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Discovering the Secrets to Long Life in Kyotango

2021.10.29

Located two and half hours north of Kyoto City, the rugged Kyotango region is home to an intriguing local secret: the residents of the idyllic fishing villages and mountain hamlets in this backwoods region consistently live longer than Japanese citizens elsewhere. Often remaining genki (energetic) after a century of countryside living, Kyotango residents attribute their longevity to a combination of local benefits. Recent scientific studies have confirmed that the blessings of the northern Kyoto lifestyle are no urban legend, and now travelers can come experience these natural boons for themselves.

Wise Advice from a Record Holder

In 2013, Kyotango resident Jiroemon Kimura celebrated his 116th birthday with friends and family. He had been recognized by Guinness World Records as the oldest verified man in history, and was the last living person to have been born in the 19th century. Born and raised in Kyotango, the lively Jiroemon had enjoyed a lifetime of the benefits of living in the rural north.

While he was certainly the most notable of Kyotango’s elderly population, Jiroemon wasn’t alone. The area is credited with 2.8 times more centenarians – those who live to at least one hundred years old – than the national average of age distribution in Japan. This may seem miraculous at first, but there are explainable reasons behind the phenomenon. Kimura himself summed it up well with his own words on how to live a long life: “eat right to live long,” in addition to staying active and finding time to relax.

This may seem like obvious health advice, but the Kyotango lifestyle offers unique twists on all three of these points in ways that demonstrate proven benefits. Let’s look at Kimura’s three pieces of advice in more detail and discover how you can enjoy your time exploring new pathways to wellness and long life while visiting Kyotango.

Eat Right: Kyotango’s Secret Ingredients

When Jiroemon suggested that we “eat right” to live long, he was no doubt thinking of the cuisine of his homeland. The traditional Kyotango menu has long been held as a fine example of a healthy diet that relies on the blessings of nature. Many of the dishes enjoyed here are not found elsewhere, giving you an even greater incentive to get adventurous when dining in northern Kyoto Prefecture.

Far from being just anecdotal, science backs up the power of Kyotango’s diet as well. A 2019 study showed a difference in gut bacteria between residents of Kyotango and Kyoto city, indicating that this could be a reason for the longevity of northern residents. Research demonstrates that even a small intake of beneficial gut bacteria can have long lasting effects, so you can reap the benefits of your meals in Kyotango long after your visit is concluded.

・Kyotango-Style Sushi

As a coastal region, Kyotango is famous for its abundant seafood. Locals rely on the cold waters of the Sea of Japan to provide them with the ingredients that make up many of the region’s staple dishes. In the town of Kumihama, a small fish called konoshiro is caught in the bay and used to make a special style of sushi that international visitors have most likely never tried. The fish is pickled whole and stuffed with okara, a byproduct of tofu manufacturing, giving it a distinct sweet and sour flavor. This harkens back to a more historic style of sushi than the common style of fish slices on rice. It’s a seasonal delicacy, so if you visit Kumihama between November and March, be sure to pick up some konoshiro sushi at local shops.

・Slices of Salty Perfection

Another seafood specialty of the region is heshiko, a deliciously briny dish that highlights the outstanding seafood of the region. Fresh mackerel is sliced thin and fermented in bacteria-rich nukazuke rice bran, resulting in a taste profile that contains both the zing of a pickle and the delicate umami of traditional Japanese cuisine. As the locals will enthusiastically tell you, it pairs wonderfully with sake – though this author prefers it as a side dish with craft beer.

For the ultimate heshiko experience visit Hisami, the restaurant of the family who has perfected the dish over many generations. The two brothers in charge have fine-tuned their great grandmother’s recipe by relying on high quality rice bran derived from locally harvested grain. Additional creative recipes using nukazuke fermentation can be enjoyed at Hisami as well.

 

Website: https://hisami-kyoto.jp/ (Japanese only)
Read more about Hisami here!

・Hands-on with Miso

These seafood dishes pack a dose of the region’s famous gut bacteria, but the real star of Kyotango cooking is miso. This thick paste with a rich taste is made from fermented soybeans and contains a key bacteria that is found in high levels among Kyotango centenarians. Even if you taste miso elsewhere on your trip to Japan, north Kyoto is said to be where this traditional ingredient packs the most health benefits.

To learn more about this miracle food, stop in at Tabel Table, located only three rail stops from Amanohashidate Station. Food researcher and cook Junko Hamilton introduces visitors to miso in a hands-on experience in her chicly appointed kitchen. You’ll learn the details of the production process and discover how it is used as a staple in Japanese cooking. Try your hand at preparing the perfect bowl of miso soup and take home a batch of your own miso paste. This is an excellent way to learn from a top food researcher and gain insight into an ingredient that is very likely a key element in the Kyotango longevity equation.

