Longevity lessons from Okinawa and France

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I consider myself both a Japanophile and Francophile. Throughout my life I've spent considerable stretches of time in Japan and France studying the language and culture. I am fascinated by how both countries zealously guard their culture and way of life. Despite the cultural differences (the emotional outbursts and French verve for debate would not be acceptable in Japan) there are similarities between the older generations. We Aussies have a lot to learn from the traditional attitudes and way of life in southern France and Japan - specifically the island of Okinawa.

Here's the #longevity lessons I learned over the northern summer, lessons I’m really looking forward to incorporating into our work at Full Time Lives.

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1.Start with what nature gives you

During my time in Okinawa I thoroughly enjoyed its longevity food. I’m counting on my new tasty diet of fresh island veggies, seaweed and fermented produce to extend my healthy and happy life.

I was thrilled to meet Emiko Kinjo, the 70 year old restaurant owner and chief dietitian of the award winning Eminomise (Emi’s Restaurant) in Ogimi, the Village of Longevity. Her pearls of wisdom unlocked the key to the happy disposition of so many older Okinawans.

  1. Let nature determine what fresh produce you have to work with. Using ingredients you grow yourself takes out any stress about what you can’t source easily.
  2. If you can’t grow all the key ingredients yourself, try to source as much of the rest of what you need from your neighbours. It will strengthen the whole local community on both a social and economic level.
  3. Don’t waste anything.
  4. Celebrating the ebbs and flow of the seasons and weather prepares you to be responsive to anything.
  5. Love everything that you prepare and serve to others. If you don't personally value it you have no pride, purpose or enjoyment in your work.

2. Social connections with your community

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On the first day of my trip to Okinawa, Titus Spree and I came across a shopkeeper, aged 69, in the Sakaemachi markets. Typical of Okinawan elders, he gave off the most sprightly, spirited vibe and had a twinkle in his eyes, but it was his interest in others that arrested my attention.

A familiar face to the locals, he lamented that business wasn't quite the same as when it was a thriving daytime market. He was still proud and happy to keep running his shop, connecting with his customers and chatting with others passing like me. He showed us his personalised giant sized sake bottle that his son had given him to commemorate the 50 year anniversary of his shop. 

Wish I could bring back a bottle of his everlasting vibrancy!




3. Devotion to a tight network of deep lifelong relationships

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Life can throw all kinds of curve balls at us. Relationship or career changes, health, financial woes – sometimes more than one of these come at us unexpectedly at the same time. Do you have a tight group of friends you can rely on when life throws a curve ball at you?

The Okinawan word yuimarumeans circle of giving. It captures the spirit of cooperation and devotion to a small group of close relationships, values and traditions over a lifetime. Being a small island country isolated from mainland Japan, throughout history Okinawans have had to face much adversity. Wherever a need appears in someone’s life, their community acts to address it. 

A formalised application of yuimaru is moai. It's an Okinawan concept where groups of 5-10 people meet on a monthly basis over their entire lifetime. Each person contributes about $100 at each monthly meeting and the moai provide both emotional and financial support. They take turns receiving the money, prioritising those in greatest need. There is such strong trust within the moai, it would be unthinkable to take the money and run. The long term support far outweighs anything else.

4. She’ll be right, mate

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Although there's a profound difference between Okinawan and Australian culture, I’ve discovered a common link between us. This may be our starting point for adopting the Okinawan longevity lifestyle. In the throes of our hectic lives before our study tour, Kathryn Hunyor declared our motto for our trip would be nankurunaisa - a beautiful ancient mantra that is the Okinawan equivalent of our expression, ‘She’ll be right, mate!’ With this in mind, our roughly planned trip exceeded expectations.

As I sipped on my coffee & chomped on my coffee flavoured sausage at Hiro’s Coffee Farm, the perky owner shared how she left Tokyo to run the coffee farm 25 years ago and became an expert in coffee farming. I was puzzled when she proudly showed me a coffee bud growing in a tiny flower pot. Given the signs, I'd incorrectly assumed an established plantation was out the back. Turns out the crops were completely wiped out by typhoons twice in the last five years.

With her yuimaru, community support, she has replanted the seedlings for yet another crop. It’s early days of her 25 year old ‘startup'. Her optimism pervaded her café like the smell of coffee. She has full trust in whatever is to come.

