Sand, sea and stars on idyllic Akajima

by Hillel Wright

Special To The Japan Times

Back in 1972 when I first lived on Denman Island in the Georgia Strait of British Columbia between Vancouver and Vancouver Island, I was one of about 300 residents. By the time I left 25 years later for Japan, its population had just topped 1,000, and each year sees a few more drawn to live in that beautiful place.

So, in a burst of what seems like a blend of wanderlust and nostalgia, I’ve been seeking out islands of the Ryukyus with similar populations, lifestyles and (lack of) infrastructure. Last winter I visited Aguni Island, population 1,000. Like Denman, it has one store; unlike Denman, it has a cop — also just the one.

So when my two-month vacation from university teaching in Okinawa began, I wasted no time in planning a trip offshore from Okinawa Honto (Okinawa Main Island) and, quite possibly, back in time.

My destination was Akajima Island — “Aka” to its friends — which is part of the Kerama Island group some 25 km southwest of Naha’s Tomari Port in the East China Sea. Although it’s a 15-minute ride from Zamami Island on the local water-taxi speedboat, Aka, along with several smaller islands, is part of Zamami Village.

About 240 people live on Aka itself and another 60 on Geruma Island, which is connected to it by a bridge. In fact, Geruma Island, which is only 5 km around, is the smallest inhabited island in the Keramas. It is also connected by bridge to Fukaji Island, which is the site of Kerama Airport and virtually nothing else. There are also about two-dozen uninhabited islets included in Zamami Village.

Uninhabited, that is, by humans: Yakabi Island, along with Aka and Geruma, is home to the rare Kerama deer (Cervus Nippon Keramae) — a species that exists nowhere else in the world.

The main attraction on Aka, as for many parts of Okinawa, is diving. Most of the islands are ringed by coral reefs, making for calm waters and an abundance of colorful subtropical fish. The high season is from April to October and the off-season is from November to March. There is, however, a special attraction from late December through to early April, as this is the breeding season for humpback whales, and whale-watching tours are available with the Zamami Whale Watching Association (098-896-4141) when the giant mammals are actually spotted.

The 90-minute crossing on the Ferry Zamami passed uneventfully. I spent some time on the upper deck looking — with zoom lens at the ready — for whales, went down to the passenger deck to eat the packed lunch I’d bought at Tomari Port (the ferry has no food service) and finally settled back to read a long John Grisham novel that was to be my travel companion.

About 10 minutes before arriving at Aka, and just after I’d stowed everything into my backpack, someone shouted “Kujira!” (“Whale!”). So, after hastily retrieving and fitting my zoom lens, I rushed out on deck — only to be told that the leviathan had taken to the deep. And, as we were nearing the harbor by then, that was another one that got away.

Consolation awaited me in abundance, though, as in common with most of the Ryukyu Islands, Aka boasts beautiful white sand beaches. In fact, adjacent to Aka Port and running west for almost 2 km is Main Beach, whose western extremity, a 5-minute bike ride from the ferry landing, is home to Kawai Diving, a small minshuku (guest house) where I’d booked a room.

After arriving at about midday and having a pleasant chat with my hosts on their deck overlooking Main Beach, I took off on my mountain bike before checking in to my room at 2 p.m. I headed straight for Nishibama Beach about a 30-minute ride away. When I rolled up at that spectacular expanse of white sand and crushed coral sparkling in bright mid-February sunshine, there were all of two people in sight, and two parked bicycles on the ridge overlooking the sea.

My goals for the trip were to look for whales to photograph, to take long strolls on the strands — and to ride my bicycle for pleasure on virtually trafficless roads after months of dodging trucks, cars and motorbikes in Naha. So, after a short stroll by way of acclimatization, I remounted and pedaled back to base, where I found my room was spartan, with a hardwood floor, a futon and no television — but came with a wonderful view of the beach and sea, and free coffee or tea in the common room.

I spent part of the afternoon fishing off the breakwater in the harbor, where a port worker told me that squid were abundant at that season though fish were not. As I don’t care much for squid, I packed my rod and reel and cycled over the bridge to Geruma Island, where I was able to ride for three hours without seeing a car on wide and well-maintained two-lane blacktop that closely tracked the shore. In fact, two other cyclists on the bridge were the only people I encountered.

The sun had set by the time I returned to the guest house, where my hostess, Ai Kawai, had prepared a sumptuous dinner for myself and two young women from Singapore, who turned out to have been the two other cyclists on the bridge to Geruma.

Beginning with ika (squid) and what was called “rainbow runner” (buri or yellowtail) sashimi with fresh salad, we moved on to a stew with local organic vegetables, then by way of lightly fried tuna to grilled kanpachi (amberjack) — with all the fish freshly caught by the Kawais. Then, to bring the memorable proceedings to a close, there was coffee and a small dessert.

By then it was around 10 p.m., and I felt a little perambulation was in order. Consequently, around midnight I found myself coming face to face with two small but magnificently antlered Kerama deer. They were about the same size as Denman Island deer. Alas, I had no camera, but they were briefly sufficently mesmerized by my flashlight for me to get a good look. When I doused the light, they bounded off a short distance and resumed their grazing.

The other highlights of the evening were the brilliantly clear sky filled with myriad stars, not seen in Naha due to the glare of city lights, and the complete silence around me. If, as the saying goes, “silence is golden,” I was for two or three hours a billionaire. Later, when checking in with my wife by phone, I told her this was probably the quietest place I’d ever been — and that included Denman Island.

The next morning was rainy, but it let up just in time for me to cycle down to the port and catch the water-taxi Mitsushima over to Zamami Island where, since the Ferry Zamami was not running that day, I’d booked a room at another guest house. But that’s another story for another island-hopping day.

There are various (faster or slower) ferries and water-taxis from Tomari Port in Naha. As the Ferry Zamami does not run every day, it’s best to call Zamami Village Office ([098] 987-2614) for information. A room with dinner and breakfast at the Kawai Diving guest house is ¥7,500. For more details or to book, call 098-987-2219 or 090-1940-6660; or email mailto:kawai@oki-zamami.jp or kawai@oki-zamami.jp.