What do the world’s oldest people eat? Keshia Hannam travels to Japan’s subtropical Okinawa Island to find out.
Words Keshia Hannam Illustrations Tim Cheng
*Featured in Crave’s Issue 83, May 2017
Less than three hours’ flight from Tokyo and two hours from Hong Kong, Okinawa is the antithesis of these frenetic cities. Japan’s most southerly region boasts hundreds of islands, unspoiled coral reefs and a unique food culture that combines distinctive local ingredients with traditional Japanese eating habits and ethos. But what really sets Okinawa apart is its warm, leisurely and grounded people.
The archipelago has the famed hospitality of Japan’s more northerly islands, but with a subtropical culture and climate: think white beaches, turquoise sea, palm trees and sunshine.
The island itself is surprisingly urbanised for such a salt of the earth place, particularly to the south. The north remains sparsely populated with large expanses of forest and open coastline. North and south both operate at a pace that is measured and relaxed, and according to residents, the primary discord is attributable to the military presence that has existed since The Battle of Okinawa in 1945. The 32 American military bases that account for a quarter of the island’s area have been a point of ongoing contention with residents. Though a source of revenue for the prefecture of Japan, a weighty consideration given they have the lowest employment rate and average income (as well as youngest and fastest growing population), the unpopularity of the bases stems from their potential impediment to investment and the development of tourism.
Okinawa Island has a rich agricultural industry. Vegetables are highly regarded and the local diet is heavily focused on plant-based food, with produce such as bitter melon, hibiscus, sweet potato (yam) and a variety of salad leafs, pulled from the earth and dropped straight into the cooking pot.
Perhaps these eating habits contribute to its people’s famous longevity. Japan has the most centenarians in the world, at 48 per 100,000 people, and Okinawa Island is said to have the highest concentration in Japan.
But asking an Okinawan to name the island’s top dishes is like asking Annie Leibovitz what Instagram picture she likes best: reductionist and borderline offensive. To be immersed in Okinawan food culture means understanding the importance of eating with the seasons, trusting in the technique of those who craft the food and a willingness to be adventurous.
This ancient agricultural wisdom, bolstered by creativity with seasonal local ingredients, has created dishes passed down from generation to generation. Authentic without being staid, these dishes offer an education as much as indulgence. Dishes such as the goya champaru, which uses the native goya vegetable and incorporates luncheon meat, are indicators of the US presence on the region.
To zoom out, Japan’s food culture has developed from a deep, long-term relationship with the natural environment, of which is mostly flat with areas of hill and forest. Based on the belief that anywhere with soil can become a garden, people sowed seeds, waited patiently as they began to sprout, and cultivated the plants with care. They prayed for prosperity and protection, fostering humility and gratitude, and harvested what was needed as it was ready.
Many of these traditions seem alien to city-dwellers, but as visitors attune to the rhythms pulsing through the gardens and coastal areas, of this subtropical island, a sense of harmony is as difficult to avoid as the genki (energetic) people that bustle through the streets of the most populated part of the island the Okinawa Prefecture. Witnessing the relationship between Okinawans and their environment – both land and sea – leaves its mark, prompting an urge to carry on in the the wisdom of this way of life, and its accompanying pace.
Though Okinawa wouldn’t be categorised as small as far as islands go, it’s possible to drive across it in two to three hours. Head north from the main Okinawa Prefecture (where the airport and the majority of business goes on), and loiter along the coastline, passing through Nagodake up to the Kunigami district, which is dotted with intriguing food pit stops that tell a better story of Okinawa past and present than any museum, such as Eminomise’s restaurant and the Shikuwasa Park.
Get off the beaten track with a bike. Most hotels rent bicycles, and plenty of rental boats and planes hop around the prefecture’s 150 islands. Taste the produce of Okinawa’s fruit farms: eat a pineapple and drink fresh, tart shikuwasa citrus juice. And get wet. The snorkelling is among the best in the world, with a large variety of marine life, including manta rays, tropical reef fish and barracudas, populating the clear blue waters.
What to Do
Eminomise (Emi’s Restaurant) is located about two hours north of the airport in Ogimi, aka the village of longevity, which is home to hundreds of elderly people. Nutritionist Emiko Kinjo established her restaurant after years of researching Okinawan ingredients and making them famous. The restaurant is open for four hours a day, four days a week, and exists more for advocacy than for business. The secret of longevity may lie in the same formula.
Okinawa is famous for two forms of pottery: Arayachi unglazed pottery and Joyachi glazed pottery. The unglazed tends to be used for the storage of everyday items and awamori (local liquor), and the glazed has transformed from a similar use into a fine art within itself. The Second World War had a significant impact on the island’s traditional crafts, however, many workshops are still in operation as they have been for generations. Many are located in Tsuboya District, Naha, where the cobblestone streets alone are worth a visit. Take your time to explore the area and to absorb the calm, positive spirit of its craftspeople.
Where to Stay
Channelling the monochromatic toning that is often associated with Japanese aesthetic, Estinate is known for being conveniently located, stylishly designed and replete with a killer breakfast (pancakes are a must).
2 Chome-3-11 Matsuyama, Naha City 900-0032
T +81 98 943 4900
Describing Hyakunagaran as a one-in-alifetime-experience might be overstating it, but this is easily one of the finest hotels in the region. From the welcome drinks to the ocean views, it’s a world away from the traditional dainty fishing villages of Okinawa. 1299-1 Hyakuna Yamashitahara,
Tamagusuku-Aza, Nanjo City
T +81 98 949 1011
The Busena Terrace Beach Resort
Situated on the coast of the East China Sea, amid lush subtropical plants and the magical interplay of light, wind and water, Busena attends to mind, body and soul. The country’s legendary hospitality is particularly memorable here.
1808 Kise, Nago City 905-0026
T +81 980 51 1333
What to Eat and Drink
A native variety of shochu spirit, enjoyed island-wide – although it’s less popular among young people. Join the locals and try it tavern-style at the izakaya Jizake Yokocho on Kokusai Street. An English menu makes it easy to navigate the respected selection of awamori and delicious food, and there’s live folk music most nights.
Although tofu in Japan differs from area to area, there are two broad varieties: smooth kinugoshi dofu and firmer momen dofu. Okinawa’s famous shims dofu, which literally translates as “island tofu”, is similar to momen dofu, though the recipe and flavour differ. Try it at Kaiyou Shokudou.
Popular around the world, pork belly gets an unusual treatment in Okinawa. White miso and Okinawan brown sugar feature strongly in local dishes, providing a unique flavour that overlays quintessential Japanese ingredients. Try it at Urizun.
Bitter melon in Goya Champuru
Highly nutritious goya (bitter melon) is eaten year-round in an iconic Okinawan dish called champuru. It is history on a plate, combining the healthy native vegetable with Spam, the US canned meat introduced during the Second World War. A favourite of taxi drivers and construction workers, Mikado serves the dirtiest, most authentic version of the dish.
There are numerous Southeast Asian versions of this small green-skinned citrus, including calamansi and Taiwanese tangerine. The shikuwasa is revered for its alleged cancer-fighting properties. Spend an hour at Shikuwasa Park in the Kunigami Park area, exploring the small scale shikuwasa processing facility that produces a variety of products from the citrus fruit, such a deliciously tart, savoury dressing ideal to take home as a souvenir or gift.