Travel: stay home and think of Japan

A Japanese outlook on life will help see us through the lockdown, says Chris Carter.

With England a week into its second lockdown, travel discouraged across much of the rest of Britain, and winter fast approaching, millions of us are getting reacquainted with life indoors. It has therefore never been more important for us to stay focused and happy on a daily basis. That is essentially what the Japanese concept of ikigai is all about. “Formed by combining ‘iki’, meaning ‘life’, and ‘gai’, meaning ‘to be worthwhile’, the term is a succinct way to describe what gets you up in the morning – be it work, family or a well-loved hobby – much like a prosaic version of the French term raison d’être,” says Lily Crossley-Baxter for BBC Travel. “It’s something you live for… If you have a great time when you are working, it could be ikigai. If you have a family you love and you can do something for, it’s also ikigai.” 

A philosophy for a long life

The origins of the word can be found in Japan’s Heian period (794-1185), says Lucy Dayman of website Savvy Tokyo earlier this year, with the “gai” part thought to stem from “kai”, the Japanese word for shell. In the Heian period, shells were “extremely valuable” and the association with wealth can be seen in related Japanese words, such as hatarakigai, meaning “the value of work”. “Gai” is, therefore, “the key to finding your purpose, or value in life”, says Dayman. Many believe “ikigai can make you live longer and with more direction”. Just look at the Okinawans, as Héctor García and Francesc Miralles write in the prologue to their 2017 international bestseller Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life. Ikigai “translates roughly as ‘the happiness of always being busy’”. With that philosophy shaping their lives, along with “a healthy diet, a simple life in the outdoors, green tea… [and the subtropical climate], it’s little wonder that the inhabitants of Okinawa, an island in the far south of Japan, are among some of the world’s longest-lived. 

Old Japanese lady

Okinawa is ideally suited to this way of life. It is “Japan’s version of an island paradise”, says Rob Goss in Wanderlust magazine. Visitors will find “winning sunsets” at Cape Manzamo. But the island is also prized for its cuisine, which, besides “great seafood, includes stewed pig trotters, sliced pig’s ear and a bitter-tofu-pork stir fry called goya champuru”. The nearby Yaeyama Islands, Japan’s most south-westerly point, are also worth exploring, lying closer to Taiwan than Tokyo. “Ishigaki has cobalt bays and white beaches; Iriomote is covered in jungle; sleepy Taketomi has villages where the traditional stone bungalows are capped with red-tile roofs… [while] Yonaguni has wild ponies and scuba spots, where divers can swim with hammerhead sharks.” The closest of Japan’s four main islands to Okinawa, Kyushu, benefits from geothermal activities, hence the “photogenic volcanoes’ and hot springs (onsen). Ibusuki city, part of Kagoshima on the coast, has plenty of onsen baths, “as well as ryokan inns for a night’s traditional accommodation and sand baths, if you fancy being buried up to your neck in steaming hot sand to improve skin and circulation”. 

Embrace ikigai at home

Tourists will also be able to board a new luxury sight-seeing train that left Kagoshima last month for its maiden voyage around the island. It takes its name, 36+3, from the fact that Kyushu is the 36th largest island in the world, with the “3” representing passengers, local residents and the railway company, says The Japan Times. Incorporating a mixture of Japanese and Western design elements, passengers will be able to “enjoy local cuisine, including sake, wagyu [beef] and seafood” along the way, from ¥12,000 (£88).

Of course, for those of us in Britain, Kyushu and Okinawa will have to wait – at least for now. But that doesn’t mean you can’t embrace the concept of ikigai at home. As one elderly resident of Ogimi, on Okinawa island, reputed to be the village with the highest percentage of centenarians in the world, told García and Miralles for their book, “The most important thing in Ogimi, in life, is to keep smiling”.

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