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Why Opt for Okinawa

An invitation to Japan’s land of long life.

Asahiko Yara talks about awamori and the prefecture that popularized it. IMAGE BY ADEN MICHAEL MANALO.

W hen centenarians share the secrets to longevity, they often give tips that have at least one thing in common: they’re all highly accessible in a place like Okinawa.
This is confirmed by Sophia Yara, a Philippine business owner with ties to the area. As a woman married to Asahiko, an Okinawan, Yara is familiar with the its long living population. To her, this is enough of a reason to be intrigued by it. But as she spoke of the Japanese prefecture at an event late last year, she said that there are many other reasons why Filipinos should consider going there.
“Okinawa is a beautiful,” she said. “[But] it is not well known in the Philippines.”
When she said this, Yara was at Ironman Steakhouse, a new Makati restaurant she launched with her husband. Outside, a group of people–mostly seniors–were dancing around to string-heavy, Japanese music while wearing floral robes with striking cuts of orange. Inside, meanwhile, were bottles of awamori, the intensly flavored alcoholic drinks popular in Okinawa. And, alongside them were bowls of ramen with light flavors to highlight the strength of the drinks.
This was the first Okinawa Food Festival, an event organized by the Philippine United Okinawa Association. At the heart of the festivities were Yara and her husband, founding members of the group which was put together about five years ago to promote the prefecture to Filipino travelers.
“What we want is to convince people to visit Okinawa,” Yara said. Putting together this event, she hoped to spark interest for the prefecture through their food–one of the primary reasons for its allure.

Awamori, alcoholic beverage popularized by Okinawa. Image by ADEN MICHAEL MANALO

W hen people talk about Okinawa, one of the things that they tend to discuss is the subject of long life. This is closely tied to the prefecture. For years now, Okinawa is considered to be one of the five areas in the world recognized by the group Blue Zones for having a significant number of individuals who live past 100.
There are studies which questioned this in the past but more recent documents still note the longevity of life in Okinawa. National Geographic, for example, noted in an article back in 2020 that in Ogimi, one of its village, 15 of its 3000 residents have lived past 100 years of age. The same article noted that 171 were in their 90s when it was written.
The BBC shared facts that are related to this. The publication, back in 2020, stated that for every 100,000 inhabitants, Okinawa has 68 people who have lived over 100. And in the same article, the publication alleged that it could be because of dietary trends in the prefecture.
Yara agreed. During her event in Makati, she said that Okinawa is generally known for eating healthy. This is exhibited in the Okinawan penchant for plant-based dishes. The BBC has another related theory. If Okinawans are living long, the publication believes that it might be because of its penchant for high-carb diet. Experts believe that this may have set off a number of physical reactions which protected them from a number of age-related illnesses. These included cancer and heart diseases.
“Unlike the rest of Asia, the Okinawan staple is not rice, but the sweet potato,” the BBC stated. “Okinawans also eat an abundance of green and yellow vegetables – such as the bitter melon – and various soy products. Although they do eat pork, fish and other meats, these are typically a small component of their overall consumption, which is mostly plant-based foods.”
But while food is considered a likely cause of longevity in Okinawa, there may also be other factors. Incidentally, this also affects the region’s appeal.

Sophia Yara. Image by ADEN MICHAEL MANALO

O kinawa is like the Hawaii of Japan.

This is what Yara said while describing the prefecture and the comparison is understandable. For starters, its location in the south vastly separates it from the rest of Japan, allowing it to form a more nuanced identity. It’s form–a collection of relatively small islands scattered throughout the bottom of its country–also inspires an islander’s lifestyle. It has beaches, a subtropical climate and a less hectic pace of life compared to busier and larger Japanese islands. As a result, you have laid back communities that are less burdened by pollution and stress. Yara said that she would encounter the effects of this whenever she was there.
“The people are very warm,” she shares. Apart from that, however, other publications do say much about the people of Okinawa and they relate it to the mystery of long life surrounding the island.
For starters, there’s the concept of ikigai, a Japanese term which roughly translates to “reason for being.” Throughout Japan, people find their ikigai and one study speculates that this could be the secret to long life in the country. The study, as cited by CNBC is titled “Sense of life worth living (ikigai) and mortality in Japan: Ohsaki Study.”
“In this prospective cohort study, subjects who did not find a sense of ikigai were associated with an increased risk of all-cause mortality,” the study said. “The increase in mortality risk was attributable to cardiovascular disease and external causes, but not cancer.”
Blue Zones believes something similar. “Purpose has always played a major role in well-being and the resulting extreme longevity,” the group’s website states. “It’s also believed that the strong sense of purpose possessed by older Okinawans may act as a buffer against stress and help reduce overall inflammation, in turn lowering chances of suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, and stroke.”
But ikigai is just one element of life being held responsible for longevity in Okinawa. There are other factors that come into play. Moai, is also among them. To have one is to have a group of life long friends or a source of social support. Many acknowledge the importance of this in Okinawa.
Aside from that, the prefecture also sees people living active lifestyles. According to Blue Zones, many Okinawans are avid walkers and gardeners. Some of these gardens also include medicinal plants which get consumed daily to protect them for illnesses.
And finally, there’s the environment of Okinawa. A quick search on Google reveals that while it does have metropolitan areas, it also has a lot of beaches, clean air and greens. In short, it might be to some people what Yara has been suggesting: “a place worth visiting.”
“That’s why we put this event together,” she said as it went on around her. “We want to encourage tourism in Okinawa.”
During the writing of this article, it still isn’t advisable to go there. Movement restrictions remain in place particularly in Metro Manila due to debilitating spread of the coronavirus disease 2019’s omicron variant. Local health experts remain positive, however. They believe that this can be under control and people will once again be free to travel around. And when that time comes, Yara said that Okinawa will be waiting.
One can expect as much from a land where life is lived long.

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