Japan from the inside out

Tastes terrible–give me a second helping, please!

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, September 17, 2008

BY MAKING the most unhealthful foods sinfully delicious and the most nutritious foods a challenge to the palate, Mother Nature played a cruel trick on us all. Beefeaters are legion the world over, yet a graph showing the per capita beef consumption in Japan after World War II has a vertical curve almost identical to one showing the increase in the incidence of colon cancer during the same period. On the other hand, we all know the dinner table wars many parents have to wage to get their children to eat spinach.

There are several reasons the Japanese life span is among the highest in the world, and one of the most important is diet. One Japanese doctor told me the secret for a long life is to eat the way Japanese women did 40 years ago: fish, tofu (soybeans), rice, and no fatty foods. That’s a secret worth knowing, considering that Japanese women have the world’s highest life expectancy at 86 years. In fact, Japanese women have had the world’s highest life expectancy since 1985.

Among the Japanese, the traditional Okinawan lifestyle results in even greater longevity. As Bradley Willcox, Craig Willcox, and Suzuki Makoto (all doctors) write in The Okinawa Program, a book promoting the islanders’ healthful diet and lifestyle,

“If Americans lived more like Okinawans, 80 percent of the nation’s coronary care units, one-third of the cancer wards, and a lot of the nursing homes would be shut down.”

So it won’t come as a surprise to find out that some foods in the traditional Okinawan diet are unfriendly to the taste buds.


One of those is a vegetable whose generic Japanese name is nigauri, but in recent years has come to be commonly known by the word used for it in Okinawa: goya. Despite the switch in terminology, the former is the better descriptor: in Japanese it means bitter gourd (or melon).

The goya is green and slightly smaller than an American cucumber (which is thicker than the Japanese variety). Like a green pepper, it is hollow on the inside, with some pulp and seeds, and it has a soft, knobby skin.

It is indeed bitter; it’s not the sort of vegetable that people would slice and put into a tossed salad. That’s why the Okinawans most often eat it in a stir-fry with eggs, tofu, and bean sprouts, and sometimes pork, though some people keep it simple and just use the eggs.

It’s an excellent source of vitamin C, and is also said to moderate the blood pressure. What sets goya apart from other vegetables rich in vitamin C, however, is that it retains the vitamin even when cooked at high temperatures. The reason for its bitter taste is that it contains curcurbitacins, which doctors think help prevent cancers.

Goya is not native to Okinawa or Japan, but is thought to have arrived in the country from China several hundred years ago. The Chinese variety is known as chin-li-chih, goo-fa, or ku gua, and is slightly less bitter than the strain found in Japan. It’s also eaten in Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and India.

Not only is goya nutritious, it’s also good for what ails you. People throughout Asia have used it as a medicinal plant, including the Chinese and Arabs. It’s also used in the traditional Ayurveda medicine of Inda to treat skin diseases.

Thus it’s only logical that Kamiita-cho municipal employee Dan Hitomi in Tokushima has created a trial version of goya soap to publicize the town’s goya production. The first photo shows Ms. Dan holding a cube of the pale green soap, which is made entirely of natural ingredients and commercially available vegetables.

To create the soap, Ms. Dan took the liquid squeezed from goya rind and added it to water, sodium hydroxide, olive oil, and other vegetable oils. She poured the mixture into a mold, let it harden for a day, and then dried it out for a month.

Ms. Dan, who has been making soap as a hobby for 10 years, claims there is no goya odor (though the vegetable doesn’t have an unpleasant smell to begin with) and it is more gentle on the skin than other soaps using discarded oil. That makes the bitter gourd good for you, both inside and out

But goya has even more benefits. The vegetable grows on a vine, and the Okinawans often suspend those vines from the roof eaves of traditional houses. This has a two-fold effect. First, it provides the plant with the sunshine it needs to grow, and second, it cools off the interior of the house during the hot summer.

That goya vines have a cooling effect has been demonstrated by an experiment conducted this summer at the Environmental Disaster Prevention Research Center of the University of Tokushima. The second photo shows the vines suspended over the windows of a small building at the center. The study found that this “goya curtain” reduced interior temperatures by 1.5° to 2.5° C when the outdoor temperature was 30° C or higher. The use of the goya curtain made the interior cooler than hanging a traditional bamboo curtain.

And just think—the people who live in homes with a goya curtain don’t even have to go outside to pick some for the dinner table!

The only drawback is that the cooling effect is negated by closing the windows, which will turn off those people who can’t live without air conditioners. Then again, those folks would be unlikely to live in a traditional Okinawan house to begin with.


