The Zen nothingness of Zamami

Japan on ¥1,000 a day? It's certainly possible by cycling and camping on this Okinawan isle

by Christopher Johnson

Thinking that Japan is too expensive for them, many budget travelers eschew this archipelago for Southeast Asia. But with a mountain bike and a tent, it’s quite possible to travel in Okinawa on ¥1,000 a day — and enjoy it — especially on Zamami Island.

To pull off this 21st-century pleasure coup, I simply rolled up with my bike at Haneda Airport in central Tokyo and paid Skymark Airlines an extra ¥1,000 to transport my bagged-up vehicle to Naha along with myself. Then, while others were waiting for trains and taxis at the airport there, I simply reassembled the bike and pedaled off across town to the Tomari ferry terminal.

To get in the habit of slowing down to “Okinawa speed,” I savor the 2-hour Zamami ferry (¥3,540 return) rather than rushing, expensively, for its rapid rival that makes the crossing in just an hour (¥5,350 return).

Cruising through the 22 islands of the Kerama group, including the popular Tokashiki and Akajima islands, I watch — sadly, in vain — for the humpback whales that migrate through these waters from late December to April.

Once ashore, the main village of Zamami offers more than a dozen places to stay, ranging from the ¥4,000-a-night Murakami minshuku (family-run guest house) to the Shirahama Resort (¥7,000 a night including two meals). There are bikes and kayaks for rent, or to get around you can rent single-seat scooters (¥3,000 per day) or hop on a local bus for ¥250. There are also boatmen ready and willing to take you at very reasonable rates to uninhabited islets with great snorkeling.

But, like the giant sea turtles that paddle offshore, I don’t have to bother with the most basic logistical stress of traveling — because I have my room and my roof on my back. I simply turn left off the dock and pedal by the sea for about 10 minutes to the wooded, beachside campground near Ama hamlet, where a tent (if you haven’t brought your own) can be hired for ¥700 a day.

For the next few days, all I need is pocket change for fresh sushi at the Zamami Shokudo and other little shops, and for drinks at four pubs in the main village.

Instead of looking for manta rays, whale sharks and dugongs on diving or kayak trips with local enterprises such as Powder Blue and Kerama Kayak Center, I go it alone and cycle up and down empty roads to vacant beaches with spectacular views of distant isles.

At Christmastime, while the hoards are swarming to the Tropics, I only encounterd a handful of foreigners and Japanese on Zamami. The island may not be picture-postcard perfect — it doesn’t boast the unbelievable colors of Marshall Islands lagoons, or the colonial roofs and chameleons of Sri Lanka, for example. Nor does it have the glass-bottom boat tours of Ishigaki, the wild mangroves of Iriomote, or the water buffalo rides of quaint Taketomi. Nonetheless, Zamami’s beauty grows on you, gradually seeping into your head along with the gentle breezes and the rhythm of the waves. Cute and somewhat forlorn, Zamami is like an old fishermen singing and playing an Okinawan sanshin to himself when no-one is around.

The people — about 500 locals sprinkled across three hamlets — are friendly and in no hurry to go anywhere. Around sunrise, a lady in her 90s, sweeping the sand in front of her house in Ama, shows me a rare collection of vinyl LP albums from the 1970s.

“Do you like them?” she asks.

“Of course I do,” I say. One has the theme from ‘The Godfather,’ with a picture of Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone.

“Please take them. My son left them here about 30 years ago, and he hasn’t come back from Tokyo.”

Perhaps her son got bored with this paradise and prefers the more distinct seasons of northern Japan. But, as teacher Dave Byatt remarks on his Zamami blog, they do have seasons on Zamami: humpback whale mating season; sea turtle season; manta ray season; and coral-spawning season. Festivals include the Hama-uri boat party and music concerts in March; an interisland swim in April (not for me, thanks); dragon boat and yacht races in June; and various summer festivals capped by a thanksgiving to the ocean god in late September.

But on Zamami, the absence of tourist attractions is the attraction. There are no “must-sees” here; no aquariums or zoos. On too many islands around Asia, it’s easy to get distracted by full-moon parties, babes in bikinis, and dudes with surfboards and kiteboards — all of which bring out the competitive spirit and consumerist greed better left on the mainland.

Zamami is more of a clean break from postmodern urban culture. The lack of shops and excitement, which can disappoint at first, provides an opportunity to forget about acquisition and just revel in the sensation of being on a small island surrounded by a vast sea and uncountable stars.

Finding a beach to myself, I spend half the day studying shells with unique shapes and colors. As the crabs gather around like a local gang with switchblades, it occurs to me that Japan is one of the few places in the world where a tourist can sit alone on a beach without fear of crime.

Having been mugged and robbed on beaches in Rio de Janiero, and Kota Bahru in Malaysia, I can truly relax here — knowing, really knowing, that my sleeping bag and clothes will still be there when I return to my tent. So, leaving my bike, camera and daypack on the sand, I dip my head in the water without worrying that someone is waiting to pounce on my valuables.

Soon after, two young Japanese women in wet suits cycle onto the beach — and also leave their gear in bulky bags unattended. They wave and smile at me as they wade into the water without a care in the world. In many countries, women wouldn’t dare venture onto an unguarded beach, and they wouldn’t smile and wave at an unshaven guy twice their size. But in Japan, women don’t have to waste energy defending themselves, as they do on the Southeast Asian circuit. Without fear, women on Zamami can be as free and hedonistic as they want.

What also adds to the tremendous appeal of Zamami are its roads. Perfectly suited to cycling, their smooth tarmac circles the islands with barely a car in sight. Not too high or steep, the hills provide a challenge without the threat of head injuries from high-speed falls. Just beyond the campground, the road rises to an observation point overlooking a hidden cove, and then dips into a jungle before emerging by a sandy white beach and then climbing another hill to a viewing point revealing cathedrallike light falling on a distant island.

The ride is exhilarating, not taxing. On the edge of a cliff, an updraft of wind lifts me like a bird. In the jungle, a banana spider spins a web in the placid air. Finally, I find what I’ve been looking for — a truly remote corner of Japan with no houses and no signs of people anywhere. This spot — and the untrammeled beaches beyond view — seems to belong to about a dozen cats slinking into view. Blocking the path, they ask me to leave them alone in their private idyll. That, to me, is Zamami.