Find out why this rural village in Japan has such a high population of elderly citizens (and hope you are as happy and healthy as these folks are in your old age!)

On 23 April, 1993, a public declaration was made in the small village of Ogimi, in northern Okinawa. The framed statement is hung on the wall of a roadside café. It reads:

At 80 years old, I am still a child. When I come to see you at 90, send me away to wait till I’m 100.

Let us keep going strong as we get older, and not depend too much on our children in old age.

Come to our village in your old age, and we will provide the blessings of nature and teach you the secrets of longevity.

We, the senior citizens of Ogimi, proudly declare this the longest lived village in Japan.

At the time, Ogimi was home to six people over 100 years old – the largest number of centenarians per capita in Japan. Not bad for a village with a population of just over 3,000. There are nine centenarians living in Ogimi now; the eldest is 107 years old.

Theories abound as to why Ogimi residents enjoy such long lives. It could be the climate, some say. As Japan’s southernmost prefecture, Okinawa is subtropical, with temperatures rarely falling below 15°C in winter. Throughout the year, Okinawa enjoys average daily temperatures up to 10°C higher than mainland Japan, and humidity rarely drops below 43%.

The climate encourages outdoor activity. Exercise is part of everyday life, and many Ogimi villagers work on farms until well into old age. Food is fresh, with villagers growing their own vegetables and fishing for seafood. While meat consumption is high, it is supplied locally. Processed foods are generally not part of the diet.

A relaxed vibe is evident throughout Okinawa. Ogimi Village architecture is mainly single-storey and a few double-storey homes on quarter-acre blocks separated by forest and farmland, with a pretty stretch of coast alongside. The residents’ choice of clothes is a kind of island uniform – men and women, old and young, tend to wear lightweight shirts with tropical prints, loose pants and sandals. Men often top off their outfits with Panama-style hats; women wear floral headscarves.

But the best way to learn why life is so good here is to ask the people of Ogimi themselves. We met five villagers who live life to the full.

Sayo loves singing and says it helps ward off senility. Photo credit: Neil Smith
Sayo loves singing and says it helps ward off senility. Photo credit: Neil Smith; neilstuartsmith.com

The singer: Sayo Miyagi, 99

Sayo turns 100 next year. She is a tiny, polite woman who welcomes us happily into her home. She lives alone – after raising eight children, she deserves the break. During her working life, Sayo worked on a farm and in a pineapple factory in Ogimi Village. The factory closed 25 years ago, and she worked there until production stopped, when she went to work in another pineapple factory in Higashi Village.

When asked for her secret to a long and happy life, she says:

“Don’t rely on other people – do everything yourself.”

Most of her children have moved away – five live in Naha, one lives in Nara, one is in Tokyo, and a son lives in the same village but in a different community.

“I don’t want to trouble my children,” she says, telling us that her biggest fear about growing old is becoming senile. “To prevent this I do things with my hands, such as craftwork, and keep my brain active.”

When asked how she exercises her mind, Sayo replies that she sings. She stands and retrieves an old songbook from a shelf. In a quiet but confident voice, she traces lines of musical notes with her fingers and sings us a beautiful Okinawan folk song, completely in tune.

The food and craft lover: Misako Miyagi, 84

Still young by Ogimi standards, at 84 Misako takes part in a community program for the elderly. Anyone 65 or older can join the Roujinkai (Ogimi Village Elderly Association), which provides activities such as craft, dancing and music lessons.

“I already know most members,” says Misako. “We went to the same junior school together.”

Misako Miyagi in her home. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Misako Miyagi in her home. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

Misako lives alone in the same single-storey home she has occupied for the past 45 years, adjacent to an empty plot where she picks wild, bitter-green salad leaves called nigana, which she tosses with silken tofu and sesame dressing. Also on her table: nmukuji (sweet potato fritters), mooi dofu (jellied tuna flakes in bonito stock, seaweed and carrot), goya champuru (stir-fried bitter melon with tofu) and satoimo (taro root).

“People don’t buy vegetables, we grow them,” she says. “The key to long life is to be self-sufficient.”

It is common for elderly women in Ogimi to live alone. Sadly, Misako’s husband died when she was just 36, and she raised four children on her own, by selling insurance during the day and souvenirs in a hotel gift shop at night.

Her eldest child left home 40 years ago, but this is not a lonely house. It’s decorated with paintings, photographs from her travels, a shrine to her husband and crafts she has made at the community centre – calligraphy, pinwheels and paper flowers.

Misako smiles when our translator says a handmade Christmas wreath “looks like a bought one”. She shows us a more prized possession – a drawing by her grandson, which says: “Grandma, please live long.”

Mistake picks wild greens fora salad from the vacant lot next door. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Mistake picks wild greens fora salad from the vacant lot next door. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

The head of the family: Hana Miyagi, 91

Everyone we’ve met thus far in Ogimi has the surname Miyagi. When we meet Hana, we joke that perhaps it’s being called Miyagi – rather than the food and climate – that makes Ogimi’s villagers enjoy a long life.

