Armed with a blueprint for longevity, I set out across the islands to meet the locals—and as many centenarians as possible—to see if they agree with Suzuki’s findings and whether they can offer their own advice on how to forge a long and healthy life.
It takes no more than a few meals for me to realize that the Ryukyu version of Japanese food is very different from the sushi bars and teppanyaki grills of Tokyo. Sure, there’s plenty of seafood and seaweed. But rather than heaps of rice, the islanders get most of their starch intake from the purple sweet potatoes (imo) you see growing all over Okinawa and the other islands. There are also loads of tofu and indigenous favorites like pickled or stir-fried bitter melon (goya). But the biggest shock—the thing that blows so many “that’s not good for you” notions out of the water—is the prevalence of pork. The Ryukyuans love their pig. And, fortunately, I do too, because lunch or breakfast often includes two or three different pork dishes. But not just any pork. Many of the recipes call for the meat to be slow-boiled over a charcoal fire, the fat gradually skimmed off in favor of protein-packed collagen and other ingredients that seem to aid longevity.
Even then, how you eat is just as important as what you eat. “Slow down,” my translator, Miho Onishi, tells me over dinner that first night in Okinawa, not so much a reprimand as polite advice on how to eat island-style. We are dining at Uraniwa, a traditional izakaya tavern that blends food and sake, song and dance. You find them all over Okinawa, packed to the rafters with locals and émigré Okinawans visiting from abroad.
“You eat a little and drink a little, eat a little more and dance a little,” she adds. “That’s the Okinawan way.” And sure enough, around halfway through dinner, a folk band launches into a set of old familiar island tunes. Patrons push back their chairs and start dancing between the tables, hands and hips swaying to steps that bare more than a passing resemblance to hula. Over what must be my fifth or sixth cup of sake, I find myself thinking that if this is the secret to living longer, sign me up.
My next stop is Tokunoshima, home of the world’s oldest people. It’s not that far as the crow flies, only 140 or so kilometers northeast of Okinawa. But once again I am reminded that the Ryukyus are not typical Japan, but a throwback to a time when speed was much less essential. The journey entails almost an entire day of travel including several flights and a long layover on Amami Oshima island, second largest of the Ryukyus.
Rather than fritter away the hours in Amami’s tiny airport, I decide to have a quick look around. Amami is about as remote as it gets in Japan. With only 76,000 people, the island remains largely wild and untamed. Its mountains are covered in old-growth forest; the coast is guarded by the world’s northernmost mangroves; and there’s wildlife that can actually do you harm, such as the habu , a venomous pit viper that inhabits Amami’s forests and farmlands. (Rural roads are lined with bamboo poles that passersby use to chase off the snakes should they happen across one.) But as on the other Ryukus, there are plenty of old people here too. One of them I find living in a small seaside village not far from the airport.
“The habu never bothered me,” says 101-year-old Tsue Akama as we sip green tea sweetened with homemade brown sugar in a house furnished with tatami mats, sliding rice-paper doors, and a prominent ancestor shrine. “When I was a girl there were no cars or roads. To get to school each day I had to walk two hours in each direction, six days a week. And not once did I have trouble with a habu.”