Okinawa Longevity (2)

Jofuku’s Gift to the Immortals of Okinawa

This story fascinates me. It is told by Dr. Masaaki Kimura in one of his books (Okinawa Kaitei Iseki no Nazo, from Daisan Bunmeisha, 2000, in Japanese).

Jofuku is an envoy sent from China to find the secret of immortality, believed to be practiced by an island nation. He sets out with many ships and several hundred passengers, eventually arriving at an island very much like Okinawa. There he is received by the Goddess who rules the land. He gives her the presents he has prepared and asks about immortality.

She assures him that they do, indeed, imbibe a plant that encourages longevity. However, she refuses to give it to him. Why? Because the gifts he has brought are grand, but in no way equal to the prize of immortality. Nothing is more precious than life. If Jofuku gives her people something on the same scale of value, then she will gladly share their secret of immortality.

So, Jofuku goes back to China to find a suitable gift. Something on the same scale of value as life itself, something without which life might very well be impossible… What could it be?

Think about it. In the West, bread is the staff of life. But in the East, people live on rice. Thus Jofuku of China is credited with introducing rice plants and rice culture to Okinawa.

His gift was rice, but what did the Goddess give him? That is a very good question. I thought it might be a kind of citrus fruit such as tankan or shiquasa, but Dr. Kimura has a better suggestion. China already had fruit. What is special about his favorite Okinawan island, Yonaguni, is a wild plant called yomogi.

Yomogi is usually translated as mugwort, but I think it’s a little different from English mugwort. The herb that was traditionally used to flavor mugs of ale in Ye Olde England stands tall and stiff, but the mugwort that grows on Yonaguni is a tender green plant that tends to hug the ground. It is used to flavor food and is a popular additive to tea. Even today, tea containing Yonaguni yomogi is called Long Life Tea.


Okinawa Longevity

Japanese people have what is probably the world’s longest natural life span. On average, someone born and raised in Japan will live to 82. This compares well to, say, the US average longevity of 77. Moreover, the people in Japan with the greatest probability for long and healthy lives live in Okinawa.

How cool is that?

One conjecture is that island life is so much fun that Okinawans don’t want to leave. They have family. They have friends. They let the good times roll. Another is that they get lots of exercise. They walk and do their errands on foot. They raise their own vegetables and work in their gardens.

I know of at least one Okinawan great-grandmother who offered her visiting family a fruit called tan-kan, which is a little like a tangerine. One guest offered to go into the kitchen and bring the tan-kan out for her. Great Granny, in her 90s, insisted on getting it herself. But the fruit wasn’t in the kitchen. It was still on the tree in her backyard. She climbed the tree and picked a dozen tankan while the family cheered her on.

The Okinawan diet, too, gets a lot of credit for the people’s longevity. There is a longevity story that I am very curious about, and it concerns an expedition from China made in ancient days to “The Land of the Immortals” to acquire “the fruit of eternal life”. No one knows for sure where that land was, or what the fruit was, but I often think it was Okinawa and the fruit was something like a tan-kan.



"Nothing is good or bad in and of itself. It is through the working of the mind that a thing becomes good or bad." Michel de Montaigne

These words were written in French many hundreds of years ago, but they apply to a tiny but much-loved corner of Okinawa today. The question is, is noise good or bad?

I personally love the drums, the music, and the shouting of the Eisa festival dances. My mind tells me, "This is good noise. It rouses the life in the people who hear it."

However, the Okinawa Marine Culture NPO I support is headquartered near a very noisy electricity generator. It's meant to supply electricity in times of emergency. I hear a whisper that "Having electricity in an emergency is good." But, the generator is so darn noisy that it drives people crazy every day---and that is every day of its existence so far---that there isn't an electrical emergency.

This is not good.

The obstacle standing between the people who live near the generator and the solution to the noise pollution problem is this: the generator is a military installation. So the question becomes, how noisy do the people have to become before the military can hear them pleading, "Stop killing us while you're trying to help us."


In Okinawan Words (2): Eisa


In Okinawan Words (2): Eisa

Shall we dance?

Like most Japanese folk dances, the quintessential Okinawan dance known as Eisa is danced in a circle, by singles, never by pairs. In some villages, only women dance. In others, only men perform. Of course, there are also groups in which both men and women participate. The most dynamic dances—such as the ones performed by the Senda and Ryukyu Koku troupes—put young people in the spotlight.

