LESSONS FROM JAPAN’S CENTENARIANS







VI
   

LESSONS FROM JAPAN’S CENTENARIANS

Traditions and proverbs for happiness and longevity




TO GET TO Ogimi, we had to fly nearly three hours from Tokyo to Naha, the capital of Okinawa. Several months earlier we had contacted the town council of a place known as the Village of Longevity to explain the purpose of our trip and our intention to interview the oldest members of the community. After numerous conversations, we finally got the help we were looking for and were able to rent a house just outside the town.

One year after starting this project, we found ourselves on the doorstep of some of the longest-living people in the world.

We realized right away that time seems to have stopped there, as though the entire town were living in an endless here and now.

Arriving in Ogimi

After two hours on the road from Naha, we’re finally able to stop worrying about the traffic. To our left are the sea and an empty stretch of beach; to our right, the mountainous jungle of Okinawa’s Yanbaru forests.

Once Route 58 passes Nago, where Orion beer—the pride of Okinawa—is made, it skirts the coast until it reaches Ogimi. Every now and then a few little houses and stores crop up in the narrow stretch of land between the road and the base of the mountain.

We pass small clusters of houses scattered here and there as we enter the municipality of Ogimi, but the town doesn’t really seem to have a center. Our GPS finally guides us to our destination: the Center for the Support and Promotion of Well-Being, housed in an unattractive cinderblock building right off the highway.

We go in through the back door, where a man named Taira is waiting for us. Beside him is a petite, cheerful woman who introduces herself as Yuki. Two other women immediately get up from desks and show us to a conference room. They serve us each a cup of green tea and a few shikuwasa, a small citrus fruit that packs a big nutritional punch, as we will see later on.

Taira sits down across from us in his formal suit and opens up a large planner and a three-ring binder. Yuki sits next to him. The binder contains a list of all the town’s residents, organized by age and “club,” or moai. Taira points out that these groups of people who help one another are characteristic of Ogimi. The moai are not organized around any concrete objective; they function more like a family. Taira also tells us that volunteer work, rather than money, drives much of what happens in Ogimi. Everyone offers to pitch in, and the local government takes care of assigning tasks. This way, everyone can be useful and feels like a part of the community.

Ogimi is the penultimate town before Cape Hedo, the northernmost point of the largest island in the archipelago.

From the top of one of Ogimi’s mountains, we’re able to look down over the whole town. Almost everything is the green of the Yanbaru jungle, making us wonder where the nearly thirty-two hundred residents are hiding. We can see a few houses, but they’re scattered in little clusters near the sea or in small valleys accessible by side roads.

Communal life

We’re invited to eat in one of Ogimi’s few restaurants, but when we arrive the only three tables are already reserved.

“Don’t worry, we’ll go to Churaumi instead. It never fills up,” says Yuki, walking back to her car.

She’s still driving at age eighty-eight, and takes great pride in that. Her copilot is ninety-nine, and has also decided to spend the day with us. We have to drive fast to keep up with them on a highway that is sometimes more dirt than asphalt. Finally reaching the other end of the jungle, we can at last sit down to eat.

“I don’t really go to restaurants,” Yuki says as we take our seats. “Almost everything I eat comes from my vegetable garden, and I buy my fish from Tanaka, who’s been my friend forever.”

The restaurant is right by the sea and seems like something from the planet Tatooine, from Star Wars. The menu boasts in large letters that it serves “slow food” prepared with organic vegetables grown in the town.

“But really,” Yuki continues, “food is the least important thing.” She is extroverted, and rather pretty. She likes to talk about her role as the director of several associations run by the local government.

“Food won’t help you live longer,” she says, bringing to her lips a bite of the diminutive confection that followed our meal. “The secret is smiling and having a good time.”

There are no bars and only a few restaurants in Ogimi, but those who live there enjoy a rich social life that revolves around community centers. The town is divided into seventeen neighborhoods, and each one has a president and several people in charge of things like culture, festivals, social activities, and longevity.

Residents pay close attention to this last category.

