Looking over Naha from Shuri Castle. Photo: Chris Ashton
Looking over Naha from Shuri Castle. Photo: Chris Ashton

Okinawa has it all. Untouched natural beauty, mouth-watering cuisine and a fascinating history spanning hundreds of years, but all of that would mean nothing if it wasn't for the Okinawans themselves. Their passion, resourcefulness and willingness to adapt are what shaped the region into what it is today.

I had the pleasure to meet some of the locals on a recent trip and, although it sounds cliché, I honestly mean it when I say I'll never be the same. Their stories were so inspiring, so heartfelt that you can't help but be swept into their world.

Join me as I learn what makes Okinawa tick from the inside out.

Leaving Naha City, capital of Okinawa, we ventured to the north to an area known as Ogimi Village. My guide Asa explained Ogimi Village has the highest average life expectancy in Okinawa. Whether a result of the local diet, the lifestyle, or simply good genetics; I was curious to learn why this was so.

Bashofu Textiles

First stop was Bashofu Textiles, a small business producing elaborate fabrics from fibrous banana trees. Maiko Taira, the English speaking manager of the cooperative, gave me a brief guided tour of the factory and explained the process of turning banana trees into soft yet hard-wearing material.

A kimono made from fibrous banana trees. Photo: Chris Ashton

I soon learned it wasn't a simple process, with just one kimono taking more than three to six months to produce. The raw banana stalks are peeled into strips, stretched, dried, knotted, dyed, soaked in ash and dyed again… its very time consuming. The local women working in the factory still utilise the same centuries-old techniques to produce the fabric, with no time-saving machinery in sight. The knotting of the thread is labour intensive, with 22,000 knots required for just one kimono. It gives the product a distinctly home-grown quality, and you can understand why it's so highly prized.

Local women peeling the banana stalks into strips. Photo: Chris Ashton

The extent to which the local villagers were involved also really surprised me - everyone seems to have a connection to the production in some way. Many elderly villagers take some of the raw material home to knot. Incredibly intricate, it keeps their motor skills finely tuned and also provides them with an income in their retirement.

Toshiko Taira, a master weaver and "National Living Treasure". Photo: Chris Ashton

The passion that Maiko had for the product was inspiring. Not only is it providing employment for the villagers, but it's also helping to keep ancient traditions alive.

Emi no Mise

Our next port of call in Ogimi Village was Emi no Mise, a local restaurant serving old-fashioned home-style cooking and freshly harvested vegetables from their own garden. We arrived a little early, so I took some time to explore the surrounding village. This small deviation turned out to be a trip highlight.

Wandering through the towns labyrinthine streets, I came across an elderly man tending his small vegetable garden. 86 years old, he had just returned from a two week stay in hospital. He told me the whole time he had been in recovery he couldn't wait to return to his fertile plot. His pak choy had started going to seed, and he needed to prepare the soil for the next planting. Though a small part of his day, it gave him a reason to recover - the garden needed him, but he needed it more.

Just around the corner, a woman was piling vegetables into the tray of her bicycle. Younger than the man we’d just spoken to, at only 81 years of age, she delighted in telling us about her garden. When quizzed about what she was growing, her face lit up with a look of childlike excitement. Tomatoes, onions, broccoli, cauliflower... she was growing a feast for her family. Though she now lived on her own, she grew vegetables so that she could provide for her family living in a neighbouring village.

An elderly woman we spotted working in her garden. Photo: Chris Ashton

I was now starting to get an understanding for why the local people were living such long and fulfilled lives. They were keeping themselves active. Whether growing their own vegetables or knotting banana fibres into thread at Bashofu Textiles, the people were spending their days doing something meaningful, something that required their brains to stay healthy and active. Could this be their fountain of youth?

As I returned to Emi no Mise, I was introduced to the namesake restaurateur - Emi. Joining her on a tour of her garden, she gave me an insight into why she started her restaurant and what skills she hopes to pass on to the next generation.

Emi gathering vegetables for lunch. Photo: Chris Ashton

A former nutritionist, Emi wants to pass on the importance in having a connection to food, to grow what you eat and know the benefits of each particular vegetable. She combines foods to create a balanced meal, which provides high nutritional benefits and works in harmony to improve your wellbeing.

Your mindset plays an important part in your health, not just what you eat. Taking care of their gardens is such an important part of the lives of the locals. The local people are always with their fields. Even if they're too old to walk, they still find a way to get into their garden.

The Longevity Meal at Emi's Restaurant. Photo: Chris Ashton

Emi strongly believes this lifestyle is very good for your health, but she doesn't want to force it upon people because they live different lives. Some people do yoga, some people the dance… the key thing though is that they are doing something and stimulating their mind.

It's never too late to start. An active body is the key to a healthy mind.

After our tour of the garden, we went inside to enjoy a delicious lunch at Emi's Restaurant. I chose the Longevity Meal, which featured a stunning selection of dishes such as golden noodles with shiikwasaa, a sweet potato dumping, tempura with shrimp and fennel, and a salad with chopped nigana and tofu. The meal was rich in flavour, with each of the 14 dishes complementing each other perfectly. Though 14 dishes sounds like a lot, I left the restaurant feeling satisfied not uncomfortably full.

The writer travelled as a guest of Okinawa Convention & Visitors Bureau and JAL

All images taken with a Nikon D5200

If You Go

Find out more about Okinawa:
Okinawa Convention & Visitors Bureau

Getting There:
Japan Airlines operate daily flights between Sydney and Okinawa via Tokyo.

Bashofu Textiles
Address: 1103 Kijoka, Ogimi Village. Tel: 09-8044-3202

Emi's Restaurant
Address: 61 Aza Oganeku, Ogimi Village. Tel: 0980-44-3220
Opening Hours: 11:30 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. Closed: Closed on Mondays and Tuesdays

About Chris Ashton

Chris Ashton is a curious traveller always on the lookout for the new, bizarre and unusual. A fan of exploring ancient ruins, diving with sharks and getting lost in city streets, he believes travel expands your horizons and helps shape the person you want to become.

Twitter: @chrisjashton
Instagram: chrisjashton
Website: http://christopherashton.net/
Google Plus: Google

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