Why the West needs Ikigai

What do the world’s longest-living people eat and drink?

We travelled to Ogimi, a village in the north of the island of Okinawa. Set within lush green hills fed by crystalline waters, its population of three thousand people boasts the highest life expectancy in the world, earning it the moniker: ‘Village of Longevity’. 

We were there to research the reasons for this, and so one of the first things we asked the elders was about their diet. The question was met with a shrug: “There is no secret to our diet, I just enjoy what’s on my plate”. A week spent in their company confirmed this. We would see a 90-year-old eating very fatty pork and later that afternoon enjoying a piece of cake with a cup of green tea. Their secret, however, appears to lie in their portion sizes and in variety. Their plate always comprises something from the sea and something from the earth. A study of Okinawa’s centenarians also showed that they ate 206 different foods, including spices, on a regular basis, and an average of eighteen different foods each day, a striking contrast to the nutritional poverty of our fast-​food culture. They eat at least five servings of fruit and vegetables every day and more than 30 percent of their daily calories come from vegetables.

Green tea is believed to be one of the secrets of Japanese longevity

The question that elicited more excitement was “What is your ikigai?” The Japanese concept of ikigai, which can be translated as “a reason for being”, is the thing that propels you from your bed in the morning with a sense of purpose and optimism. Finding your ikigai – and you may have many – is felt to be crucial to a long and happy life.

A 92-year-old woman explained how every morning before breakfast she tends to her garden plot before walking her great-grandchildren to school. In the afternoon she enjoys helping her daughter and son to prepare dinner for the family.

There is meaning and connection in her whole day, from the moment she wakes up until she goes to sleep. The produce she tends in her backyard in the morning will be used to make dinner. And the collective process of cooking and the act of eating together is a way to connect with her loved ones and for them to connect with her.

Her days are filled with meaning, with ikigai.

Of course this is not unique to Ogimi but it is something that is increasingly lost in the hustle and bustle of modern, urban life, which can be isolated and isolating. 

From an early age Okinawans practice yuimaaru, or teamwork, and so are used to helping one another as part of a community. And this strong sense of social support – often centred around cooking, eating and drinking together – has been shown to be one of the main factors in a happy and healthy life, not only in Japan but all over the world. 

Elder in Ogimi eating shikuwasa in his backyard.

In Ogimi the drinks of choice are green tea and sanpincha, a special type of jasmine tea typical of Okinawa which they gather to prepare and drink together every afternoon. Having a hot drink with friends in the afternoon is not a secret of Japan, it is a tradition we’ve had in the west for a long time too. It could be as simple as making drip coffee in your office with your workmates and enjoying it together.  Divide the tasks while you talk: one of you brings the beans, another grinds them, someone else brews the coffee and another serves it. The roles rotate each day, creating a ritual that will ultimately lead to a greater connection between colleagues. 

           This shared ritual runs contrary to the individualism that is so widespread in today’s culture and which is one of the greatest enemies of health and happiness. One of the key factors contributing to their longevity is the Ogimi villagers’ strong sense of community and team work. In Ogimi they organize in moais, which are informal groups of people with common interests who look out for one another. The moais serve in good times but also bad. For example, when a typhoon hit, they all help to rebuild each other’s houses.

Yuki sells shikuawa and other locally grown vegetables in a simple shop near the seaside in Ogimi.

When I returned from Ogimi I began to reflect about the fact that some of these “secrets” were ones I already knew. I had already lived them when I spent summers in my grandfather’s village in Northern Spain. There we would eat what the earth gave us and our days would revolve around spending time with all the other villagers. My time with the Okinawans served to remind me of some obvious truths such as the importance of shared mealtimes and the way food lends our days a natural rhythm which is central to ikigai. 

Eating in a hurry, as we so often do today, becomes an act without meaning. The purpose is simply to sate our hunger rather than to form a meaningful and pleasurable experience. The Okinawans follow the ancient principle of hara hachi bu, meaning that they eat mindfully, truly enjoying the flavours and stopping before they become over-full. When you start to feel full, stop for a second and ask yourself: do I really need to keep eating? When you have truly savoured what you have eaten, you may find that you are no longer tempted to eat too much of it. 

We all need more ikigai in our every day. Why not start with adding more meaning to the way we eat and drink?

Reconnect with our traditions.

            Eat and drink slowly with your loved ones.

Eat little portions with a variety of ingredients.

Don’t fill your stomach to 100%, stop at 80%.

Enjoy the flavour and taste of the food: be mindful,

Eat with ikigai


Goya Champuru recipe

This is one of the most traditional recipes in the Okinawan archipelago.


— 1 goya (Japanese bitter gourd), as a replacement you can use courgette 

— 1 block cotton tofu, drained

— 200 grams of thinly sliced pork

—2 beaten eggs

—2 tsp of soy sauce

—2 tsp of sake

—Katsuobushi (It’s ok if you don’t have it!)

—Salt and pepper

  • Sesame or olive oil
This is how goya looks like after being cut. It should rest with salty water for a while before cooking to reduce part of its the bitterness.

How to Make It

  • Cut the goya in half lengthwise and remove all the seeds inside. If you are using courgette skip this step.
  • Thinly slices the goya or courgette and sprinkle with salt.

— Wash the slices and drain well.

— Heat one tbsp. of sesame or olive oil and stir fry the pork, seasoning it with salt and pepper.

—Add the goya or courgette slices and cook until softened.

—Add the tofu.

—Keep frying the tofu and add the sake.

  • Finally, pour the beaten eggs over and stir quickly until just set. 
  • Finish by seasoning with soy sauce.

— To serve sprinkle with katsuobushi (Fermented bonito flakes) if you can find them. If not, you can substitute it with nori seaweed. 

This is how it looks like without the katsuboshi. Both styles are considered to be correct recipies by the okinawans.
Final look of my homemade goya champuru, notice the katsuobushi on top.

Happy cooking!

Ikigai, The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life: https://www.amazon.com/Ikigai-Japanese-Secret-Long-Happy/dp/0143130722/