Finding the Fountain of Youth in Naha

Even in Japan, the country with the world’s greatest life expectancy, Okinawa stands out. Okinawa’s population includes an astonishing number of centenarians, several times the rate in other developed countries. What’s their secret? The best way to find out would probably be flying directly to Naha and simply setting off in search of the old side of Okinawa.

For the overwhelming majority of visitors, Naha is the port of entry, and that’s where I started out too, after a two-hour flight from Tokyo. It completely lacks the high-tech glitz of many of mainland Japan’s cities; the city—indeed the whole island—has just one short rail line, a monorail whose trains are only two cars long, but it also lacks most of the stress up there.

Near the east end of the monorail, on a ridge overlooking the city, Shuri Castle provides a vermilion-lacquered link with the past. It offers an intriguing glimpse at how the rulers of the independent Ryukyu Kingdom lived before the islands were annexed by Japan in the late 1800s. Shuri is not the only castle in Okinawa but is the only one that has been restored to its original glory. Quite unlike the castles seen on the mainland, its most distinctive feature – apart from its colour – might be the alternating red and grey stripes formed by the flagstones in the main courtyard which were used to help court officials line up in the proper order at ceremonies.

In addition, visitors can often catch performances of ancient Okinawan dance, and sometimes join free half-hour lessons in playing the three-stringed sanshin, the local version of the Japanese shamisen. I also had an opportunity to watch a making of the instrument by a local craftsman who escaped the city life back to his hometown.

Another of Okinawa’s traditional arts is pottery, and though many potters relocated to more rural parts of the island when the smoke from their kilns was considered a threat to Naha’s air quality, a small, busy pottery area remains in the capital. Known as Tsuboya, its winding main street is home to numerous shops selling both unglazed arayachi items and glazed joyachi. Explore some of the back streets and you can still find working potters busying with their products of pride.

Pottery and sanshin are also produced elsewhere in Japan. If there’s an only-in-Okinawa art form, it would have to be bingata. It’s kind of a method of creating fabrics whose design is painted on rather than being woven in. Because the production of bingata is so time-consuming, garments made with this cloth have always been expensive. Only members of the royal family and the wealthiest commoners could afford them back in the history.

Midway through my exploration of Okinawa’s culture, I took a break to witness an annual festival with an equally long history: Naha’s hari. The main event was an afternoon of dragon boat races, very much like those seen in Hong Kong. Unlike those other races, the ones in Naha’s harbor featured many teams made up of members of the US military which still maintains a huge presence on the main island. Along the harbour front, there were all the usual things you would expect to find at a local festival: performers on stages, games for the kids, and plenty of carnival-type food.

Of all the possible explanations for Okinawans’ longevity, none has received as much attention as their eating habits. Traditionally, Okinawans have consumed far less rice than on the mainland and much larger quantities of green and yellow vegetables. Okinawans also eat significantly more pork than the average Japanese citizen, and one of the most popular ways to consume it is soki soba: a big slice of cooked pork on top of a bowl of noodles made with wheat.

My investigation of the old side of Okinawa was a mixed success: maybe I was no closer to the secret of the Okinawans’ longevity, but I returned home rested, relaxed, full of good food, and not the least bit concerned about the fact that I was 10 days older than when I’d left.

Text and Photos by Peter Weld
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