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March 26, 2017, Japan

Recipe for a long and healthy life

In Okinawa, people live to a ripe old age, which can be attributed to a balanced diet of superfoods

Meredith Woo

SINGING and dancing grandmothers— with an average age of 84—make up the members of Japan’s sellout pop idol oldies band, KBG84.

In Okinawa, where they are from, it is common to see many independent and sprightly elderly folk.

Using women as a gauge, people from this Japanese prefecture have an average life expectancy of 87.02 years, a figure that surpasses the country’s national average of 86.83 and Singapore’s 84.90, according to statistics from Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare.

Their secret to longevity? A pleasant climate coupled with a healthy diet and positive outlook, according to bestseller The Okinawa Program, a book based on a scientifically documented study of the islands’ centenarians.

Every day, the sun smiles upon this subtropical chain of 160 islands, while the surrounding East China Sea and occasional typhoon nourish the land with mineral-rich sea water. Even during winter months, the temperature remains a comfortable 17 to 20 deg C — ensuring Okinawans enjoy an abundance of crops and fish all year round.

The islanders are also easygoing and optimistic by nature, which reduces stress. They love engaging in performing arts, and live by the mantra of “nankuru naisaa”, or “everything will be all right”.

Multi-faceted history

Okinawa was not always part of Japan.

Before 1879, the group of islands used to be an independent kingdom ruled by the Ryukyu dynasty for 450 years. At one point, it saw many Chinese moving to the islands to serve the government or engage in business.

It also traded actively with Asian countries such as China, Korea and other South-east Asian nations.

After World War II in 1945, Okinawa was occupied by the United States for about 27 years.

Remnants of Okinawa’s rich history and the influence of China and the US can be seen in its culture, buildings and shopping enclaves.

First-time visitors to the prefecture should visit Shuri Castle, which features architectural influences from both China and Japan. This Unesco World Heritage Site, draped in striking red, was the Ryukyu king’s palace.

Taco Rice, a popular dish, is a result of the longstanding US military presence on the island. It comprises ground beef on a bed of rice (instead of a taco shell), topped with shredded cheese, lettuce, tomato and salsa.

Spend a day at Mihama American Village in Chatan town. The major shopping area has international retail stores, restaurants and eateries.

It also boasts a huge Ferris wheel, movie theatre and bustling nightlife.

Savour these superfoods

Keeping the king healthy was a preoccupation of his loyal Ryukyu subjects.

Cooks travelled to China to learn more about the herbal medicine cuisine of the royal court.

This style of cooking, or yakuzen, aims to rebalance the body’s qi, blood and body fluids.

Blessed with ample sunshine and enriched soil, much of Okinawa’s produce is rich in nutrients, and known as superfoods.

MsYukie Miyaguni, head of the Yakuzen Ryuka Cooking School in Okinawa, says: “The medicinal knowledge and the cooking methods learnt from the Chinese court, combined with the superfoods of Okinawa, contribute to the longevity of its people.” 

As Singapore is hot year-round, people here are more prone to water retention, she notes.

“When our body is very ‘heaty’, bitter herbs and vegetables help us detox,” she adds.

However, to protect the body and stomach against this “cooling” effect, “warm” foods such as miso and brown sugar help to create harmony for the body.

Seasoning is also kept to a minimum.

Condiments are typically salt and miso, with bonito flakes and kombu (kelp) used for broth.

Some superfoods, which are a staple here:

- Goya (bitter gourd)

Ms Miyaguni has a favourite Okinawan superfood — the goya, or bitter gourd.

High in vitamin C, its bitter flavour comes from morodicine, which is said to strengthen the stomach, increase appetite and contribute to lowered blood sugar levels.

The knobbly plant is best known for its use in Goya Champuru, a stir-fry of bitter gourd with tofu and eggs, which helps to alleviate its bitterness. Sliced pork can also be added.

Goya reduces heat within the body and is beneficial for relieving eye fatigue. It also has a calming effect, she adds.

- Beni-imo (purple potato) 

This Okinawan staple is a powerhouse of vitamins, minerals and dietary fibre.

Its vibrant colour comes from anthocyanins, which may offer anti-inflammatory and anti-ageing benefits, in addition to acting as antioxidants.

The root is also very versatile. Naturally sweet, it features in various desserts such as ice cream, tart toppings, chocolate and even flavoured lattes.

- Kokuto (brown sugar)

Okinawa’s famed brown sugar is rich in calcium, potassium, iron, vitamins B1 and B2, and essential amino acids.

In particular, potassium supports the excretion of excess sodium in the body and balances blood pressure.

Kokuto, which has a mellow yet complex sweetness, is made by slowly cooking down pure sugarcane juice.

It is also one of the ingredients in the ubiquitous Okinawan souvenir, chinsuko, a traditional confection that was once served only to royalty.

- Aguu pork

Pork is an integral part of Okinawan cuisine, where every part of the pig is eaten.

Pork from the native Aguu pig is rich in vitamin B1, collagen and protein. It is also leaner, lower in cholesterol and rich in glutamic acid, which gives the meat a full-bodied flavour.

- Mozuku seaweed

Mozuku seaweed is naturally found in many parts of Japan, but the type cultivated only in Okinawa’s waters is thicker than the variety found in other parts of the country.

Its surface is rich in fucoidan, said to strengthen the immune system, balance intestinal health and is anti-bacterial. It also contains dietary fibre, calcium and magnesium.

- Turmeric

The turmeric in Okinawa changes with the seasons. In autumn, the rhizome is a bright orange colour and rich in curcuminoid that aids liver function.

Before drinking alcohol, Okinawans consume some turmeric, which they say can prevent a hangover.

- Salt

The salt harvested from Okinawa sea water is rich in potassium and magnesium yet lower in sodium, as compared to table salt and rock salt.

Okinawa is considered to be one of the regions in Japan with the lowest sodium intake, and this could be why its inhabitants live so long.

Fun-filled activities

The best time to head to Okinawa for summer activities is from May to September; cherry blossom season starts at the end of January and lasts for about a week or two.

Marvel at the trio of whale sharks at Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, or go island hopping to some of the world’s most picturesque diving spots against a backdrop of coral reefs in the pristine waters.

In early October, partake in the Naha Great Tug-of-War. The sports event involves thousands of participants who grab a 200m-long rope that weighs 43 tonnes. This 17thcentury custom is performed to bring prosperity and good health to the people.

Walk on stars at Hoshizuna no Hama — literally Star Sand Beach in Japanese — on Iriomote island. The tiny stars underfoot are actually the exoskeletons of minuscule creatures that live at the bottom of the sea.

Fly direct to Okinawa

Okinawa is nearer to Taipei, Taiwan, than it is to Japan’s capital, Tokyo. To get there from Singapore, you can transit at either Taipei or Hong Kong to get to Okinawa’s Naha Airport.

There are currently no direct flights to this Japanese island, but Okinawa Prefectural Government has again partnered nine travel agencies here to offer direct charter flights to Okinawa via SilkAir in May and June, getting you there in a comfortable five hours by plane.

Choose from guided tour packages or opt to go free-and-easy.

Departure dates: May 27 and 31 June 4, 8, 12, 16 and 20

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