About 1.5 million people live on the island known as Okinawa, which sits between the rest of Japan, to the north, and Taiwan, to the south. Okinawa, a prefecture of Japan, was once its own nation. In 1879, the Japanese annexed the island and later, from the end of WWII until 1972, the U.S. occupied it.
So, why is it that the people of Okinawa, some 400 miles to the south of the Japanese mainland, live so long and enjoy what some say is the best health profile of any people on earth? It’s the food, according to experts who have done hundreds of studies on the Okinawa native dietary habits and lifestyle.
What is the Okinawa Diet?
The “Okinawa diet” refers to two things. First, it’s simply a description of what the people there eat. The second refers to a popular diet that Western people follow in order to lose weight and improve their health. In many ways, the commercial Okinawa diet is very similar to what the people of Okinawa eat. But for now, let’s just take a look at what the common, everyday dietary habits are of the 1.4 million people who live in Okinawa.
Okinawa is part of a larger island chain known as the Ryukyu Islands. The island of Okinawa is the biggest of the Ryukyu Islands. People in this island chain have the longest life-expectancy in the world, and most studies on longevity point to the diet as being responsible for this amazing fact.
Yellow and green vegetables make up about one-third of the Okinawa diet, while a staple of the diet is the indigenous sweet potato, not rice. It also consists of much less sugar and grain than Western, and even most other Asian diets.
While soy and other plants make up a large portion of the diet, there are small amounts of fish and pork included. While pork is considered a delicacy in Okinawa, the people there don’t consume very much of it. But when they do eat pig products, they consume the entire animal, not just the meaty parts prized in the West and Asia.
Salt and typical carbohydrate-rich foods make up just a tiny portion of Okinawans’ diets, while foods rich in vitamin C, B2, B1, and A, as well as iron and calcium, are much more common. Other factors that likely contribute to the Islanders’ longevity include low consumption of polyunsaturated fats, very little rice, a higher intake of legumes, less sugar, less dairy, less fruit, fewer grains, less meat, and less poultry.
Overall, the caloric intake of an Okinawan person is lower than in Western and most other Asian nations. In 1950, before the dietary habits of the original islanders began to change, a typical person in Okinawa got about 70 percent of their total daily calories from sweet potatoes.
One of the other apparent advantages of Okinawa food habits is low occurrences of heart disease and cancer. Compared to U.S. residents, for example, a person in Okinawa is about 7 times less likely to die from prostate cancer, heart disease, or breast cancer. Colon cancer rates are also quite low.
The 1960s Meant Big Changes
Unfortunately, much of the traditional Okinawa diet began to change in the decades after WWII, when the people there began to take on Western and Japanese eating habits. Guess what? When sugar intake rose 400 percent and sweet potatoes were replaced with bread and rice, longevity began to decrease rapidly. Today, the average Japanese person lives longer than the average resident of Okinawa.
Try These Okinawa Foods for Flavor, Fun, and Health
Food in Okinawa is totally different than Western food and even quite different than Japanese cuisine. Even repeat visitors to Japan have probably never tasted authentic Okinawa food unless they had the luck to visit one of the few restaurants in Japan run by a native Okinawan.
The ingredients sound a bit odd, but after they’re prepared the Okinawa way, people fall in love with the cuisine. Even if you don’t like the idea of goat meat or anything from a rattlesnake, you’re bound to find something on the following list of Okinawa food that you’ll enjoy. Here are some highlights of authentic food from Okinawa:
This is a truly delicious dessert. Eggs, flour, sugar, and a few other things are rolled into a ball and fried, which makes the inside very light and soft and the outside hard and chewy. Locals call sata andagi “Okinawa donuts.” They look sort of like small pieces of fried chicken. They taste great and are usually at the top of every tourist’s list of “favorite junk food” from a trip to Okinawa.
This is a giant version of the typical green onion that’s so popular in Japan and elsewhere. This scallion is closely related to the green onion but has a much richer, more vibrant flavor. In Okinawa, the traditional way of preparing it was just to serve it raw with maybe a little bit of salt. Today, it’s often cooked tempura style.
This incredibly delicious soup is an Okinawa original. Okay, it’s mostly water and pig organs but tastes great and is good for you too. For travelers who want authentic Okinawa foods, here is one that dates back more than 200 years. It’s strange for Westerners to consume pig this way, but try it once and you’ll probably be surprised.
Tebichi no netsuke
Here’s another pig product, this time made from the animal’s feet. But the thing that makes this a uniquely Okinawa food is that it’s boiled together with kelp, carrots, and tofu. Many Westerners eat pigs’ feet but the simmering in soy sauce makes this one special, and unforgettable.
