our shoes and Minoko handed each of us an incense stick. We relied heavily on our translator during our filming tour of Japan, but we didn’t need to be told it would be inappropriate to capture this moment on camera.
So we knelt, silently, and went up one by one to bow our heads and place our incense sticks in a pot of sand at the altar. When it was my turn, however, I pushed the stick a bit too hard and it snapped in two. I placed each half in the sand and turned, sheepishly, to see if I had committed the ultimate faux pas. Was this the Ryukyu religion equivalent of walking over Aunt Mildred’s grave?
Minoko smiled back at me – the kind of smile that comes from the deepest crevasses of the eyes – and beckoned me to kneel once again, before carefully lighting the sticks and delivering a prayer report to her ancestors. I’m sure they, too, would have been smiling at the idea of four Westerners travelling halfway around the world to discover something as straightforward as the secret to long life.
Minoko and Zoukou are in their early 90s, which isn’t particularly old by national standards. In 2017 the number of nonagenarians in Japan exceeded two million for the first time. Life expectancy is 84.5 years, second only to Hong Kong at 84.7. Indeed Japan is home to the oldest woman on Earth, Kane Tanaka, who last week blew out no fewer than 117 candles on a cake at her Fukuoka home.
But hundreds of miles south of Japan’s main islands, in the East China Sea, is a Jurassic Park of longevity, with a higher percentage of centenarians than anywhere else. From my chaotic, urban corner of the planet I always pictured Okinawa as a kind of utopia. On touching down in its capital city of Naha, a two-and-a-half-hour flight from Tokyo, that perception promptly snapped in half.
The subtropical city air clung to the back of my throat while American voices on the car radio said things like, “the US military keeps us safe” and “smoking will affect your training”. As we made a beeline out of the city, like all sensible arrivals in Okinawa should, we passed as many burger and taco joints as we did traditional izakaya bars. Why? Okinawa was the setting of the fiercest Pacific battle during the Second World War, taking 240,000 lives across both Japanese and US sides. The ongoing US military presence here is a living reminder of those dark days.
Safe to say there’s no mention of the islands’ 25,000 US troops in the travel brochures. Nor do they say that Okinawa is the poorest of Japan’s 47 prefectures, has the highest rate of unemployment in the country and was recently on red alert as a potential target for a North Korean airstrike. The islands’ fame as the so-called “Land of Immortals” captured Western imaginations in 2001 when Penguin published The Okinawa Way. “How to improve your health and longevity dramatically,” read the tag-line of the book, in which the authors argue that genetics is only one piece of the puzzle.
The capital of longevity in Okinawa is Ogimi, home to the highest concentration of centenarians on the islands, where I visited a restaurant called Emi-no-Mise. As I arrived, nutritionist-turned-restaurateur Emi was busy cooking up a set-menu called chojuzen, or “long-life menu”, which contains ingredients such as the famed local purple sweet potato – packed with every vitamin under the sun – and goya – a bitter, Dr Seuss-esque spiky melon. As she chopped away, she told me it’s not just the nutritional value of the local cuisine that keeps Ogimi’s elders going for so long.
“They are still connected to that cycle of planting, harvesting, and then preparing that food to eat, as they have been since they were young children,” she said. It’s notable, and entirely appropriate that the supremely youthful Emi – herself only 20 years off a century – refers to the elders as “they” rather than “we”. The elders of Ogimi are her main customers, although these days Emi increasingly welcomes tourists like me with an interest in Okinawa’s unique diet.
In 2018, tourism arrivals in Okinawa overtook those in Hawaii for the first time – 9,396,000 to 9,382,000. Comparisons are often drawn between the two island groups, not least because Okinawa's national dress is a floral buttoned shirt similar to (and inspired by) the ones worn in Hawaii. But there’s also the climate, the laid-back surf lifestyle, the balmy turquoise waters. Hawaiian luxury hotel chain Halekulani even has a resort here.
After eating Emi’s exquisite chojuzen and, with a bit of luck, stretching my life expectancy by at least a year or two, we drove into the forested heart of the village to meet Minoko and Zoukou. At the front door Zoukou was waiting for us, draped in one of those Hawaiian-esque shirts almost down to his knees.
The village has a sublime, somnolent air to it, a million miles from the chokehold of Naha. Butterflies and dragonflies zipped overhead and the leaves were plump from last night’s storm. Okinawa is certainly no utopia, but if you’re going to find its closest effort, you suspect it must be here.
After the incense stick-snapping ceremony, we sat on low stalls and ate some of Minoko’s home cooking – a bowl of sweet, tangled, deep-fried something-or-other. It was a serene hour or two, defined by non-awkward silences and the international language of smiles. In the background, a muted television flashed chaotically and violently but our hosts didn’t appear to notice – a bit like how the rest of the world, in all its chaos and violence, carries on without affecting the residents of Ogimi. I broke the silence and asked Minoko why she thinks Ogimi’s residents live for so long.
“It’s a wonderful village,” was her simple answer. “We value coming together. We value our ancestors for what they have done for us. We pray for them during the festival seasons. The most important thing in life is paying respect to your children and your ancestors.”
You can put the Okinawan elixir of life down to diet, a mineral-rich water supply, regular exercise, or a strong sense of community all you want. But Minoko and Zoukou possess something that cannot be exported or published in a book. A blissful understanding that they are not nonagenarians, nor will they become centenarians in a decade from now. Like their ancestors before them, these immortals will never die.
Greg flew from Tokyo to Naha with ANA (ana.co.jp), flights start from about Dh290 return. For tailor-made tours of Japan, visit Inside Japan Tours (insidejapantours.com). Call ahead before visiting Emi's restaurant (0980 44 3220; eminomise.com).
The Daily Telegraph