5. Never retire


Just after a typhoon hit Okinawa, Kathryn Hunyor and I inched our car carefully up the treacherous winding roads through Ogimi's hilly rainforest - all in the name of both longevity research and good coffee. As we swerved around piles of rocks on the slippery unpaved road, we became dubious there would be any businesses around.

Just as we were about to quit our quest, we spotted a discrete sign for Cha Cha's Cafe. The opening hours were Saturdays and Sundays only, from 12pm onwards! In true ‘Okinawa time’, we ended up passing an entire afternoon with a couple in their 70s who run a cafe on their property. The husband's career in ecotourism has taken him on many global adventures. Now he & his wife lead an active life on their land with adventurers coming to them.

They tend to their garden of flowers & ‘kusuimun’ medicinal foods daily. On weekends, they mix social connection with their micro-business, receiving up to 5-6 customers (mostly regulars) a day in the cafe. “Any more than that would be untenable”. They also have a steady flow of high school students staying in the guest house at the bottom of their garden.

6. Maintain a side-interest

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Gardening is one of the most common Okinawan hobbies. Centring on nature, it's active & productive, feeding their families with the freshest organic produce.

Turns out it can be social too. When I was taking an early morning walk to the local springs, a woman watering her lush green garden accosted me. She had noticed I was a stranger in her neighbourhood and keen to show me her garden and home. The fragrance of the hand-crushed leaves from her garden was intoxicating. When I stumbled back to my guesthouse for my belated breakfast, my host chuckled that gardening gives her the excuse to be the most sociable person in the area.

For others like property manager Hidy-san, his interest in turning US military recycled timber into furniture helps him hone his craftsmanship. It gives him the skills to renovate his Airbnb properties and increase their value.

Masa-san a professional lifesaver, is a potter with his own ceramics studio in the hinterland.

Makes me wonder what can I do with the extra time I'd save grocery shopping, watching Netflix or going to the gym?

7. Don’t ever mention retirement to a ‘retiree’


The echo of fans screaming and cars honking in the streets of soccer-mad Marseille, is still ringing in my ears since France won the WorldCup finals.

The fresh-faced woman in this photo was our 80+ Y.O Marseillais party host during the finals, the embodiment of #FullTimeLiving. Her infectious vibrancy spread to her 20 guests. She refused to sit down, at least not til everyone else was served, occasionally checking how the French were scoring.

She candidly shared her life story with me when she finally stopped for a breath. She had taken over running her family’s multinational business in a male dominated industry in her 20s, after her father passed away in a fatal car accident. One would never guess any hardship and loss she's gone through. I made the faux pas of asking about her retirement. She took offence because she's never stopped even for a day of rest. She's the chair of her local association and on the board of a yacht club. She helps out an older neighbour weekly. She sails and skis to keep fit.

I came away exhilarated not just from France's win but inspired by our host’s attitude that ‘Joie de Vivre’ is all about doing enjoyable things for others.

8. Never stop working in a job that you love

While reconnecting with family and friends in France and #FullTimeLiving, I couldn’t help admiring the elegant older salesperson in a vintage haute couture shop in Provence. Without wanting to be rude by asking her age I struck up a conversation about the amazing wares in her shop. She volunteered that she has been running her fashion store for over 25 years. My guess was that she’s in her 70s.

She spoke with grace, poise and passion about each piece of vintage designer clothing on display. While the items have been lovingly curated by renowned vintage fashion collector Didier Ludot, she clearly had deep knowledge about each item. She seemed to really enjoy her job - the subject matter as well as the pleasure of talking about it with people from around the world who are interested. Although I’m not thinking of moving to Provence to run a vintage designer shop anytime soon, our brief connection made it very hard for me to walk away from the temptation of buying a timeless Pucci dress and pair of classic Prada mules circa 1960s from her…maybe they'll still be there next time I visit?!?


I combined all of my 'longevity lessons' into one long article after all the enthusiastic emails and comments I've received since my return to Australia. Hopefully this makes it easier to follow than a series of disconnected posts! I'd love to hear your stories of the lessons you've learned from vibrant older people you know either here in Australia or you've met on your travels, please drop me an email and let me know..

Natalie Yan-Chatonsky