We’re invited to the community center of one of the seventeen neighborhoods. It is an old building right next to one of the mountains of the Yanbaru jungle, home to bunagaya, the town’s iconic sprites.

A birthday party

When we arrive at the neighborhood’s community center, we’re greeted by a group of about twenty people who proudly proclaim, “The youngest among us is eighty-three!”

We conduct our interviews at a large table while drinking green tea. When we finish, we’re brought to an event space, where we celebrate the birthdays of three members of the group. One woman is turning ninety-nine, another ninety-four, and one “young man” has just reached eighty-nine.

We sing a few songs popular in the village and finish up with “Happy Birthday” in English. The woman turning ninety-nine blows out the candles and thanks everyone for coming to her party. We eat homemade shikuwasa cake and end up dancing and celebrating as though it were the birthday of a twentysomething.

It’s the first party, but not the last, that we’ll attend during our week in the village. We’ll also do karaoke with a group of seniors who sing better than we do, and attend a traditional festival with local bands, dancers, and food stands at the foot of a mountain.

Celebrate each day, together

Celebrations seem to be an essential part of life in Ogimi.

We’re invited to watch a game of gateball, one of the most popular sports among Okinawa’s older residents. It involves hitting a ball with a mallet-like stick. It is a low-impact sport that can be played anywhere, and is a good excuse to move around and have fun as a group. The residents hold local competitions, and there is no age limit for participants.

We participate in the weekly game and lose to a woman who recently turned 104. Everyone cheers, and the defeated look on our faces elicits laughter.

In addition to playing and celebrating as a community, spirituality is also essential to the happiness of the village’s residents.

The gods of Okinawa

The main religion in Okinawa is known as Ryukyu Shinto. Ryukyu is the original name of the Okinawa archipelago, and Shinto means “the path of the gods.” Ryukyu Shinto combines elements of Chinese Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Shintoism with shamanistic and animistic elements.

According to this ancient faith, the world is populated by an infinite number of spirits divided into several types: spirits of the home, of the forest, of the trees, and of the mountains. It is important to appease these spirits through rituals and festivals, and by consecrating sacred grounds.

Okinawa is full of sacred jungles and forests, where many of the two main kinds of temples are found: the utaki and the uganju. We visited an uganju, or small, open-air temple adorned with incense and coins, next to a waterfall in Ogimi. The utaki is a collection of stones where people go to pray and where, supposedly, spirits gather.

In Okinawa’s religious practice, women are considered spiritually superior to men, whereas the opposite is true of traditional Shintoism in the rest of Japan. Yuta are women chosen as mediums by their communities to make contact with the spirit realm through traditional rites.

Ancestor worship is another important feature of spiritual practice in Okinawa, and in Japan in general. The home of each generation’s firstborn usually contains a butsudan, or small altar, used to pray for and make offerings to the family’s ancestors.

The older, the stronger

Looking back, our days in Ogimi were intense but relaxed—sort of like the lifestyle of the locals, who always seemed to be busy with important tasks but who, upon closer inspection, did everything with a sense of calm. They were always pursuing their ikigai, but they were never in a rush.

Not only did they seem to be happily busy, but we also noticed that they followed the other principles for happiness that Washington Burnap stated two hundred years ago: “The grand essentials to happiness in this life are something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.”

On our last day, we went to buy gifts at a small market at the edge of town. The only things sold there are local vegetables, green tea, and shikuwasa juice, along with bottles of water from a spring hidden in the Yanbaru forests, bearing labels that read “Longevity Water.”

We bought ourselves some of this Longevity Water and drank it in the parking lot, looking out over the sea and hoping that the little bottles that promised a magic elixir would bring us health and long life, and would help us find our own ikigai. Then we took a photo with a statue of a bunagaya, and walked up to it one last time to read the inscription:

The interviews

Over the course of a week we conducted a total of one hundred interviews, asking the eldest members of the community about their life philosophy, their ikigai, and the secrets to longevity. We filmed these conversations with two cameras for use in a little documentary, and chose a few especially meaningful and inspiring statements to include in this section of the book.