Eisa has spiritual roots. The Eisa tradition began with rites for ancestors performed in mid-summer. In ancient times, dancers visited and performed from house to house. The dance was a celebration of deceased family members. Some of the costumes flaunt their spiritual roots with subdued colors and others chase the evil spirits away through brilliantly flamboyant designs. Katsuren is somber; Okinawa City is kaleidoscopic.

Noise is an important part of the celebration, and so there are always drums to set the rhythm. Whether they are the small ones known as paranku or the large, barrel-shaped drums, drums are required. The three-stringed sanshin is optional, depending on the tradition. Some dances feature characters whose faces are painted with clay and whose noise is made by putting two fingers against strong white teeth and whistling.

Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, you can see typical Eisa dances at various sites. The following url includes an English narration. In Okinawa itself, July is when most of the serious Eisa dances take place. However, public performances can be seen year round at places like Ryukyu Mura and Gyokusendo.




Okinawa Sanshin Music


Here is a short list of some of the sanshin songs I like best. You can find free samples of most of them on the Internet.

Agarizachi, by Shokichi Kina (pop folk, about Yonaguni)
Asadoya Yunta (traditional, with many variations, dating from 300 years ago)
Shima Uta, by The Boom (pop hit, sounds like a love song, but it's about love of life)
Nada Soso, written by Ryoko Moriyama, sung by Rimi Natsukawa (sweet, sad memory)
Hohnen Ondo (traditional kachashi folk dance, a wish for a prosperous new year)
Musume Jintoyo (a sweet standard about the little things that make life good)
Ashibinaa, by Shuken Maekawa (playful standard suitable for the kachashi folk dance)

Among the famous traditional artists are the master Seijin Noborikawa and the Kina family. Fitting between tradition and pop are singer songwriters like Ryoko Moriyama and Toru Yonaha. On the pop side are groups such as The Boom and Begin. There are more--this is a short list, remember.

One of the nicest things about Okinawan music is this: there are no vocal gymnastics required, just a good sense of rhythm and the will to sing from the heart. Have fun exploring the sanshin world!



In Okinawan Words: Sanshin

In Okinawan Words: Sanshin

What bagpipes are to Scotland, the sanshin is to Okinawa. It’s the signature sound of Okinawan music. The instrument is basically a bowl-shaped sounding board to which a long neck is fastened and strung with three strings. It’s a little like a violin in that there are no frets to mark the notes of the scale, and it’s a bit like a banjo because a sanshin’s main function is to produce rhythm rather than melody. You might say it is also like a guitar because the strings are plucked with a pick.

In my novel, Katsuren, one of the characters plays a sanshin. There is a popular belief in Okinawa that anyone under the age of 60 who messes around with a sanshin will come to a bad end. The reason is, it’s a lot of fun to play and most people can get a tune out of it the first time they pick it up. However, to play it well enough for the folks around you to enjoy it, too, takes at least three years of daily practice. If you are practicing the sanshin everyday, are you goofing off when you should be tilling your sugar cane field? Probably. That’s why I made the sanshin player in my story an old man who drives a taxi and plays his sanshin while waiting for fare-paying customers. He's old enough to be allowed.


Okinawa Quiz: True or False?


What is true, what is false? Look in the comments section for the answers.

1. Okinawa is a part of Japan.
2. Okinawa is a US protectorate.
3. The island chain of Okinawa includes many uninhabited islands and atolls.
4. The climate of Okinawa is subtropical.
5. There is snow on the mountaintops of Okinawa.
6. Major Okinawan cities include Naha, Hong Kong and Singapore.
7. Japan’s westernmost point is in Okinawa.
8. Islanders live in grass huts because the climate is so mild.
9. The highest point on Okinawa is the top of an active volcano.
10. Okinawa’s biggest industry is tourism.



Okinawa Looks Like This

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Seeing Okinawa

If you have a favorite place, then you surely have a collection of magic moments etched in your mind—pictures that you forever associate with that special locale. Here are some of the special sights that say “Okinawa” to me:

* A seaside sunset, with an adan tree silhouetted against the sky
* Giant blue and white manta rays “flying” through the ocean
* Sunlight sparkling on turquoise, amethyst and emerald-colored wavelets
* Deigo trees loaded with crimson flowers
* A show room full of pop-art Okinawan glass flowers
* The red lacquered drums and flowing costumes of an eisa parade
* Butterflies fluttering over bougainvillea blossoms
* Orchids, orchids everywhere
* The stone archway at Nakijin gusuku when the cherry blossoms are in bloom
* Red clay shisha dogs grinning from tiled rooftops