Two’s company on laid-back Zamami

by Hillel Wright

Special To The Japan Times

Being naturally averse to traffic jams, long lines at airports, overcrowded trains and cranked-up hotel rates, I’ve never been one for traveling far on a national holiday in Japan, especially during Golden Week in May when a few of them cluster together.

But this year, as my wife, Shiori Tsuchiya, and I had our 15th wedding anniversary in April, we decided to throw caution to the wind and celebrate with a trip to Zamami Island during Golden Week.

I’d already visited several islands in the Ryukyus besides the main Okinawa Island where we now live — including Amami Oshima, Tokashiki, Kume-jima, Aguni, Aka-jima, Geruma and, in February, Zamami. So, in commemorative mode, Zamami would be the first one to which I’d make a return visit — and there were several very good reasons for that.

First, Zamami is fairly close to Naha — just two hours by ferry. Next, it has two beautiful beaches — Ama and Furuzamami — each not far from the main village where we intended to stay at a minshuku (guesthouse). Finally, on my previous solo visit I’d found the whole atmosphere relaxing and the residents very friendly and helpful, and this proved to also be the case on the visit Shiori and I made together.

Since I always like to take my 24-speed mountain bike with me when I visit Okinawa’s outer islands, we would travel on the Zamami, a large and comfortable car ferry that leaves Tomari Wharf in Naha at 10 a.m., stops at Aka-jima from 11:30 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. and docks at Zamami Port at noon. The passenger fare is ¥2,120 one way or ¥4,030 return, and taking a bicycle costs an extra ¥740 for the round trip.

Ama Beach is just 2 km west of Zamami Port on a mostly flat paved road along the shoreline, with one short climb just before you get there. It was no challenge for me on my mountain bike and Shiori made it easily, standing on the pedals of the gearless bike she’d rented at ¥1,000 for three hours.

Ama Beach is a picturesque white sand shoreline, protected by an offshore coral reef. The water is calm and rather shallow, and is popular with families with children. The Ama campsite, which rents cottages as well as camping space, is just behind the beach — which is also a sea-turtle sanctuary. Signs in English and Japanese explain the limits regarding behavior toward the turtles, which are often seen swimming inside the reef. As might be expected, the beach is popular with snorklers.

On the other hand, Furuzamami Beach, which is about the same distance east of Zamami Port, is reached by climbing an extremely steep hill and descending a steep slope to the shore. I found walking to and from it was reasonably easy in about 40 minutes, since most cyclists I saw were walking their bikes.

While Ama Beach is protected by two small islands called Gahi and Agenashiku, as well as the coral reef, Furuzamami Beach is open to the sea. The beach is a mix of white sand and crushed shell and coral, making barefooting a bit precarious.

Although there are several small reefs offshore from the strand, the water here is much deeper than at Ama Beach, and just a couple of meters from the tideline it drops off to more than 2 meters deep. However, the reefs dotting the area make for great diving, and many of the island’s diving tour boats visit here.

Shiori and I stayed at the Natura minshuku about 1 km from Zamami Port. Its rooms are small, with futons and quilts stored in the closet, and you have to make your own bed, though there is a private toilet and shower. The rate for two, with dinner and breakfast, was ¥14,000. In contrast, the Nakayamaguwa guesthouse, where I stayed on my solo trip in February, had similar rooms, but with shared toilets and shower, no dinner and a small breakfast, and only set me back ¥3,000.

All in all there are 30 accommodations on Zamami, ranging from ¥2,500 per person without meals up to ¥12,600 per person with dinner and breakfast. There are also more than 20 places to eat, although most are either light-snack joints or izakaya (Japanese-style pubs) only open in the evenings.

Besides the Restaurant Maruyama, where I’d enjoyed a very good unagidon (grilled eel on rice) in February, there is the Wayama Mozuku, just east of the ferry landing, at the start of the road to Furuzamami Beach. Its sakana miso (fish miso) soup features a whole chibana mibai (Okinawan red grouper) in the miso soup, and its Okinawan soba noodles come with real pork, unlike in many Okinawan soba restaurants where the meat will be Spam.

While there are no fast-food places or convenience stores on Zamami Island, the 105 Store, about 1 km up the main road from the port, sells boxed meals and groceries as well as tobacco and alcohol. There are also half-a-dozen shops that rent out cars, motor scooters and bicycles. For Shiori’s bike we’d gone to Rental Ishikawa, just a couple of blocks south of the 105 Store, where you can also rent motor scooters and mountain bikes. Zamami Rental and Asagi Rental near the port, and Rental Shop Oki near Ama Beach, all rent cars.

After Shiori got her bike we headed for Ama Beach. The weather was partly cloudy with sunny breaks, warm enough for swimming. After a leisurely dip, we took long walks along the beach and around the wooded areas near the campsite. After we’d spent three hours at the beach, we biked back to the village to return the rental bike, and then walked up to the guesthouse.

When dinnertime came around, our hosts did us proud with a meal that featured both local seafood and Okinawa’s signature pork cuisine. Breakfast was Japanese style, with fish, rice and miso soup. While Shiori rested after dinner, I hiked to Furuzamami Beach and back — comfortably, in less than an hour from the guesthouse.

Since checkout was at the rather early time of 9:30 a.m., our host drove Shiori to the ferry landing to check in our bags in advance of our afternoon departure, while I followed on my bicycle.

Once there together, we met two local guys playing Okinawan music on guitar and mandolin. Lying on the picnic table unused was an Okinawan sanshin (a variation on the shamisen). Since Shiori, an accomplished guitar player, has a sanshin at home and has been taking lessons and practicing for about two years, we three guys convinced her to join them for an impromptu jam — which turned into her emerging as the lead singer, with the guitar player harmonizing and the mandolin player counterpointing the rhythm. They played together for about a half-hour, attracting an audience of locals and tourists, clapping hands, snapping pictures or just enjoying the upbeat Okinawan music.

Then, at 10:45 a.m., the shuttle bus arrived and we boarded for the short ride over the hill to Furuzamami Beach, which is more oriented to young adults than to families with kids. The deep water and scattered reefs attract lots of divers, and shops just above the beach rent parasols, wetsuits and diving and fishing gear — as well as selling snacks and drinks. We did a fair bit of swimming there as well, and Shiori did some free diving and fish watching on the reefs.

However, as our ferry, the Zamami, was set to depart for Naha at 4 p.m., we caught the 1:45 p.m. shuttle bus back to the port, walked over to the Wayama Mozuku Restaurant for lunch — and then, reluctantly, boarded the ferry that debouched us at Tomari Port in Naha at 6 p.m.

Even though we’d traveled in Golden Week, we’d found the beaches on Zamami Island to be uncrowded and we enjoyed our short and very relaxed stay there immensely — and considered our 15th wedding anniversary trip a great success.