Activity Details: Miso-Making Workshop

Stay Active: Exploring Coastal Scenery

Jiroemon knew that exercise was an important part of ageing in a healthy way. His advice to stay active is followed by old timers all over Kyotango year-round, whether it be a walk to their friend’s house in the next village or the constant shoveling of snow in winter. The rural lifestyle of the peninsula ensures a constant level of physical activity that researchers from Kyoto Prefectural University of Medicine think benefits the residents greatly. In 2020, it was determined that Kyotango’s older generations have much “younger” blood vessels compared to the rest of the nation’s elderly. Turns out that Jiroemon was right once again.

You, too, can enjoy a bit of exercise during your visit to Kyotango. A great way to visit the highlights of the coastal region is on foot, so consider the following walks to get your blood pumping as you take in the sights.

・A Geological Wonderland

The entirety of Kyotango’s coast falls within the area of the Sanin Kaigan UNESCO Geopark. More than simply the conservatory purpose of a World Heritage site, a geopark is a designation for an area that promotes geological heritage and cultural attractions with sustainable tourism in mind. It stretches over three prefectures, with the Kyotango portion containing some of the most impressive coastline on the Sea of Japan.

The port of Taiza is a great starting point for a half day walk. Begin at the Tenki Tenki Tango roadside station, a rest area with a tourism information booth where you can pick up a map. From there, walk through town to Tateiwa, or “standing rock.” This massive monolith of stone on the beach has a unique verticality to its shape, and locals say a demon is trapped within. Nearby, you’ll find the Onaru Burial Grounds on a plateau jutting out into the sea. These 6th and 7th century tombs are fun to explore, and the view is breathtaking.

A bit farther along the coast lies Byobuiwa, another large rock formation with a distinct shape. This one has a thin, graceful shape said to resemble a traditional folding screen. You can view it from the coast, but it’s best seen from an observation platform on the main road. From there, you can catch a bus back into Taiza.

UNESCO San'in Kaigan Global Geopark

UNESCO San’in Kaigan Global Geopark

Stretching from Kyoto through northern Hyogo, Tottori, and parts of Shimane Prefectures, this UNESCO Global Geopark is a geologist’s dream. But even for those less enthusiastic about rocks, there are some pretty amazing reasons to visit this incredible area. The Kyoto portion of this geopark is located in Kyotango, an area well-known throughout Japan for its unparalleled quality of seafood, silk heritage, and stunning beaches.

・Strolling the Singing Sands

To get even closer to the sand and surf, head west to the town of Amino. Buses run to the area from Taiza, or you can catch a bus from Amino Station on the Miyazu line. Your destination is the famous Kotohikihama Beach area. Here you can marvel at the famous “singing” quartz sand as it makes a high-pitched squeaking when as you shuffle your feet about. You can even pound the sand with your hands and rub it between you palms to create otherworldly sounds. Elsewhere in the area, the sand is composed of cute little micro shells – some only a few millimeters in size – that you can see up close at the Singing Sands Museum nearby.
The coastal scenery around Kotohikihama is striking, and the beach offers a chance to get a close-up view of the water. A bus back to Amino Station runs from the museum area.

Kotohikihama Beach

Kotohikihama Beach

Kotohikihama Kakezu Beach in Amino-cho, Kyotango City is a scenic beach with white sand and pine trees. It is famous for being the largest “singing sand” beach in Japan, with a total length of 1.8 km. The main component of singing sand is quartz, which produces a unique squeaky tone only on sandy beaches with clean water and few impurities. For this reason, environmental conservation is important, and this was the first non-smoking beach in the world.
On the beach, there is an open-air bath with a natural source of flowing hot spring water where you can bathe for free (mixed-gender bathing, and a bathing suit is required). You can enjoy the beautiful view of the sea while relaxing in the hot spring bath.
Every year at the beginning of June, a “Barefoot Concert” (Hadashino Concert) is held here. The entrance fee is helping out with the beach cleaning before the concert starts! Flea markets are also set up in addition to the concert.
In addition to being a designated national natural monument, Kotohikihama Kakezu Beach has also entered numerous selections, such as the 100 Soundscapes of Japan, the 100 Coasts of Japan, the 100 White Sand and Pine Trees of Japan, and the 200 Natural Spots of Kyoto Prefecture.

・The Bay from Above

The climb up Mt. Kabutoyama in Kumihama is another enjoyable outdoor adventure. This route can be walked as a loop from Kabutoyama Station and is not as demanding an ascent as you might think. More of a nature walk than a hike, the journey up the mountain rewards you with a magnificent view of Kumihama Bay. The observation platform at the peak is the perfect spot for a picnic.

After descending, take some time to explore the quiet neighborhood nearby. Treat yourself to a snack at Tango Jersey Farm, where the delicious soft serve ice cream is made on the premises from fresh milk. If you’re in the mood for something a little stronger, visit the Kinoshita Sake Brewery for some of the most unique sake you’ll ever drink. The Englishman who serves as master brewer here has created an eclectic lineup of products, including a rare sake that relies on a long-lost recipe from centuries past. A sip or two can’t hurt – I’m sure Jiroemon would approve!

