Not so many moons ago, I was lucky enough to put a big fat tick in not one of, but the number one on my travel destination bucket list boxes – as I finally got to see Okinawa in Japan. I had craved to go there since I was a little boy, watching Daniel San and Mr Miyagi extend their bromance in Karate Kid Two, as the pair went to Miyagi’s homeland to pay respects to his dying father.
And let’s face it, Daniel deserved a mancation after pulling off that crane kick.
I digress. I would later find out, two months before my trip to the Land of the Rising Sun that the movie was in fact shot in Oahu, Hawaii. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little heartbroken, but I still wanted to visit for one special reason; Okinawans are the healthiest people living on our planet.
They just really struggle to die over there! Centenarians strut around like they’re teenagers. Sharp in the mind as well as the body. I had read about this particular blue zone for quite some time and I was completely fascinated by the longevity of the Ryukyuan folk.
So off I went, and this is what I observed. I was like a kid in a sweet shop and asked a million questions to locals and also shared Awamori with wise old doctors and researchers – expanding my knowledge of the world’s healthiest.
No surprises here – exercise is good for us, not exactly rocket science. What interested me was the type of exercise, which took place. Speaking as a man, in western countries we are bombarded by the likes of Men’s Health and images of hunky film stars, all huge and shredded and we are told this is what it’s like to be healthy.
That this is normal and everything else just doesn’t cut it. Okinawans are very slim and well, they don’t even lift, bro. They wake up early in the morning and perform a set of movements, as the sun rises called ‘Kenpo,’ which is similar to Tai Chi. It’s quite captivating to watch, especially when friends are doing it in sync with one another.
Everyone young to old cycles or walks far and often. There are no strict lists, or ‘best’ workouts to their exercise regime – it’s kept simple but it’s done consistently.
Strong Social Circle
One thing that I have learned since my time away is the importance of a strong social unit. I’ve spent many sad nights of small-talk and vacuous conversation with backpackers, pining for those who understand me the most so that I can be my true self.
Okinawans get that. People eat together, drink tea together, walk together, get drunk (in a much classier way than Brits do) together. I once dated a girl whose friendships I was massively in envy of and utterly impressed by. Her friends and her were always meeting up and they all seemed to be as equally invested in the relationship. I still see them now on my Facebook timeline, same set of girls meeting up and sharing things in life together, regularly after all this time.
I think it’s really sweet. I think it’s a lost art.
I’m far from needy, but it always amazes me how many people don’t have friendship as one of their top priorities in life. Okinawans understand that they get by with a bit of help from their friends. They even have a name for their social network; moai.
Mugwort, ginger, and turmeric are all staples of an Okinawan garden, and they all have proven medicinal qualities. The people of Okinawa grow their own and take pride in their beautiful gardens – which is also supposed to be a therapeutic practice.
If you look back on Okinawa history, you’ll quickly see they’ve been through a lot of crap. In fact, Ryukyuan people don’t feel like they are Japanese – that Okinawa is more of a separate country in their eyes. To be fair, if you look at some of the decisions that the mainland made concerning Okinawa, particularly during World War Two – you’d understand where they are coming from.
And yet, they still thrive in this absolute paradise as the healthiest place in the world. I reckon getting through these tough times, particularly as a community has made them strong in mind, body and spirit.
Unfortunately, the chances are you’re reading this from a country where you don’t get enough of vitamin D from the sun. Speaking as someone born in a cold, moody climate country – the difference to having sun permanently in your life is monumental for your wellbeing and happiness.
Vitamin D aids the absorption of calcium in your body – which is maybe why osteoporosis rates over there are abnormally low. The sun is scorching and there are more than enough paradises to sit and enjoy it.
Have you ever been to a place where you felt like you were breathing better than you ever have in your life? I certainly feel the difference when in polluted cities, as opposed to clean air places. I’m currently living in Mexico City and I love the place – but the main negative is the air pollution.
In Okinawa I felt like my lungs were breathing in good, pure air particularly by the coast. However, locals told me that the American military had been very naughty recently and had polluted a lot of the air with their aggressive training drills.
I thought I’d leave the elephant in the room until last. Reading about nutrition online is a f**king psychological minefield. Almost everyone has an agenda, or receives money to distort “science,” and in terms of the Okinawan diet – I’d read everything from them being 100% plant-based to the modern day Paleo diet.
It’s probably no surprise that the aforementioned claims were very far from the actual truth. The Ryukyuan people do eat meat, but poles apart to how we do in the west. The meat is more like a side dish, with the focus on the meal being plants – full of colours such as sweet potatoes, green, red and yellow vegetables.
In the west we tend to have a hunk of meat on our plate and maybe a handful of veggies on the side. In Okinawa it’s the complete opposite, with small cubes of pork, or seafood seemingly being the accompanying food. They also eat organ meats such as liver and kidney, but more so for special occasions and festivals.
It’s really fashionable to jump onto the anti-carb bandwagon at the moment, but the Okinawan diet laughs in the face of that. They eat rice and potato by the bucket load. If I had to give a guesstimate based on what I saw – I’d say their diet is at least 70% carbs.
Dairy seemed sparse over there and to solve the soy myth – they eat plenty. Many pro-meat/dairy sites or “studies” state that Okinawans don’t even eat that much of it, but this is completely false. They have soy in miso soup in the morning and also natto – a fermented soy bean that everyone says is disgusting but I thoroughly enjoyed! It’s rich in vitamin K2 and I’ve been eating it all week with a cheeky dash of tabasco sauce! Oh and they eat a lot of tofu too, and no I didn’t see any man-boobies.
Anyway, long story short; the diet certainly is plant-based, they do eat meat and seafood – just a lot less the standard American/British diet and they’re substantially far away from today’s version of Paleo.
Low Breast Cancer Rate
Soy has an unjust bad rap in my opinion and the Japanese tend to agree. Breast cancer rates in Japan are absurdly low compared to western countries and so I asked the elite (doctors, researchers who I met) their opinion on this. Although they all seemed to agree collectively that it’s because they do something, or a few things differently to the west – they seemed to differ on the final reason why.
Some blamed dairy (Japanese barely eat/drink any compared to the western world), one doctor told me that soy actually protects against mammary tumour development and one wildcard claimed it was because of Japan’s near perfect iodine intake.
It was all over my head, but it was interesting to hear different views – no doubt they’re doing something right though!
Speaking of iodine, I’ve made a conscious effort to eat more healthy and study more about my connection with food in the past few years and I was concerned that I wasn’t getting enough of this barely talked about mineral, and if you’re European you probably aren’t either. Thanks to Japan I learnt that because of the world’s intense over farming, the soil has become depleted and the vegetables that grow in the soil have barely any iodine in them…step forward sea vegetables!
Since my trip I’ve added wakame, arame and kombu into my diet – which are rich in other vital minerals such as omega 3 and calcium.
You could argue that genetics and sunshine are things that we can’t control, throw in the towel and put Okinawa on an untouchable pedestal – or you can follow some of their healthier habits and add them into your own life. I’d highly recommend a visit to Okinawa Prefecture. Fly to Okinawa City and get the hell out of there as soon as possible as it’s full of lairy military lads – all the magic awaits you on the islands.
On a funnier and less profound note; check out this Scottish centenarian lady’s philosophy to living a long and healthy life; porridge and staying away from men! 😛
Song For The Moment – ‘Live Forever’ By Oasis
Maybe I just want to fly
I want to live I don’t want to die
Maybe I just want to breathe
maybe I just don’t believe
Maybe you’re the same as me
we see things they’ll never see
you and I we’re gonna live forever