The first time I met Sayoko Ogata, she was wearing the sort of fashionable gear one might expect a young Tokyo executive to take on a safari: hiking boots and cuffed socks, khaki shorts and shirt, and a pith helmet. Never mind that we were in Naha, a high-tech city of 313,000 on the main island in Okinawa, Japan. When I gently poked fun at her by saying that I could see she was ready for adventure, she didn't blush. Instead, she responded with one of her joyous, staccato laughs, wagged a finger at me, and scolded, "I'll get even with you, Mr. Dan." But I never saw the pith helmet again.
At the time, in the spring of 2000, Sayoko was a young, fast- climbing executive in Tokyo. Her company had brought me to Japan to explore the mystery of human longevity, a topic that would likely spark the imagination of a large audience. For more than a decade, I've been leading a series of interactive, educational projects called "Quests," in which a team of Internet-linked scientists investigated some of Earth's great puzzles. Our goal was to engage die imaginations and brainpower of tens of thousands of students who followed our daily dispatches on the web. Previous Quests had taken me to Mexico, Russia, and throughout Africa.
I'd first learned about Okinawa's role in longevity studies a few years earlier, when population studies indicated it was among the places on our planet where people lived the longest, healthiest lives. Somehow Okinawans managed to reach the age of 100 at a rate up to three times higher than Americans did, suffered a fifth the rate of heart disease, and lived about seven good years longer. What were their secrets to good health and long life?
I landed in Okinawa with a small film crew, a photographer, three writers, and a satellite technician to keep us connected to about a quarter million school kids. We identified gerontologists, demographers, herbalists, shamans, and priestesses to contact, as well as centenarians themselves, who were living emblems of Okinawan longevity.
Each morning our online audience voted to decide whom we should interview and where the ream should focus its research. Each night we reported back to the audience with a variety of dispatches and short videos.
Sayoko had brought a team of translators with her, a computer filled with spreadsheets, and an intimidating plan to make sure that our daily reports and videos were translated into Japanese and transmitted by midnight to Tokyo. We spent ten hectic days asking questions about life on Okinawa and summing up what we found. I met lots of fascinating people, which made me happy. Sayoko made her deadlines, which made her happy. And when the project was over, her team and mine celebrated with karaoke singing and sake and then parted ways. That was that.
The Blue Zones Quest
Five years later, I returned to Okinawa with a new team of experts. I'd just written a cover story for National Geographic about the "Secrets of Long Life," which profiled three areas of the world with concentrations of some of the world's longest- lived people - areas we dubbed "Blue Zones." Demographers had coined the term while mapping one of these regions on the island of Sardinia. We expanded the term to include other longevity pockets around the world. Okinawa still ranked among those at the top of the list.
I was determined to delve deeper into the lifestyle of Okinawans as part of a new online expedition - the Blue Zones Quest. More than a million people a day would follow our progress online. It was a huge opportunity to make a difference, and I knew we couldn't miss any deadlines. I decided to track down Sayoko.
She wasn't easy to find. I tried her old e-mail address and queried all of my old teammates concerning her whereabouts. I contacted her former boss, who told me she'd left her high-powered job behind to become a full-time mom. This news blew me away. By now I expected her to be a senior executive at Sony or Hitachi. Instead, she'd left Tokyo, he said, and moved to the island of Yaku Shima, where she lived with her husband, a schoolteacher, and their two children. When I phoned her, she was ebullient.
"Mr. Dan!" she said. "It makes me happy, really, to hear your voice." I told her about my new project in Okinawa and said I hoped she could join us.
"Dan," she replied, "you know I loved Quest, and for me it was really something quite powerful in my life. But now I have two small children, and I cannot leave them."
We rallied for a few more minutes and then I hung up, disap- pointed. I'd have to find someone else. But a few days later, she called me back and abruptly accepted the often I had no idea why. I was just relieved to have her back on the ream.
We set up our Blue Zones headquarters in a traditional guest- house on the remote northern half of Okinawa. I'd recruited a team of scientists, writers, video producers, and photographers, and Sayoko had arrived with a team of Japanese translators and technicians. Gone was Sayokos fashionable expedition wear. Now she wore sandals and earth-toned cottons. A few strands of gray streaked her hair, and she exuded calm. But when she opened her computer to a spreadsheet, I could sec she'd lost none of her organizational zeal.
"Okay, Mr. Dan, let s talk about our deadlines."
For the next two weeks, we rarely saw each other face-to-face. During the day, my ream gathered information and produced stories. Each night Sayokos team translated them and published them to the Web. Since 1 was waking up about the time she was going to bed, we saw each other only at dinnertime, when both of our teams - 20 of us - ate together. Our midnight deadline dominated all the dinner conversation. Sayoko and I never really got around to catching up on our personal lives.