Does Age Even Matter?

At the beginning of this week we earned freedom from our two weeks of “indentured volunteerism” at the Kiyuna Dairy Farm. There, we had learned a lot about not only Okinawan culture from spending so much time with a local family, but we also learned much about ourselves and life purpose (‘ikigai” in Japanese) and core values that drive us. In the second week I also had a big insight as to how living and working in an enviornment with virtually no fear left me free fo really BE more of myself, a great feeling and one which I have taken with me as we’ve moved on from living on the Farm. I posted a video on LinkedIn last week on this.

But now that our days are no longer pre-planned for us, it’s been up to us to create what we want to create for ourselves on this Blue Zones-inspired Journey. Personal responsibility has to kick in when you’re not being told what to do!

A key part of this Journey we are on is to experience, and, to the extent possible, understand what it is that drives longevity in these places. We have no intention of making this Journey a scientific expedition, but do want to be intentional about looking for opportunities to interact with people “of age”. So this week we set out to spend some time in two locations which are known pockets of longevity on Okinawa.

Ogimi, our first destination, is the self-proclaimed “Village of Longevity”, located on Okinawa’s west coast. To be fair, the village does get several mentions in the “Blue Zones” book which inspired our Journey.

Ogimi is quite small (only about 100 residents in the main village, but about 3,000 in the surrounding villages) so accommodation isn’t exactly on every corner. Our farm host helped organize a home stay with an elderly yet quite active couple who run a guest house on the main road right in front of the ocean. Great views of the beautiful sea, even if the house was a bit chaotic in terms of family members coming and going and rather messy state. But what better way to actually experience house people “of age” in this small village actually live.

We borrowed bicycles from our host Morio (he’s 83 and his wife is in her mid-70s) and each day rode around to the local villages. Interestingly, one gets the feel there are just as many tombs in the area as there are houses. The tombs are, in fact, mini-houses for the departed and, mathematically speaking, it makes sense that over time there will be more tombs on the island than houses for the living. Okinawan culture practices a form of ancestor worship whereby the deceased’s remains are place in a tomb, with sufficient space in front of the tomb for family members to come and visit, sit, eat, sing, etc. annually. Respect for previous generations is a big deal here.

They live long lives but, like the rest of us, they die too.

After three nights in Ogimi, and just before leaving our home-stay, I asked our host if he could introduce me to anyone who was 100 years old. He said “yes, there’s one lady nearby and if we go now we might find her.”  So I grabbed my phone and we began to almost run, led by Morio, to the small road behind the house.

We found her just around the corner, having just left her house to head out on her bicycle (tricyle actually, but the back wheels were pretty close together), which she apparently rides every day. She’s also into gardening, another well-documented Blue Zone secret.

I tried as best I could, with the limited help of Morio as my “translator”, to ask her what she believed was her secret to longevity. The message I got from her was “Ogimi – it is because I live here.” As simple as that sounds, the environment and culture here seems to be set up to promote life – at any age. It’s not about joining a gym or choosing the low-calorie salad dressing for lunch!

In Ogimi, best as I can tell, it’s work in the garden, an abundance of healthy greens, eaten and considered a “normal” part of the diet, and community. We watched our host playing a game which resembled croquet each evening with friends on the town ball field, and ladies practicing a local dance in the community center (looked like mindfulness training to me!). Morio’s four children all live in Okinawa and visit him “every day”.  From a diet perspective, while they do eat a fair amount of greens and tofu, these folks are pretty far from being vegans. Eggs are a big part of the diet, as is of course fish, plus I noted SPAM being cooked up for breakfast every morning.

Morio’s daily omelet, sausage and SPAM

After saying goodbye to Morio and his wife Yetza, we moved on to another seaside town, Motobu. Motobu is famous for hosting one of the largest aquariums in the region and we played tourists for one afternoon and paid a visit. Impressive whale sharks swimming in circles in a large tank – but a bit sad at the same time.

After playing tourists we went in search of local food, specifically local soba noodles, and we found a gem.  Two gems to be exact. These two ladies (I didn’t ask their ages) together run a local soba noodle shop in central Motobu. It was so wonderful to see these two ladies working so well together and obviously enjoying what they do – this must be their ikigai.

So with these experiences I’m getting the feeling that, as a society here in Okinawa, old age doesn’t come with any sort of negative spin, as I feel it often is in the West (just think about how many “anti-aging” creams and potions are out there). It’s as if society here is agnostic towards age.

While it is nice for elders to be respected (and even in the West elders are respected), age here doesn’t seem to be a separator. There is not even that much of a “big deal” made about people who hit 100. And this comes back, I believe, to a lesson learned in our first week here. Our elderly neighbor, Mr. Nagayoshi, was unaware of Okinawa being famous for longevity and he had no clear intention or goal of living to at particular age. He just lives.

So that’s the ironic takeaway from the past week spent in Ogimi and Motobu – age is irrelevant.

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