Okinawa is also home to some fruit tart enough to cause tongue spasms. One of those is known as shiikwasa, which is the Okinawan name for the hirami lemon. This small, green citrus fruit is extremely sour, with a touch of bitterness. It is packed with flavonoids, which fight cancer, and also lowers both blood pressure and blood sugar levels.

A shiikwasa is sometimes squeezed over sashimi or cooked fish to add flavor, much as lemons are used in the West. The juice is sold in concentrated form, and this can be drunk as a beverage if mixed at a roughly 8-1 ratio with hot water (which I sometimes do).

The shiikwaasa harvest has now started in the Katsuyama district of Nago in Okinawa, and some of the crop is shown in the third photo. Local farmers say this year’s harvest is a good one owing to excellent weather conditions—no typhoons hit during the growing season, total rainfall was down during the rainy season, and the heavy rains came just at the right time.

The use of the fruit depends on the time of year it is harvested. The shiikwasa picked now will be used to garnish fish, but the fruit taken from October to mid-December will be used for juice. Finally, the fruit harvested from the end of December to the end of February will be sold as produce to be eaten raw. (I can’t imagine eating one raw, but surely the Okinawans know what they’re doing.)

For accuracy’s sake, I should add that many similar kinds of fruit with different names are grown throughout Kyushu. Perhaps the most well-known is kabosu, which is grown in Kumamoto and is also being harvested now for sale at produce shops throughout the region. (I don’t know anyone who eats them raw, either.)

Though Okinawa farmers produce an abundance of food that promotes longevity, there’s a reason the doctor told me to follow the dietary habits of Japanese women 40 or 50 years ago. That’s because many younger Japanese women (and younger Okinawans) no longer follow those dietary habits themselves. Like most people everywhere, they tend to eat more of the things that taste good, rather than the things that are good for you.

Those Epicurean ways new to post-war Japan might make for more delectable dining, but it comes at a cost. Life expectancy figures may start slipping for Japanese women, as they already have for younger Okinawans.

But then, Mother Nature is the one who sets the rules, and we break them at our own risk.

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4 Responses to “Tastes terrible–give me a second helping, please!”

  1. Get a Job, Son! said

    Goya is great… “That’s why the Okinawans most often eat it in a stir-fry with eggs, tofu, and bean sprouts, and sometimes pork, though some people keep it simple and just use the eggs.”… which sounds like Champuru (sp!)… a favaorite of mine.
    Didn’t know it was a soap raw material!

    Also have to say that shiikwasa is also great when “drunk as a beverage”, though I prefer mine with Shochu… on the odd occasion.

    Never been to Okinawa… but it is NEXT on my list.

    Good post!

  2. Ken said

    Nigauri of inland is smaller and bitterer than Gouya of Okinawa.
    Some say the seed is different and others say same seed can grow bigger by warmer climate in Okinawa but cooler climate of inland condenses the bitterness.
    Likewaise, cockroach of Okinawa is twice as big as that of inland.
    Be careful, GAJS.

  3. mac said

    I am wondering if that should soon be Japanese women a “had” the highest life expectancy. 86 year old women started eating 86 years ago in the 1920s … funnily enough … and spent the first 30 or so eating a traditional, organic Japanese diet; primarily vegan macrobiotic with a little bit of fish through in (an not every day after).

    Around that time meat intake was about 0.5% of the diet, 90% of the population did not eat any and 50 to 60% only ate fish on special occasions. Now meat consumptions is over 16% of the average diet, on top of which there are all those creamy patisseries which make a mockery of the claims “Japanese don’t eat diary products”. Food and cosmetics (yes, women digest them through their skin) have also become increasingly chemicalized.

    I have been reading “The Foundation of Japan, notes made during Journeys of 6,000 miles in the rural districts as a sounder knowledge of the Japanese People” by J.W. Robertson Scott (1922), and the recently deceased (and shamefully not mentioned on this site) Masanobu Fukuoka’s ‘The One-Straw Revolution’ … both of which are available as downloads; and

    The Robertson Scott book gives an interesting insight into a Japan in transition and the Western Imperial view, which would only come to fruition after WWII including its ambitions on changing diet (introducing bread and butter), which Fukuoka counters later (stupid Min.Ag, local wheat does not ripen until after the rainy season making it inedible).

    Ah, for the ‘seven herbs of spring’ rather than grazing at Lawsons and Mossburger.

  4. […] writes some Japanese diet tips for staying healthy. Posted by Oiwan Lam  Print Version Share […]

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