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Japan: Eating in Okinawa

by | May 2, 2012

Octopus and Umi Budo

As promised, here’s some photos from the Okinawa leg of my Japan trip. As you’ll see, Okinawa (and its food in particular) deserves special attention.

Okinawa is a small island off the Southern end of Japan. Though most Americans who visit Okinawa do so because of the large US military base there, we were interested because Okinawa is home to the longest lived people on the planet. The island of Okinawa, particularly a small village called Ogimi, has more people over the age of 100 than anywhere else in the world.


While there is certainly a genetic component to why these people live so long, we were curious about the dietary and lifestyle factors that might influence their longevity. We went out of our way looking for foods and beverages that are unique to Okinawa, and did our best to eat in as many traditional style restaurants as possible.

Fermented Turmeric Tea

One of the first things we noticed is that outside of downtown Okinawa (Naha), restaurants are shockingly difficult to find. This is because Okinawan’s prepare most of their food at home. In Ogimi, which was very underdeveloped and poor by normal 21st century standards, every home had a garden in the yard which seemed to be a chief source of food (along with sea vegetables and creatures). Interestingly, the most bustling part of the village was a central market dedicated to selling flowers. We found many of the happy citizens there, choosing bouquets from the fields of purple irises and yellow butterflies. They might not have a lot of money, but this place truly looked like paradise on earth.

Field of Irises

As you might expect we saw a fair amount of older people in Ogimi and around all of Okinawa (our cab driver we hired all day was in his high 70s). Though at first we assumed this was because there are more older individuals, we came to suspect that the real reason we were seeing them more often is because they appear far more active and engaged than older people in the US. Even people with crippling osteoporosis could be found browsing the local markets, undeterred by their disposition. Apparently they do not have a word for retirement.

Me and Ayaka Yamamoto

From a dietary perspective, there were several notable differences between Okinawa and mainland Japan. The first was vegetables. It wasn’t easy finding much green matter in Tokyo or Kyoto, but vegetables were plentiful in all Okinawan dishes.

Lunch in Naha

While lots of vegetables are served, the primary staples were goya (aka bittermelon), carrots, cabbage, bean sprouts, daikon, rabe (a relative of broccoli), squash and a purple sweet potato known as ube.

Ube, Goya, Kabocha, Onion

Goya is the most common, and though its bitter aftertaste was a bit overwhelming at first, we quickly acclimated and learned to love the unusual vegetable.

Goya with Bonito Flakes

Another notable difference was the abundance of seaweed and seafood. I lost track of how many new sea veggies I tried, but all were awesome and probably filled with nutrients I’m not normally exposed to. We also ate a lot of shrimp, lobster, abalone and assorted fish.

Tropical Fish

The only other common animal products were pork and eggs.

Pig Face

There was also lots of tofu. (And yes, this tasted as gross as it looks.)

Fish on Tofu

My favorite new seaweed by far was umi budo (“sea grapes”). They tasted exactly like caviar, only vegetarian, and cooler looking. I wish so bad I could find these in San Francisco. I bet the chefs do as well.

Umi Budo

The best food experience we had on the island was at the restaurant of Ayaka Yamamoto (pictured with me above). Her restaurant was recommended to us by young Jiro, from the famed Jiro Dreams of Sushi documentary (again, huge thanks to Tim Ferriss for translating and making this connection possible).

Well, at least I appreciated it.

She serves traditional Okinawan food and has a book on her philosophy of cooking with love.

Tempura Ube, Goya and Pork

Forget what this was, but it was tasty.

Miso Pork Belly (OMG yum)

Rice was notably lacking in the Okinawan diet. Though we had a few spoonfuls in the most traditional meal we ate at Yamamoto’s, it was a very small amount and the rice was brown instead of the usual white rice found in mainland Japan.

Brown Rice in Dashi

Okinawans rely more on the ube sweet potato for starch. “Soba” noodles (they didn’t look like buckwheat) are also common.

Okinawan Soba

Their diet wasn’t exactly sugar-free though. Okinawans are very proud of their brown sugar, which we all admitted was phenomenal.

Brown Sugar Tapioca

Many things have been suggested as the secret to Okinawan longevity: seafood, seaweed, bittermelon, fermented tofu, lack of rice, fermented turmeric tea (a common beverage), special Okinawan sea salts, brown sugar, awamori (their favorite liquor), and others. While they all likely contribute, all of us noticed that every aspect of the Okinawan lifestyle is healthier than anything we’d ever seen. Turns out that happy, active people who eat lots of home-cooked seafood and vegetables have a tendency to live a long time.

They also have giant lobsters.

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