In search of the secret to long life in Nagano

People in Nagano, Japan, live longer than virtually anywhere else on earth. But what’s the secret of this success? Our writer Shafik Meghji travelled across this landlocked, mountainous region of Japan, meeting a septuagenarian “wasabi master” and experiencing the work of a groundbreaking 88-year-old artist en route, in search of an answer.

“We’re a long way from the sea, so we have to get our protein somehow,” says Teddy Yamaishi, gesturing to a bowl of fried, soy-doused grasshoppers. The crispy, salty, surprisingly tasty insects are soon followed by platters of karaage, Japanese-style fried chicken, and piles of battered, deep-fried teriyaki skewers.

My first meal in landlocked Nagano Prefecture, in a pub-style izakaya in Matsumoto, is many things – delicious, eye-opening, occasionally challenging – but not suggestive of good health. Yet people in this region live longer than virtually anywhere else on earth: average life expectancy is 87.67 years for women (the highest in Japan) and 81.75 for men (the second highest), according to the most recent government figures.

My first meal in Nagano Prefecture was many things – delicious, eye-opening, occasionally challenging – but not suggestive of good health. Yet people in this region live longer than virtually anywhere else on earth.

My culinary introduction to Nagano is, however, not typical of the region. The following day I meet Teddy, who works for the Matsumoto tourist association, for a healthier lunch at a restaurant specialising in Nagano’s famous soba (buckwheat) noodles. Traditionally, salt played a huge role in the region’s cuisine, he tells me. West of Tokyo on Honshu Island, Nagano is dominated by the magnificent Japanese Alps. It suffers long, harsh winters, lacks direct access to the sea, and has relatively little agricultural land. As a result, salt-rich preserved and pickled food was a vital part of the local diet: as late as the mid-1960s, Nagano residents ate more salt than anywhere else in Japan – and suffered all the attendant health problems you would expect.

“But in recent decades the Nagano Prefecture government has had big campaigns and we’ve really reduced the amount of salt in our diet,” says Teddy, as bowls of soba noodles – rich in antioxidants and essential amino acids – and a rich mushroom broth arrive. A chorus of slurps soon emanates from our table. “We eat these all the time,” Teddy continues, “traditionally at New Year, when the noodles are associated with long life. But we also have very good quality water, and eat lots of healthy fermented foods, and of course, a lot of vegetables.”

The Daio Wasabi Farm’s tranquil water meadows produce more wasabi than anywhere else in the world. Here I meet Hama Shigetoshi, who looks at least a decade younger than his 73 years.

In fact, Nagano residents now eat more vegetables than anywhere else in Japan, while consumption of salty pickles and miso soup has plunged. The countryside around Matsumoto is associated with one vegetable above all. Some 30km north of the city, the Daio Wasabi Farm’s tranquil water meadows produce more wasabi than anywhere else in the world – 130 tonnes annually. Here I meet Hama Shigetoshi, who looks at least a decade younger than his 73 years. He also looks more like a ninja than a farmer, with his black tunic and brimless hat, a blade tucked into his belt, and a silvery goatee.

Hama was a journalist for over 40 years before retiring four years ago and starting a new career as a wasabi grower – or “wasabi master”, as he describes himself. He’s not alone: more over 65s work in Nagano than anywhere else in Japan, and retiring to work on a farm after decades in an office is not uncommon. Being a wasabi master clearly suits Hama: he takes me round with an energetic, infectious glee, showering me with wasabi facts. Frequently, mid-sentence and with the agility of a much younger man, he jumps down into the river – a good metre below the pathway – to slice off a bright green root or sprig of flowers.

When I eventually get him to slow down, he insists the secret to his youthfulness is wasabi: “Five grams a day is good, but I eat three times that. I’m 73, but my skin is still very smooth and I look young, thanks to the wasabi. It strengthens blood vessels, helps circulation, and can prevent blood diseases and thrombosis.”

Back in Matsumoto I find further evidence that Nagano’s residents not only live longer, but also live healthier for longer. The Matsumoto City Museum of Art is dedicated to one of Japan’s leading contemporary artists, Yayoi Kusama, who was born just outside the city. Now 89, Kusama still produces groundbreaking work, as evidenced by the giant polka-dotted pumpkins, mirrored infinity rooms and surreal, multicoloured plant sculptures at the museum.

Hokusai was also something of an exercise fanatic: his humble aim was to live to 100, when he believed he would become divine.

Kusama’s enduring creativity echoes that of Japan’s greatest artist, Katsushika Hokusai, the man behind “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji”. In the 1840s, when he was in his early 80s, Hokusai moved to Obuse town, 80km north of Matsumoto, and produced some of his most impressive art. He was also something of an exercise fanatic: his humble aim was to live to 100, when he believed he would become divine.

Hokusai died 11 years short of his target, but his attitude to exercise – if not his ego – is common today in Nagano, a haven for outdoor activities. The region has a world class reputation for skiing and snowboarding, but cycling has also taken off as a “green season” alternative in recent years through events such as the 160km Alps Azumino Century Ride.

I opt for a less taxing half-day cycle, through the scenic foothills of the Hakuba Valley, 60km north of Matsumoto and host of the 1998 Winter Olympics. Numerous road, off-road and downhill cycle tracks wind through Hakuba: on a sunny and crisp day, my route takes me past beautiful snow-melt rivers, ancient Shinto temples and soon-to-blossom cherry trees, before finishing at the base of the Olympic ski jump ramp.

Before leaving Nagano, Teddy insists I try out an onsen (hot spring bath). Although popular across Japan, Nagano’s onsens are famously good, associated with all manner of health benefits, from easing rheumatism to tackling hypertension. For many people – as well as troupes of “snow monkeys” at Jigokudani Yaen-koen park – they are an essential daily activity. As I slip into the soothing 41°C waters at the Yudanaka Onsen, a traditional ryokan (Japanese-style guesthouse) in Yoroduya, I immediately understand why.

So there it is. Low salt, lots of vegetables, late career changes, leisurely cycles and lengthy soaks: Nagano’s formula for a long life.

Shafik’s trip was provided by the Nagano tourist board. He stayed at Hotel Buena Vista in Matsumoto, Hakuba Tokyu Hotel in Hakuba, Yudanaka Onsen in Yoroduya, and Kamesei Ryokan in Chikuma.

Header image: Matsumoto Castle © Veerachart/Shutterstock. Image credits top to bottom (left–right): chicken karaage © decoplus/Shutterstock; soba noodles © Piyato/Shutterstock; wasabi roots © ShutterOK/Shutterstock; Daio Wasabi Farm © Shafik Meghji; Hama Shigetoshi, the “wasabi master” © Shafik Meghji; Great Gigantic Pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama © Shafik Meghji; Hakuba Valley © Shafik Meghji; Snow Monkeys in Jigokudani Yaen-koen park © Sean Pavone/Shutterstock.

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