The Japanese way of life
Perhaps those of you reading are already aware of how healthy Japanese people are on average. But did you know that Japan has one of the highest life expectancy rates in the world?
Listen to your mother and eat your veggies!
There are a number of factors that could possibly contribute to the 80+ years that an average Japanese person is expected to live. One of which is speculated to be linked to the traditional Japanese diet. Japanese people eat a diet rich in cruciferous vegetables that my mother was always force-feeding me as a child. Some of these include; broccoli, cauliflower, daikon (Japanese white radish), wasabi (Japanese horseradish), and cabbage. And low and behold, these vegetables have been linked to the prevention of cancer! Some of the nutrients that can be found in these vegetables include; folate, vitamin C, potassium, selenium, carotenoids, chlorophyll, fiber, and flavonoids –to name a few. Although some of these may sound like UFO sightings, you can rest assured that they are working in your favor. It’s just about time for a salad, don’t you think?
A menu for tofu
Another favorite dish in the Japanese household is tofu – derived from coagulating soy milk. There are so many types of tofu that it boggles my mind to try to remember them all. Among these types, there is fresh tofu, processed tofu, soft tofu, firm tofu, sweet tofu, freeze-dried tofu, fried tofu, and tofu topped off with ginger and soy sauce. Basically, there’s a different style of tofu for every day of the week – and then some – if you love your tofu and are looking to expand your horizons. I personally like ‘hiyayakko’ – silken or firm tofu served with freshly grated ginger, scallions and soy sauce. There’s nothing more delicious or refreshing on a hot, humid summer day. So what is so great about tofu? Aside from the fact that it contains a miniscule amount of calories (great for all of us who are on a diet this summer), the beneficial amounts of iron, and lack of cholesterol make it a wonderfully guilt-free side dish. Also, depending on the type of tofu, it may also be a great source of calcium and magnesium.
Tasty, healthy, fatty fish
Vegetables and tofu are good forms of nutrition but nothing beats a large helping of fish, or sushi, for that matter. Japanese people love fish just as much as I do, having a fondness for oily fish that are high in omega-3 fatty acids. These omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial for maintaining a healthy heart, preventing strokes, and for those who have – or are at risk of – cardiovascular disease. Better yet, fish are high in protein but don’t have the high saturated fat content that fatty meat contains. Some of the delicious fish in the omega-3 fatty acids group are: salmon (my favorite fish. You cook it, I’ll eat it! I’ll even eat it raw!), tuna, mackerel, lake trout, herring, and sardines. Most health experts recommend eating one of these types of fish at least twice a week in order to maintain a healthy heart. This is definitely one recommendation that I have no problem following because I love seafood. A good number of lunch boxes come packed with fish, and rice balls are also notorious for harboring fishy morsels in the center so it isn’t too difficult to get your hands on a good supply of fish in Japan.
One thing I enjoy about Japan is the tea. An endless selection of tea awaits me every time I go shopping in one of the major department stores. Tea goes well with every meal imaginable (for me anyhow). The most well-known tea in Japan is the Japanese green tea. So what can Japanese green tea do for you? If you’ve never asked yourself this question then you’re in for a surprise. Believe it or not, it is actually capable of preventing food poisoning. An ingredient in the tea, known as catechin, effectively kills the bacteria responsible for causing food poisoning and also kills the toxins produced by said bacteria. This same substance is known to be effective for reducing the growth of cancer. And this next fact – something that I’d brushed off as a myth when a friend mentioned it last year – really made me do some extra research because I found it difficult to believe. Japanese green tea actually suppresses the formation of plaque, and kills the bacteria that might bring about a scolding from your family dentist. And let’s not forget that it also kills the bacteria responsible for causing bad breath. Other benefits continue to amaze me, like preventing the increase in cholesterol, controlling high blood pressure, and lowering blood sugar levels. As an added bonus, to anyone who is looking for a modern day fountain of youth, this tea also slows down the aging process. Why? Because of the high content of vitamin E, which works as an antioxidant, it has the ability to slow the aging process.
Yoga and Tai Chi
Not hungry but still need some form of stress management? Stress is a factor in some illnesses, health risks, and no doubt contributes to premature aging. In Japan, there are two popular types of exercises that are popular for stress management. Yoga and tai chi (a traditional Chinese martial art) are both very spiritual forms of exercise and require a relaxed state of mind to perform well in. Because of the nature of yoga and tai chi, the body is always relaxed, concentrating on deep breathing techniques, meditation, and controlled movements. These also seem to promote healthy hearts by regulating blood pressure, and building up resistance to psychological stress. Whereas practicing tai chi has been found to reduce pain, stress, anxiety, cardiovascular and respiratory function, yoga has been attributed with relieving chronic back pain, and improving flexibility. A healthy mind is just as important as a healthy body. I think that for the pain reduction benefits alone, I might give tai chi and yoga a try. Either that or invest in a desk intended for computer use. With absolutely no free space for such a large piece of furniture… I think that it’s time to start exercising.