These yummy pancakes might remind you of a Japanese favorite called okonomiyaki. Served in Okinawa’s top bars, this dish is made from a fried mixture of onions, eggs, salt, and flour. Try it once and memorize the recipe so you can make it when you return home from your trip to Okinawa.
This is nothing like the soba dishes you’ve had in Japan or elsewhere. In fact, it comes as a soup with extremely thick noodles. Locals typically top it off with fish cakes or lean pork ribs. This is another very old Okinawa dish that was part of the island’s cuisine more than a hundred years ago.
A favorite of Westerners who visit Okinawa, rafute shows just how well the locals can prepare pork products. This salty, very sweet concoction is simmered for a long time, very slowly, using sugar and soy sauce as a base. There’s a legend associated with rafute, which may or may not be true: eating rafute contributes to longevity. Well, maybe if you only eat it once in a while. After all, it is salted meat, which is not exactly at the top of everyone’s “health food” list.
Okinawa residents love raw food. Of course, the Japanese have the same tradition, wolfing down mega-portions of raw fish, horse meat and beef. But in Okinawa, goat meat is the thing that gets people’s taste buds excited. This extremely lean meat is quite healthful, and when it’s dipped in soy sauce, the flavor can’t be beaten. One reason it dates back so far in Okinawa history is that goats have been raised on the island for centuries, and for a long time were the only meat product, besides pork, that people ate.
If you want to taste the real deal, tofuyo is for you. This is an ancient Okinawa dish that some say dates to the 1600s or possibly earlier. Back when Okinawa was its own kingdom, ruled by a royal family, tofuyo was one of the only delicacies. What is it? Simply put, it’s a fermented bean curd dish that has a unique taste. Some say it goes down like very sharp cheese that has been mixed with whiskey or vodka. That can’t be bad, but it does take some getting used to. For visitors who want to know what “real” Okinawa dishes are like, here’s your chance. Oh, and it’s very, very good for you.
This dish is the Okinawa version of the Japanese staple. The locals use home-grown ingredients and toss everything into a deep fryer. The result is an incredible array of delicacies like goya-tempura, tempura made from sea lettuce, and of course mozuka tempura, which is actually a type of algae. It might not sound delicious but it is. Don’t let your food fears rule. Try mozuka tempura, which is usually served with local shrimp and scallops. This is Okinawa food at its best.
Local people in Okinawa use goya (a very bitter type of melon) in all sorts of things. It is quite nutritious and seems to turn up everywhere. As chips, these dried strips of melon really do taste great. Maybe they’re not as healthful as eating raw fruit, but they are a local staple, are sold at convenience shops, and make wonderful gifts for people back home. Goya chips are an Okinawa original.
For the authentic Okinawa food enthusiasts, here is a soup that’s been around for perhaps thousands of years. It’s made from sea lettuce cultivated from the nearby island of Ojima. Combining the sea lettuce with soy sauce and tofu and then boiling everything together yields this tasty, and nutritious, soup. It goes well with just about any local meals and is served both as hot soup and as a dried snack. Sea lettuce is one of the more healthy staples of the modern Okinawa diet.
You’ll see jushi variants everywhere you go in Okinawa. It is a simple dish of rice and vegetables, prepared in endless ways. Some people add slices of pork for variety. Others eat “plain jushi,” which usually consists of rice alongside mushrooms, carrots and seaweed. Jushi kiosks are popular places for businesspeople to stop and have a quick, filling snack during a break from work. Many tourists develop a slight addiction to jushi because it’s so inexpensive, easy to prepare and tastes great.
If you drink beer, you’ll notice that more than 60 percent of every beer can and bottle in Okinawa has an Orion label. That’s because the local brewery has something of a monopoly on the island beer market. But don’t worry about it, because you can buy any brand you want. Orion is inexpensive, has its own distinctive taste, and is favored by many locals and U.S. military personnel. If you visit Okinawa and drink beer, you should at least try Orion’s Beer. Who knows, maybe it will become your new favorite!
The goya melon is a local favorite and the things are grown on the island. Get the stir fryer ready, toss in some goya alongside some tofu and eggs, and you have yourself the national dish of Okinawa. It’s easy to make and tastes wonderful. The bitterness of the goya melon combines well with the eggs and tofu, but locals will often add some lean pork chunks or slices to the basic dish to make it even tastier. Tourists who want to experience authentic Okinawa cuisine should start with goya chanpuru before branching out to the goat dishes and delicacies made from pig innards.
What are Some Fun Things to do in Okinawa?
There is plenty to do on a trip to Okinawa besides eating the great local food. Here are some other things you might want to put on your itinerary if you head to Okinawa any time soon.
