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Okinawa: secrets for a long and happy life

Japan’s sunny southern islands see a remarkable number of 100th birthdays – the scientists have their theories as to why, but we’ve travelled to research our own list of top Okinawan lifestyle tips
Mrs Toyo Kajigu in her house on the island of Taketomi; tatami mat floors often denote the ‘best room’ in a Japanese house. OPPOSITE Shisa (‘lion-dog’) statues are an integral part of Okinawan culture
PHOTOGRAPHS MATT MUNRO

@RGouldingTravel

Kabira Bay, renowned for its white sands and turquoise waters, forms part of the Iriomote-Ishigaki National Park

Mrs Kajigu used to get up at 5am. Now that she is 104, she allows herself a lie-in, except for the two days a week when she rises early for the shuttle bus that circuits the small island of Taketomi, bringing together the older members of the community. Japan has the world’s highest share of centenarians, but in the southern islands of Okinawa, people live long even by Japanese standards.

Sitting in her spacious tiled-roof house, with carved wooden ‘angama’ masks on the walls, Mrs Kajigu proffers a tray of sweet-potato cakes, and downplays the significance of her age. ‘In Okinawa, 97 is when we traditionally have a big party,’ she says. ‘For my 100th birthday, I just celebrated with my family.’

The main island of Okinawa lies 1,000 miles southwest of Tokyo; the Yaeyama group, to which Taketomi belongs, is another 240 miles towards Taiwan. Taketomi is just one corner of this subtropical archipelago, which has health researchers poring over their data. It’s clear talking to Mrs Kajigu that the key to long life is not a one-size-fits-all approach: ‘I eat anything,’ she says. ‘When I get together with friends, I do karaoke, even though my voice isn’t what it used to be.’ An island-hopping tour around Okinawa is a chance to pick up small clues about what goes into this famously healthy lifestyle.

Bring sunshine into your life

Getting enough vitamin D is rarely a problem in Okinawa. Just one degree north of the tropics, the Yaeyama group is especially blessed with sun. On the island of Ishigaki, Taketomi’s larger neighbour, fields of sugarcane chequer the flat land between the jungle-cloaked mountains and the coral-fringed shore. The light has the kind of brilliance that sends painters rushing to their easels. What’s good for the banana plants and mango trees is also a charm – taken in moderate doses – for the 49,000 people of Ishigaki.

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