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In the Land of the Immortals

Learning the secrets of reaching a ripe old age in the world’s largest repository of centenarians

Author Cain Nunns Illustration Luci Gutiérrez


OKINAWA – “Idon’t feel a day over 98,” says a cackling Miki Watanabe, who recently turned 102. “Maybe it’s the sea air, maybe it’s simple living,” she adds, gesturing at her sparse living room, whose centerpiece is a small, mostly unwatched TV set. “We’ve always been old.”

By “we,” she means the people of Okinawa, the tropical island belt 340 miles south of the Japanese mainland, which has long been known for producing people who have breezed past the 100-year mark and kept on going. Ancient Chinese seafarers described the chain as “The Land of the Immortals.” More recently, enterprising nutritionists have touted the low-calorie, high-fiber “Okinawa Diet” to would-be centenarians in the West.

According to Miho Tanaka, a geriatric nurse who looks after Watanabe, the secret to longevity boils down to good old-fashioned moderation. “It’s clean living, being active and rebuffing excess, especially eating and drinking,” she says. “I’ve got karate masters, fishermen, weavers and glass blowers in my group. In other countries, they would be playing golf and waiting to die.”

Just as important as diet and lifestyle, Tanaka adds, is attitude. A case in point is KBG84, a newly formed song-and-dance group whose average age is 84, and whose shrill ballads and slow-bob dance moves have made them a sensation in idol-obsessed Japan.

“It’s mind over matter,” Tanaka says. “They may not be everyone’s idea of a J-Pop group, but they’ve still got it.”

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