She laughs. “Half the community is called Miyagi,” she says. “But we’re not all related.”

Hana has invited us to share a family lunch to celebrate the autumnal equinox. We are seated on the south-east side of the house as it has the highest importance in feng shui.

Hana Miyagi. Photo credit: Neil Smith
Hana Miyagi shows demonstrates a traditional manicure with housenka. Photo credit: Neil Smith; neilstuartsmith.com

“I have 25 grandchildren,” she tells us as we sit around a table covered with dishes, “and I still remember all their names. But I can’t remember all of my 21 great-grandchildren’s names as their names are modern and unique.”

Hana has been cooking a feast all by herself since 5am. It includes mango kanten (glutinous mango cubes), hamamaachi (medicinal herb tea), shikuwasa (Okinawan lime cordial), kamaboko (fish cake), tebichi (pork feet), maguro (deep-fried tuna), rafute (pork belly) and yomogi mocha (mugwort and rice dumplings).

“There’s no doctor in this village, so we pick and eat mugwort straight off the plant,” she says. “It reduces fever, and works for every ailment.”

When she was young, Hana says they soaked crushed hibiscus leaves in water to create shampoo. She then shows us a traditional manicure method – wrapping housenka (garden balsam) leaves around her fingers to stain her nails bright orange. She sings us a folk song about it, “Thinsa gu no hana” (Flower of Housenka):

Flower of Housenka stained on the nails
Lessons of parents surge through our minds
We can count stars but the lessons of our parents are innumerable

Ships sailing on the ocean at night
Are looked over by the polar star
Just like we are warmly watched over by our parents

The jewellery will rust unless we polish it
So let’s remind ourselves to improve our personality every morning and evening
Honest people will make their dream come true and prosper forever
Everything will materialise if you try hard
But it won’t if you don’t

If you can’t do something by yourself you can ask for help


If something good happens to you don’t be too happy
And if you lose something important to you don’t be too sad
Because you’ll see that it turns out to be good or bad later on
Especially when you have everything you need

You must not forget to be modest
The bough that bears most hangs lowest

Listen seriously to what elderly people say
In the morning and the evening
You should not take it lightly
As ravings of those who do not have long to live.

The artisan: Toshiko Taira, 94

One of the most beautiful handcrafts in Okinawa dates back to the 15th Century, during the Ryukyu kingdom. Bashofu is an organic-dyed textile created from ito-basho (Ryukyu banana plant fibre), which is used to make fabric for casual and formal wear, including obi and kimonos.

The Kijoka Bashofu Trade Association is a family-run factory, where textiles are created entirely from scratch, using local plants for fibre and dyes, and wooden looms for weaving. The factory is quiet, with everyone intently works on producing fine-quality fabric.

Toshiko Taira in the dying room. Photo credit: Neil Smith
Toshiko Taira in the dying room. Photo credit: Neil Smith; neilstuartsmith.com

A true artisan, the Miyagi family’s grandma Toshiko still works here every day. She threads yarn by hand and mixes the dyes, which are stirred then left to rest in large earthenware pots in a dark laundry room.

We’re told the secret ingredient in the dye is awamori, a local spirit made from rice.

“Indigo is the most difficult colour to create,” Toshiko’s granddaughter tells us as her grandmother stirs dark, bubbly liquid in a pot. “She can tell just by the smell whether the colour is correct.”

The athlete: Chosei Hentona, 92

Even in a location full of inspiring oldies, Chosei is a bit of a legend in Ogimi Village. We hear from a few different people about this incredible old man who is so fit in his old age that he can walk on his hands. Phone calls are made and we meet Chosei in a park.

Chosei loves a laugh. Photo credit: Neil Smith
Chosei loves a laugh. Photo credit: Neil Smith; neilstuartsmith.com

He may be missing a few teeth but Chosei’s sense of humour is intact. When we ask his secret for a long life, he laughs and says:

“If you don’t die, you will live long”

He happily performs a few push-ups for us, and laughs a lot, before cutting our interview short.

“I do not want to miss the sumo tournament on TV,” he shrugs as he waves us away.

Chosei performs a push-up. It's said that he can do these one-handed when he has had a bit to drink. Photo credit: Neil Smith
Chosei performs a push-up. It’s said that he can do these one-handed when he has had a bit to drink. Photo credit: Neil Smith; neilstuartsmith.com

Do it yourself

• To find out more about Okinawa, visit en.okinawastory.jp

• Travellers can book a home visit with an elderly Ogimi resident through travel agent Jumbo Tours Okinawa. Plan at least 2–3 weeks in advance. Tel: +81 050 5530.

NOTE: This story originally appeared in Jetstar Australia’s inflight magazine. It has been extended to include an English translation of the folk song “Flower of Housenka”

Let's end on a terrible photo of me but a great one of Sayo, who was just beautiful. Foreshortening credit: Neil Smith
Let’s end on a terrible photo of me but a great one of Sayo, who was just beautiful. Foreshortening credit: Neil Smith; neilstuartsmith.com