Mt. Kabutoyama Observatory Deck

Mt. Kabutoyama Observatory Deck

Mt. Kabutoyama s a 191.7 m tall mountain that overlooks Kumihama Bay. The rounded shape of the mountain resembles the shape of a samurai helmet (Kabuto), which is how Kabutoyama got its name (yama means mountain). Mt. Kabutoyama Observatory Deck at the top of the mountain takes approximately 20 minutes to reach on foot via a well-maintained trail starting at the foot of the mountain. The wooden observatory deck faces out towards Kumihama Bay where the unique mountainous topography has formed a thin sand bar called Shotenkyo, which encircles the bay and separates the calm waters of the bay from the Sea of Japan. The sweeping view of the contrasting green rice paddies against the blue sea is a spectaulor sight. “Shotenkyo” translates to “small heavenly bridge,” and is said to be named after one of Japan’s most famous scenic views, Amanohashidate, the large sandbar that represents a bridge to the heavens in Japanese mythology.

Relax: Soak Your Cares Away

Jiroemon’s final piece of advice regarding relaxation is perhaps the easiest for Kyotango residents to follow. After all, the region is home to a number of onsen, or natural hot springs, offering ample opportunities for a warm soak to relieve the body and clear the mind.
The healing effects of onsen have been known since ancient times. Medical experts can now pinpoint exactly how these springs help us, pointing mainly to the hydrostatic pressure exerted on our skin as we submerge in the piping hot waters. This gives the blood vessels a bit of a squeeze and promotes good circulation. It may be just one more reason for the healthy condition of the bodies of Kyotango citizens.
An onsen experience is an unmissable part of any Japan adventure, and Kyotango is the perfect spot to take the plunge. Here are a few of our favorite hot spring spots in the region.

・Outdoor Hot Spring Paradise

Kumihama Yumotokan is the largest onsen in the north Kansai region, and boasts a gorgeous outdoor pool. Steaming spring water runs down the exposed rock of the mountainside and flows directly into the bathing area. This water is high in minerals that stimulate oxygen flow to the blood, boosting your body’s circulation and immune response.
The other pools here – both in and outdoor – also have their own health benefits. Locals are particularly fond of the cold water bath with high sodium content. Traces of salt remain on your skin after bathing, aiding in heat retention in winter and helping to keep the body operating efficiently.
The outdoor areas at Yumotokan Onsen are beautiful year-round, but take on a special look in winter. With a blanket of snow on the rocks and a thick cloud of steam from the water melting snowflakes as they fall, you’ll be sure to find deep relaxation at this superb hot spring.
Kumihama Yumotokan Website: http://www.kumihama-spa.com/ (Japanese Only)
Read more about Kumihama Yumotokan Onsen here.

・An Onsen Perfect for Newcomers

For travelers using the Amanohashidate and Miyazu area as a base to explore Kyotango, Ono no Komachi Onsen (part of Centrale Hotel Kyotango) is easily accessible by a short train ride. This hot spring is noted for its mountainside view and inviting facilities, and is a great spot for first timers looking to dip their feet into onsen culture.

Like all modern onsen, Ono no Komachi is separated by gender. The two facilities have the same bathing options – multiple pools, sauna, and outdoor areas – but contain a few unique elements. The two facilities switch daily for genders, so it’s always a surprise which side you’ll be treated to. One features a landscaped flower garden and views of downtown Kyotango, while the other offers a foot massage path made of studded pebbles. This is no ordinary foot massage! The stones give your soles a workout unlike any you’ve had before, but the feeling of supreme relaxation after stepping off the rocks is probably exactly what Jiroemon was talking about.
Centrale Hotel Kyotango Website: https://en.centrale.co.jp
Ono no Komachi Onsen: https://en.centrale.co.jp/spring/

・Floating Above the Sea

Kyotango’s coast is where many of the area’s onsen are clustered, but Ukawa Onsen stands out for its prime location. Located on a hillside above the ocean, looking out from the baths gives the viewer a feeling of floating in the sky. One half of the facility offers this ocean view, while the other faces a calming scene of bamboo groves and mountainside forests. Like other onsen, the two sides are swapped daily between genders.

Luckily, there is a way to experience both of Ukawa’s views in a single visit. Staying overnight in the beautiful onsite accommodations here allows visitors to enjoy a twilight bath after dinner, as well as try the other side of the baths on the following day.
Ukawa Onsen Website: https://ukawaonsen.jp/ (Japanese Only)

There is no magic answer to the longevity of Kyotango’s residents; Jiroemon’s words are simple advice that you can follow in your life no matter where you live. However, a trip to northern Kyoto to experience the rural lifestyle for yourself is sure to be a rewarding part of your next vacation. The Fountain of Youth might be a legend, but the advice of old timers in northern Kyoto can teach you a thing or two about staying happy and healthy well past your hundredth birthday.