Aside from tai chi and yoga, meditating alone is very important for some Japanese people. Buddhist practitioners in Japan devote a significant portion of their lives to meditating, steering their mindset and emotions into a more peaceful realm of existence. Perhaps the most unique form of meditation in Japan is ‘takigyo’, or waterfall meditation. This involves a great deal of concentration in order to focus the mind and increase self-awareness. While a Buddhist practitioner engages in takigyo, he stands underneath a waterfall (most of the time with frigid water temperatures) and remains there in a meditative state, chanting for possibly hours at a time. Maybe that diet change is beginning to sound a lot easier at this moment. But fear not, takigyo is not restricted to only Japanese people. Many foreigners come to Japan to experience takigyo in an attempt to elevate their spiritual awareness.
Come to think of it, I believe that I may have actually encountered one such Buddhist practitioner around the beginning of January. It was pretty cold in January, nowhere near as cold as it gets in Canada but it was still coat and gloves weather. Most people were wearing coats, some were wearing boots at the time, and a few wore gloves. A couple also took pity on their ears by wearing earmuffs or woolly hats. And in the middle of one of Kobe’s more well-trodden streets there stood a tall man. He couldn’t have been mistaken for Japanese because he was so obviously North American in appearance, especially his features. Were it not for his shaved head, simple monk’s attire, and _bare_ feet, I think that he could have passed off as one of my previous co-workers. At the time, I had been startled to see a foreigner dressing up as a Buddhist monk, it just wasn’t an idea that would have naturally occurred to me. And yet there he stood. He continued to chant despite the frigid cold weather, his bare feet, and exposed arms. And all the while, his expression appeared to be very serene and at peace with his surroundings. I encountered him upon reaching Kobe and found that he hadn’t moved an inch when I returned to the same spot at the end of the day. Apparently, the opportunity to delve into the world of Buddhism is available to anyone who is serious, devoted, and has the ability to reach that state of awareness.
Cycle away that chocolate bar!
Another great form of exercise is cycling. A very large percentage of the Japanese population rides a bicycle daily. Whether it be for grocery shopping, commuting to and from the train station, or going straight to work, the bicycle is a convenient and fast form of transit. And better yet, it’s free and gets those leg muscles working. Cycling is proven to reduce the risks of heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, and the most common form of diabetes. Cycling is also an excellent method to help with either weight management or losing weight. If you were to ride your bicycle at a pretty constant pace for an hour, you would be able to burn off 300 calories. Or for those of us who like to envision those calories, think of a calorie-laden chocolate bar, or a couple of alcoholic drinks. If you’re ever feeling down or stressed to the max, try cycling around for a while because it can definitely have positive effects on your mood. It reduces levels of stress and depression, improves your overall mood, and raises self-esteem. Personally, I feel much better after 4 hours of cycling because I enjoy my carbohydrates a little bit too much.
Strangely enough, most of these habits have already been taken on by most Canadians. Having seen the benefits that certain vegetables, tofu, fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, meditation, and regular exercise can have on one’s health in general, Canada often promotes this sort of lifestyle. The only difference is that in Japan, these practices are not only good for the health, but they are also part of a long tradition and very customary in origin.
Daikon – what are you doing on my hamburger?
Before coming to Japan, I never would have considered eating tofu raw. In fact, I never particularly liked tofu when I was in Canada. Some of my experiences with tofu involved an over-fried, mushy lump, coated with an overgenerous helping of soy sauce. I’d never tried fresh tofu until my first trip to Fukui and then a few times in Kyoto. Gradually, I overcame my tofu trauma and the white jello-like molds eventually became a favorite side dish. Daikons were completely new to me, having never seen one before it ended up in a grated heap on top of my hamburger one day. That had been a double shock because I’d never seen a hamburger served without a bun. I immediately liked the unusual taste of daikon and forgave the hamburger for neglecting to bring its bun along for the meal. It’s amazing the number of dishes that daikons can end up in. Anything from sitting atop hamburgers, to floating in a pot of oden (a Japanese winter dish, kind of like a hot pot), or sneaking into a steamed veggie salad.
As for the cycling, I’m really glad that I can finally get back into my favorite pastime after such a long break from it. I don’t know about the rest of Japan but Osaka is a maze of side streets, rivers, and train tracks. It makes for an interesting adventure roaming about the various paths, seeing where the next fork in the road will take me. With my freshly renewed vow to eat healthy, and my bicycle tuned up for long distance travel, I think that I won’t have too much trouble mentally preparing myself for some tai chi and yoga. Provided that my apartment space allows for those kinds of movements. If not… at least I’ll be healthy enough to recover quickly from any injuries.