This is something we’ve talked about for over a year now. But talk is cheap, and actions speak louder than words. We are now actually doing it!
We are now one week into our Blue Zones-inspired “Lifelong Journey” where, over the next year, we will be visiting the five “Blue Zones” identified by National Geographic Explorer Dan Buettner in his 2008 book:
So long to Singapore
We’ve spent the past six years living in Singapore, where we lived for the primary purpose of putting our two sons through high school. That season of life is now complete, and we are shifting gears to being “empty nesters”. To mark this big life event we have chosen to put most of our belongings into storage and embark on this adventure together. This will be our new shared purpose, something we want to have, as the joint purpose we’ve had for the past 20+ years (i.e., raising our children) is now, for the most part, complete.
Our first stop is to the Japanese island of Okinawa. A year ago, I’m not sure I could have pointed out Okinawa on a map. I knew it was somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, had something to do with World War II, and that it hosts some sort of US military presence.
Okinawa is fairly remote, and almost closer geographically to China than to Japan. For centuries, this chain of 150+ islands used to be its own distinct kingdom. Then they were dominated by the Chinese, then Japan, then, after the War, the US. Since 1972, Okinawa has been back under Japanese control (except that the US continues to have an imposing Navy base on the island).
Sweet potatoes and greens
For our first week here we’ve rented a cottage in the village of Chinen, on the southeast side of the island. We are about a 5 minute walk from the sea but, on this side of the island, the sea is nicer to look at that to swim in because of the shallow coral and limestone. So we are focusing on walks around the town and small farming valleys, noting what grows here, and then buying and cooking what is sold in the shops. Lots of sweet potatoes, a staple in the local diet, mushrooms, bitter gourds, plus plenty of salad and greens (including mugwort – more on that below).
Mr. Nagayoshi comes to visit
Our Airbnb host sent me an email to say that there was an elderly neighbor who spoke English, and he believed that Mr. Nagayoshi would be happy to meet us. We found the house and knocked on the door one afternoon to say hello. Mr. Nagayoshi (80 years old) was indeed very happy to meet and get a chance to use his English – he said that, in spite of reading and listening to English often, he hadn’t actually spoken English in years. That likely explained why he looked a bit bewildered during our initial encounter. We invited him to visit us the next day for a cup of tea, and he happily agreed.
Mr. Nagayoshi knocked on our door the next day. He had brought his camera and a few photo albums along to show us his photo collection of birds and insects. Photography is his hobby, one he took up since retiring at the age of 60. Having hobbies is an important part of living a full life, especially in old age.
Mr. Nagayoshi attended the University of Hawaii in the 1960s as part of a scholarship program which sent young Okinawans to the US to study. He returned to Okinawa, and then had a long career teaching high school English, until retiring 20 years ago. He remembers the War as a young child, although he said that the main battles were fought on the other side of the island (only about 10-20 miles away), so he didn’t suffer or have any bad memories. That’s incredible, because the Battle of Okinawa marked one the greatest losses of life on both sides in the Pacific theater, over 170,000 casualties. (“Hacksaw Ridge” is in Okinawa.)
I asked Mr. Nagayoshi if he knew that Okinawa was famous for people living long lives. He hadn’t heard that. We spoke about things like community and diet, each of which appear to play roles in the longevity of people in all of the “Blue Zones”, but I couldn’t get anything out of him which seemed to be the “secret sauce”. He’s just lived a simple life in this relative simple environment, with no real intention of necessarily living to 100.
And that was the key takeaway from our conversation – he just lives. It’s a key takeaway from the “Blue Zones” book as well. People are born into an environment which, for historical reasons (or simply luck), sets them up well to live a long life.
Famous Okinawan Mugwort
In his book, Buettner writes about mugwort in Okinawa. Mugwort is plant which grows somewhat like a weed, but it is a part of the diet here and revered by some (throughout many parts of Asia in fact) for its medicinal properties. Russians have used it as medicinal herb for years where it’s even sold in pharmacies. Mr. Nagayoshi didn’t seem to know much about mugwort (he thought of it as a weed), but funnily enough it was one of the first things we saw when we walked into the local grocery store.
We had also read in the book about a centenarian woman in Okinawa who swore that the secret to her long life was drinking a cup of mugwort sake every day. We tried to ask in the shop for mugwort sake, before realizing that in all likelihood it’s a homemade brew. So we instead bought some sake and made our own version of mugwort sake. When in Rome…
Meeting Mr. Nagayoshi and our hands-on experience with mugwort have been highlights of our stay in Chinen. We are heading to the northwest part of the island on Monday, about 3 hours away by local bus, where we’ll be staying on a goat farm. Next post with the goats!