If you go to Okinawa, chances are you're there to see more than just one island. If you're not willing to hop on a plane to Yonaguni or Ishigaki and are looking for something closer to base, why not check out Zamami-jima? This great little island, part of the Kerama-island group along with Aka and Geruma, is not only fantastic for water sports, but has masses of character to go along with it!
If water sports are what you`re into, diving in Zamami is a must. The beautiful reefs are a flurry of activity, rare and stunning fish (including pufferfish and pretty much every character from Finding Nemo (minus the sharks!)) swimming to their hearts' content around the colourful coral. The reefs best for diving and/or snorkeling are found at Furuzamami beach and Ama beach. Don't forget to pick up your equipment at any one of the many water-sports rental shops in town!
Photo : Roger Braunstein on FlickrAt Ama Beach sea turtles are also often seen among the reefs, lazing about in the water. This particular beach is also home to the only campsite on the island, costing only 300 yen per night. While the stray cats and crows may eye-off your food bags, it's a small price to pay to be mere metres from the beach and go to sleep hearing the soft sound of waves rolling onto the shore. Located right next to the Ama beach campsite is a Blue Seal ice-cream store (a famous chain store in Japan`s southern islands) selling flavours only found in Okinawa, like salt cookie and beni-imo (purple sweet-potato). Due to the small population of the island, light pollution is also low on Zamami, resulting in the perfect place to star-gaze. You may even see a shooting star or two! Ama Beach is only a 20 minute walk from the main town, about the same as Furuzamami. Make sure to check out the strange-shaped coral washed up on the beach while you're there!
The main township is home to the only two food shops on the island, the most popular being the '105' store. There are, however, a number of restaurants selling local dishes like Okinawan soba (or if you`re looking for more of a challenge try the bitter goya-chanpuru), and even a tiny karaoke bar. If you're considering staying the night but don't want to camp, make sure to stay at the 'Aka-bana' guest-house in the centre of town – the most characterful guest-house on the island with the most characterful host.
If you still haven`t had your fill of Zamami, you can always fish, jump on a glass-bottomed boat to see the reefs without getting wet, or rent a canoe (plus a guide if you wish) to hop over to one of the deserted islands off of Ama beach. There is also a bike-rental shop in the heart of town, so if you want you can cycle around the island (this won`t even take two hours). While the ride is certainly hilly, it's worth packing a picnic and having lunch or watching the gorgeous sunset from one of the handy lookouts en-route. These lookouts are most popular during the whale-watching season as Zamami is on the migration path, so make sure to bring some binoculars!
If you want to see more islands but don`t want to ride the ferry back to Naha first, catch a 15 minute ferry from the Zamami ferry terminal over to Aka-jima, the next island along (you can see it from Ama beach). While Aka is a little smaller than Zamami, its reefs are said to be just as good, and, if you rent a bike, you can easily travel over to Gerama Island (famous for its native deer) in a couple of minutes, as the two are connected by a bridge. Then head back to Zamami for some more snorkeling or kayaking!
So you`re probably wondering what makes Zamami the 'dancing island'. Well, if you happen to go to Zamami in November you might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the local grand event – a matsuri! As the locals and the few tourists staying overnight assemble at the port terminal, traditional food (such as andaki, sweet donut-like balls) and drink is exchanged and everyone waits for the event to start. There is no program, and no-one really knows what`s going on, but eventually some local dancers come out and draw the attention of the crowd. There are a few more displays of traditional culture like a dance where taiko are whipped around the drummers' bodies like they weigh less than cardboard boxes and then there's the unexpected main event – the Dream Girls. This is, as one of the locals put it, the 'old lady sexy dance'. Three middle-aged ladies dressed in revealing sequined dresses and huge afro wigs dancing and singing to '80s rock and soul music—what could be more entertaining!? Needless to say the crowd will certainly join in and it will be the most fun you`ve had with complete strangers for a long while.
Next time you're in Okinawa, make sure not to miss out on Zamami – island of watersports, nature, and dancing!