1. Don’t worry

“The secret to a long life is not to worry. And to keep your heart young—don’t let it grow old. Open your heart to people with a nice smile on your face. If you smile and open your heart, your grandchildren and everyone else will want to see you.”
“The best way to avoid anxiety is to go out in the street and say hello to people. I do it every day. I go out there and say, ‘Hello!’ and ‘See you later!’ Then I go home and care for my vegetable garden. In the afternoon, I spend time with friends.”
“Here, everyone gets along. We try not to cause problems. Spending time together and having fun is the only thing that matters.”

2. Cultivate good habits

“I feel joy every morning waking up at six and opening the curtains to look out at my garden, where I grow my own vegetables. I go right outside to check on my tomatoes, my mandarin oranges . . . I love the sight of them—it relaxes me. After an hour in the garden I go back inside and make breakfast.”
“I plant my own vegetables and cook them myself. That’s my ikigai.”
“The key to staying sharp in old age is in your fingers. From your fingers to your brain, and back again. If you keep your fingers busy, you’ll live to see one hundred.”
“I get up at four every day. I set my alarm for that time, have a cup of coffee, and do a little exercise, lifting my arms. That gives me energy for the rest of the day.”
“I eat a bit of everything; I think that’s the secret. I like variety in what I eat; I think it tastes better.”
“Working. If you don’t work, your body breaks down.”
“When I wake up, I go to the butsudan and light incense. You have to keep your ancestors in mind. It’s the first thing I do every morning.”
“I wake up every day at the same time, early, and spend the morning in my vegetable garden. I go dancing with my friends once a week.”
“I do exercise every day, and every morning I go for a little walk.”
“I never forget to do my taiso exercises when I get up.”
“Eating vegetables—it helps you live longer.”
“To live a long time you need to do three things: exercise to stay healthy, eat well, and spend time with people.”

3. Nurture your friendships every day

“Getting together with my friends is my most important ikigai. We all get together here and talk—it’s very important. I always know I’ll see them all here tomorrow, and that’s one of my favorite things in life.”
“My main hobby is getting together with friends and neighbors.”
“Talking each day with the people you love, that’s the secret to a long life.”
“I say, ‘Hello!’ and ‘See you later!’ to the children on their way to school, and wave at everyone who goes by me in their car. ‘Drive safely!’ I say. Between 7:20 a.m. and 8:15 a.m., I’m outside on my feet the whole time, saying hello to people. Once everyone’s gone, I go back inside.”
“Chatting and drinking tea with my neighbors. That’s the best thing in life. And singing together.”
“I wake up at five every morning, leave the house, and walk to the sea. Then I go to a friend’s house and we have tea together. That’s the secret to long life: getting together with people, and going from place to place.”

4. Live an unhurried life

“My secret to a long life is always saying to myself, ‘Slow down,’ and ‘Relax.’ You live much longer if you’re not in a hurry.”
“I make things with wicker. That’s my ikigai. The first thing I do when I wake up is pray. Then I do my exercises and eat breakfast. At seven I calmly start working on my wicker. When I get tired at five, I go visit my friends.”
“Doing many different things every day. Always staying busy, but doing one thing at a time, without getting overwhelmed.”
“The secret to long life is going to bed early, waking up early, and going for a walk. Living peacefully and enjoying the little things. Getting along with your friends. Spring, summer, fall, winter . . . enjoying each season, happily.”

5. Be optimistic

“Every day I say to myself, ‘Today will be full of health and energy. Live it to the fullest.’”
“I’m ninety-eight, but consider myself young. I still have so much to do.”
“Laugh. Laughter is the most important thing. I laugh wherever I go.”
“I’m going to live to be a hundred. Of course I am! It’s a huge motivation for me.”
“Dancing and singing with your grandchildren is the best thing in life.”
“I feel very fortunate to have been born here. I give thanks for it every day.”
“The most important thing in Ogimi, in life, is to keep smiling.”
“I do volunteer work to give back to the village a bit of what it has given to me. For example, I use my car to help friends get to the hospital.”
“There’s no secret to it. The trick is just to live.”








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