Visit Gangala Valley
If you want to learn about the origins of the Okinawan people, visit this spectacular valley in a “forest” of limestone caves that date back at least 3,000 years. Nature lovers will fall for this incredible wonder of rock formations and countless caves. There’s even a guided tour that is said to be unforgettable, and even a tiny bit frightening. It’s called the “Journey of Mystery.” For the less adventuresome, just have a look at the limestone formations and enjoy a delicious meal at the “Café cave,” located right at the entry point to the venue.
See Cape Manzamo
In the local dialect, the word “manzamo” loosely translates as “an open field that seats 10,000 people.” That’s no exaggeration. In fact, if you visit at sunset or sunrise, this breathtaking spot on the western side of the island is the ideal spot to sit and take in nature’s beauty. You’ll be looking directly into the East China Sea and can listen as the ocean waves crash against the monumental cliffs. The spot is a favorite for visitors and residents.
Experience the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium
For people who enjoy aquariums, this is the best of the best. Even if you have never been below the surface of the sea for scuba diving or snorkeling, this aquarium will make you feel as though you’re 10,000 feet down. The massive place includes sea tanks where you can see, up close, the largest whale shark on earth. If that’s not enough, the coral, manta rays, and thousands of tropical fish will have your camera working overtime.
View the Katsuren Castle Ruins
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a haunting reminder of Okinawa’s ancient past, reminding us of the time when Okinawa was a Kingdom, and the people lived a very isolated existence, unknown to the Western world. There are tours during the day, and one of the wisest things you can do here is stay for the sunset. The location is perhaps the best in all of Okinawa for viewing the island. At night, the castle is illuminated by an array of lights so tourists never have to miss this unique, educational, and amazing piece of local history.
Shop on Kokusai Street
Kokusai (which means “international”) Street is a must-see for anyone who spends more than a few hours in Okinawa. In the city’s heart, this is the central area for entertainment. In years past, the avenue was simply a place for locals to shop, but today it is a vibrant tourist site packed with shops, art galleries, and restaurants. If you want to try some authentic Okinawa food, buy some traditional clothing items, or view exceptional works of art, Kokusai Street is the place to be.
Tour the Nuchi Masu Salt Factory
At first, a “salt factory” doesn’t sound like a wild time for tourists. But this is an exception. For anyone interested in healthful eating, the Nuchi Masu venue is a showcase of clever technology, Okinawa history, and fun for the whole family.
Even the Guinness Book of Records as having the best health profile of any salt on earth. It contains more than 20 different kinds of natural minerals. The factory is located on a separate island but is accessible via an oversea road. The seawater that envelops the small island of Miyagi is crystal clear and free of contaminants. That’s just one reason, in addition to its taste, that the salt from this factory is sought out by gourmet cooks the world over.
Go to American Village
Okay, so you won’t see a lot of Okinawa history here, but the place is a favorite of locals and tourists nonetheless. There are a gigantic Ferris wheel and lots of cool things to see and do. Officially, it’s known as an entertainment village, and features live shows, movies, its own shopping district, and turns into a romantic spot for local singles to visit after dark.
Eat at a Farmers’ Market
There are dozens of farmers’ markets in Okinawa, not just one. For tourists who want to taste fresh, authentic local cuisine, a stop here is a wise idea. The farmers love seeing tourists, and most know a few words of English, so buying fresh food is easy. Prices are always clearly marked, and many signs are written in multiple languages.
At some of the bigger markets, there are small snack kiosks selling things like snack foods and beer. Traveler tip: If you’re looking for a really inexpensive place to grab a quick meal, stop by a farmers’ market for some fresh fruit, snacks, and drinks. Then, go about your sightseeing.
Okinawa is a fun, romantic, historic and exciting place to visit. Many tourists who visit Japan add on a day or two to visit Okinawa. For repeat visitors to Japan, it’s common to spend an entire week in Okinawa either at the front or back end of a two- or three-week vacation.
One reason people return to Okinawa for longer visits is the friendliness of the people. There’s also a very laid-back atmosphere, unlike so many other Asian destinations. The food is unique and can be quite healthful if you avoid eating too many fried things.
There are still lots of U.S military personnel in Okinawa. In fact, the U.S. holds about one-quarter of the land as a remnant of the U.S. occupation after WWII. No doubt, this has had an influence on the Okinawa culture.
As a visitor, you will notice that many stores and restaurants offer menus and signage in English. A large part of the typical Okinawa resident’s income is based on money spent by American military personnel. And don’t forget, until 1972, the U.S. fully occupied the island.
Ancient Okinawa culture is fading fast. The strong influence of modern-day Japanese cultural practices, as well as the U.S. military presence, has had a profound effect on the people and their ways. At least there are clear reminders in the cuisine and the Okinawa dialect of a culture unique and proud. A trip to Okinawa is as educational and culturally enriching as it is fun.