January is a month when many of us resolve to eat healthier. Japan, with its worldwide reputation for health and longevity, is a good place to look. Much of the island nation’s health is attributed to the amount of seafood consumed in the traditional diet. However, according to the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, the prefecture with the highest life expectancy is landlocked Nagano Prefecture. Men from this prefecture have been the healthiest in the country since 1990, and Nagano’s women took the top spot in 2013 from Okinawan women, who dropped to 3rd place behind Shimane Prefecture’s women. (Okinawan men are all the way down at No. 30, due to an increase in obesity, heart disease and other life-shortening factors.) In 2013, a Health Ministry study put the life expectancy for Nagano residents at 80.88 years for men and 87.18 years for women — the national averages for the same year are 79.59 and 86.35, respectively.
Not only do the people of Nagano live long, they stay healthy and active, too; 26.1 percent of prefectural residents 65 and older are gainfully employed as opposed to 20.4 percent nationwide, according the Statistics Bureau of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications.
The situation was quite different 50 years ago. Modern-day Nagano was once part of Shinano no kuni (aka Shinshu Province), an area that had a diet high in salt similar to many inland regions — salt was needed to preserve food over the long, cold winters. Salty pickled and preserved foods such as nozawana zuke, the preserved leaves of nozawana (a type of turnip) that the area is famous for, used to be much saltier than they are now, and local favorites such as Shinshu miso were very salty, too. In 1965, Nagano residents consumed more salt than any other area in the country and, not surprisingly, the leading causes of death at that time were strokes and other high blood pressure-related illnesses.
In the early 1980s, Nagano started to tackle this problem in earnest, starting at the town and village level and gradually introducing the intervention to the entire prefecture. The salt problem was the first issue tackled; people were encouraged to reduce their consumption of miso soup to once a day instead of for every meal, to eat a small quantity of pickled vegetables instead of a bowlful, and to not drink up all the salty dipping sauce used for buckwheat soba noodles (Nagano is highly regarded for the quality of its buckwheat). With modern refrigeration methods, the consumption of fresh vegetables — those that were not preserved with salt — was encouraged, too.
But the importance of living healthy, not just living longer, was emphasized. This way of thinking was represented by a slogan that was first used in Nagano to promote a healthy lifestyle, and has since gained national attention. The slogan is “pin pin korori” — to be pin pin (spry and energetic) in life, and to die korori (quickly and painlessly). Nagano residents of all ages spend less than the national average on medical care (which includes prescription medication, doctor visits and hospitalization). And, according to The National Health and Nutrition Survey in Japan, 2012, the average consumption of vegetables by Nagano residents was 379 grams per day for men and 365 grams for women — the highest rates in the country. In 2012, an average Nagano resident consumed roughly 70 grams more vegetables than the national average.
A key to understanding why the people of Nagano were able to change their eating habits may lie in the variety of foods that they have been willing to try historically. Lacking easy sources of food, especially in the winter, even hachinoko (bee larvae) and grasshoppers were fair game, and horse meat has long been a local delicacy. A diet with lots of vegetables and wide variety of foods seems like a good formula for healthy eating at any time.
This month’s recipe is inspired by Nagano’s yatara, a dish of marinated and lightly fermented chopped vegetables served on rice or soba noodles. I’ve used vegetables that are available year-round, but you can use any seasonal vegetables (it’s actually a typical summertime dish made with shishito peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, perilla leaves and myoga ginger). The miso marinade sauce is very versatile — try mixing two parts plain Greek yogurt with one part miso marinade to use as a dip for chopped vegetables.
Recipe: Miso-marinated vegetables
- 4 tablespoons Shinshu miso
- 3 tablespoons mirin
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 3 small cucumbers
- 3 medium carrots
- 20 cm-long medium-sized daikon
- A few thin slices of ginger
Prepare the miso base in advance by bringing the mirin to a boil in a small pan, then letting it cool down. Mix the miso, mirin and sugar well until it is smooth and shiny.
Cut the cucumbers in half and scoop out any seeds with the tip of a spoon. Peel the carrots and daikon. Cut the vegetables into sticks and spread them out onto a large tray lined with paper towels. Sprinkle very sparingly with salt, and leave for at least an hour until the vegetables have exuded moisture. Pat them dry with fresh paper towels.
Combine the vegetable sticks and ginger slices with the miso base. Marinate for two to three hours in an airtight container. Serve as-is, or chop up finely and serve on rice or soba noodles. Keep for up to three days in the refrigerator.