No. 16: Taketomi Island, Japan

I soak up longevity lessons from active, elderly locals in the famed Blue Zone

6 Secrets of A Long Life from Taketomi Island 

The fabled fountain of youth so many seek may not exist—or maybe it’s dried up thanks to climate change. But I can testify firsthand, those seeking to live well and long can find major inspiration on islands and in corners of the world dubbed Blue Zones. And it’s safe to say these have nothing to do with Botox or fad diets. There are five geographical longevity hotspots with a high incidence of centenarians and low rate of chronic disease: Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; Loma Linda, California; and Okinawa, Japan. 

Fascinated with this concept and curious to understand the genesis, I made a point to visit the latter’s tiny Taketomi Island, one of the most traditional of the prefecture’s isles, on a recent trip to Japan. Okinawa is actually closer to Taiwan than mainland Japan, and on Taketomi there are less than 350 locals, around two dozen cars, one small ferry port and zero police, not even locks on doors. Forget coffee shops or yoga studios. Decidedly raw, it’s alive with flowering hibiscus, flitting butterflies and even a beach with star-shaped sand (the latter is such a wonder!). Stress seems a foreign concept on this laid-back paradise.

Here, life hasn’t changed all that much in the last couple hundred years. There’s electricity, but they could do without it, and cell phones and WiFi, but again, they don’t seem critical. Instead, structures are still built to the same enduring standards they always have been, down to the ubiquitous red roof–topping shisa, a protective toothy lion believed to ward off evil spirits. It’s this way at the single hotel, too, Hoshinoya Taketomi Island, which honors tradition with classical architecture, undulating coral walls and white sand lanes. 

On Taketomi, natives don’t follow Shintoism or Buddhism; they march to the beat of their own drum—a form of animism imbued with familiar aspects of many other beliefs. It’s just one of many ways their lifestyles stray. I watched, listened, and questioned anyone I could to learn why locals are so vibrant at such advanced ages, and came up with a few ideas, below, as to what they’re doing so incredibly right. 

Working with their hands.

I spent my first morning at Hoshinoya with Shosuke Matsutake, whose shock of thick white hair and knobby yet powerful hands, flip-flops and Levi Strauss trucker hat belied his age: 91. The agility and flexibility with which he moved while teaching my mother and me to tightly weave a mat from shell ginger rope would have been impressive for any middle-aged American man. He squatted, cutting dried reeds with a razor blade, for more than 10 minutes, which even my quite healthy 36-year-old knees cannot handle. Shosuke actually invented this method of weaving while working on a rice farm when he was just 20 as means to store food, eventually moving onto pillows and bags. In observing island life I realized handiwork gets the utmost respect (women still weave a specifically patterned minsa belt as their answer to a marriage proposal), and that every person’s livelihood involves some kind of physical activity, not backbreaking, simply active. How could that not improve lifespan? 

Not working toward retirement.

This might be the biggest thing I observed—on Taketomi there’s no such thing as working to a certain age and then sailing off into the sunset aboard a cruise ship, or plodding away in anticipation of that moment when you can finally forget it all and live out your days on a golf course. Here, everyone works, and they work until they expire, so to speak. But it doesn’t rule their lives. They’re not working to get rich, or to reach some magic age when their brain no longer needs to be sharp, and I can’t help but think this difference in intention is massively relevant to their healthy minds and bodies. 

Eating only the freshest food, ideally as they pick or gather it. 

When I asked him why he felt his fellow islanders lived to such ripe ages, Shosuke told me he thinks it’s the food they eat. Seaweed is his favorite (a superfood, it’s stuffed with protein, vitamins, minerals and fiber) and a significant part of the Okinawan diet, eaten fresh in March and April and pickled for the remaining months. Furthermore, refrigeration was not commonly used until recently (there’s no supermarket to be found on Taketomi), meaning most elements were picked, foraged or caught fresh—all local. “When we were farming we eat little pieces of the plant as we go,” said Shosuke. Forget farm to table, it’s farm to mouth on Taketomi!  

Maintaining order, but in a mellow way.

As I plodded along in the long cart pulled by a shockingly large buffalo one morning on a village tour I noticed an islander in gloves, a towel turban and earbuds sweeping the white sand road with a homemade broom. Another day I saw old men leisurely clearing bundles of branches over their shoulders. Nitta-Kankou, the 75-year-old buffalo cart driver, told me each islander must clean his or her home and property every single day; inspections are on Saturdays, and punishment is meted out by announcing whose homes were not up to snuff. Along with keeping clean, their daily ritual approach ensures there’s no stress, only a regular flow of movement. 

Replacing medicine and chemicals with garlic and herbs. 

Instead of taking medicine there are locally grown herbs used for every ailment, I’m told when questioning an 80-something weaver about Taketomi’s reputation. There’s no pharmacy or doctor, they believe the Earth holds cures in its flora—think shell ginger, rosemary, holy basil, lemongrass. Instead of relying on chemicals, everything’s natural, from the herbs flavoring miso soup to the plant dyes used to color fibers and paper for crafts (while they dry in the sun, I’m told, it’s customary to relax and enjoy the fresh air). Garlic is an extremely important and prevalent plant here, a key element in the major fall festival featuring singing and dancing for bountiful harvests, many children and gratitude to nature. 

Appreciating the simple things. 

Shosuke told me (through a translator) soon after meeting, “I’m very happy, I live perfect life.” His idea of perfection is living in a modest home with his wife, children and grandchildren, growing vegetables, and spending time outside making things with materials he gathers himself, smelling their sweet, woody aroma appreciatively as he goes. Two women played a spirited concert at Hoshinoya, harmonizing as one picked at an Okinawan guitar and the other clicked castanet-style wooden instruments, looking more genuinely joyous than I’ve ever seen anyone. I asked 34-year-old Taketomi native and schoolteacher Akira—with whom we cruised around the sea on an entirely handmade-in-cedar sabani boat, one of few still made the traditional analog way—his favorite thing about life here. Akira’s answer? “Freedom. As islanders we swim in the sea when we want, we pray when we want.” 

The allure of this lifestyle is strong. I felt its pull intensely while in Japan, and for weeks after. And now, considering the harsh new realities of an earth in pandemic, I’m especially conscious of the merits in adopting Okinawans’ beautiful naturalism, their uncomplicated satisfaction with life—as long as we’re so fortunate to have it.