If it seems to you that Okinawa is “in the middle of nowhere,” most probably you’ve never been to one of the smaller remote islands and islets all around Okinawa-hontou, some of which have an area smaller than half a square kilometer. All of them are tiny pieces of paradise, cute and intriguing, yet so different from one another that you can always pick one according to your taste, mood, time, and budget.
Kume-jima is the fifth largest island in Okinawa prefecture and has many places of interest; we stayed there for four days and wished it was longer. It is quite a remote island, so be prepared for a four-hour voyage from Tomari Port in Naha. What I absolutely love about the ferries departing from Tomari is that sleeping space and blankets are always available, although there is no restaurant so grab a snack to bring on board.
Even though our trip was at the end of April right before Golden Week, the weather conditions were not favorable for enjoying the island views, so we managed to combine indoor and outdoor activities instead. Perhaps the most memorable experience was making our own shiisaas at Yachimun Pottery Studio guided by a Japanese woman. Do not be concerned about the language barrier; you just need to watch and repeat, although there is still plenty of space for creativity. Everyone got really engaged and it took us around two hours to from start to finish. Once your shiisaa is made, it needs to be dried and fired, it will then be delivered to your home in a month. If you are not a fan of getting your hands dirty, it’s worth stopping by anyway to have a look at the pieces on sale. If you are lucky, the instructor may even show you her absolutely adorable baby goats, and yes, they are made of flesh and blood, not clay.
Among the natural wonders, the Ancient Pine will definitely mesmerize you with its vastly spreading crown and curly branches. It was planted in 1839 and keeps growing; one can see baby sprigs pushing through the thick bark. The pine is surrounded by a small park, a neat tranquil place where you can sit and enjoy this giant bonsai tree. There is also a wooden walkway underneath the tree’s branches leading to a shrine. Praying here is believed to bring fertility.
Another natural masterpiece attracting women who want to have a child is a rock formation called Miifugaa (lit. “Vagina Rock”) due to its unusual structure. On the way to Miifugaa, which is at the north of the island, you will have a chance to observe the Gushikawa Castle Ruins, a site mostly composed of reconstructed wall stones. It is quite a vast territory with cicadas everywhere and a roaring sea beneath. Once you get down to approach the majestic Miifugaa, there will be a waterfall on your right and a coastline on your left. Watch out walking toward the sea; the shore is a tricky surface to step on. If you’re not careful you may find your foot trapped in between porous stone formations hidden under the vegetation.
If you go to Kume-jima, an absolute must-see is the OTEC (Ocean Thermal Energy Conservation) facility and Deep Sea Water Research Institute; you can make an appointment online. Benjamin Martin, a native English speaker, will meet you at the entrance to give a tour free of charge. He will explain and show you how seawater below 600 meters, north of Kume-jima, is used and studied for various purposes. Briefly, OTEC technology is used to create renewable energy from the temperature difference between surface seawater at 23-25°C and deep seawater at 9°C. At the same, time deep seawater has found many other applications. For example, cooling soil in greenhouses to grow plants such as spinach, or cultivating prawns and umibudou, a type of seaweed also known as ‘sea grapes.’ During your visit you will be offered bottled mineral water, which is also manufactured from deep seawater by first removing salt and other minerals with the latter being added back into the water. Sea salt extracted from the water is certainly used and sold throughout Okinawa. You can purchase a sample in the shop right next to the center, where you will also find other products such as Chulala Cosmetics that have Kume-jima deep seawater as a base. This mineral-rich water is even used at a spa complex, Bade Haus, located on Ou-jima, a tiny piece of land connected to Kume-jima by a bridge.
Do not miss the chance to go to Ou-jima, even if you are not into spa relaxation.Several meters away from Bade Haus there is a natural masterpiece known as Tatami-ishi or Tatami Mat Stones. This is a stunning rock formation, made of volcanic basalt stones that resemble a tatami mat, hence the name. This phenomenon is not unique in the world, but extremely rare. You will definitely want to spend some time enjoying the unusual stones and beautiful sea that caresses them.
The Sea Turtle Museum is also not far from Bade Haus. I was somewhat disappointed by the small size of the museum, which is more like an aquarium with several large sea turtles gracefully flying in the water and occasionally surfacing to snort at irritating visitors. But it is still worth dropping by to have a look at these amazing creatures.
We stayed in the very nice Resort Hotel Kume Island on the east side of Kume-jima, which was mostly empty given the time of year. The location of the resort is probably not ideal, but it has a swimming pool and a number of indoor activities you might enjoy. Plus, we were just in time to appreciate the blooming trees and flowers surrounding the resort.
Three days is certainly not enough for exploring Kume-jima, and I would definitely go back at least once more to be entertained by fireflies and take a trip to snorkel in the crystal clear water of Hatenohama.
Our exploration of the Ryukyu Islands started with another island though: Zamami-jima, which is the most popular in the Kerama group. One can also get there from Tomari port by either Queen Zamami in about four hours or Ferry Zamami, which takes two hours. It was the first day of the year, sunny and pleasantly warm, so we enjoyed a slow ride on the ferry deck with the wind blowing sea salt right onto our lips. It is a good idea to reserve tickets in advance, especially if you are taking a vehicle, otherwise there are car rentals available. If you are really an avid cyclist, go with bike renting. As much as I enjoy cycling in beautiful places, the Kerama islands are pretty hilly and challenging. So, if you do not want to end up all sweaty and exhausted instead of pleased and relaxed, rent a car or a motorbike. There are splendid views everywhere, and the coastline is pretty unusual, making it a fun drive around the island. Unlike other Kerama islands, many lodgings are available. We stayed at Guesthouse Lyonchi in Zamami Village, very close to the port and also restaurants and rentals.
The multiple viewpoints scattered all over Zamami-jima are truly amazing, one more impressive than the next. I was particularly stunned by Unajinosachi Observatory, to which you are led by a long stairway embedded in picturesque scenery; the power of the wind and the rage of the waves accompany you on the way. Another memorable viewpoint is Inazaki Observatory; its construction is more complex than an ordinary lookout you will find on the islands. It is a whale-watching observatory with informative posters decorating the building. In fact, you are constantly reminded that Zamami-jima is a whale-watching world, even before your arrival. The first whale encounter happens in Tomari with these marine creatures being depicted on the ferry. Upon your arrival to Zamami-jima, a humpback whale statue greets you in the harbor. Numerous t-shirts featuring whales are available in a shop next to the port. Unfortunately, we were not lucky enough to see these amazing creatures this time around; even so the island is worth visiting for at least two days. Fabulous views and sandy beaches with various marine activity opportunities are guaranteed. Note: “Do not chase sea turtles on the beach,” as warned by the sign at Ama Beach.
Of the Ryukyu islands we’ve visited, Tokashiki-jima is by far my favorite. It is the largest in the Kerama group, very hilly, and truly magnificent. One can get there also from Tomari port either by Marine Liner Tokashiki or Ferry Tokashiki, the first option being faster and more expensive. We went there around the end of March. The weather was nice, and so we enjoyed a slow boat ride once again following the familiar sea route. There is a car rental very close to Tokashiki Port, so we rented one and began exploring.
There are basically three roads running through the island: one connecting two main villages and the other two leading all the way to the northern and southern tips of the island. Just by following the roads you will definitely not miss several lookouts with breathtaking views. Aharen Enchi lookout in the south is particularly impressive; it is a thrilling spot at the edge of the island where the cozy wildness of nature makes you feel welcome and tranquil. However, nothing can be compared with the serenity and fairy-tale-like surrealism of Tokashiki Beach. It was completely deserted when we arrived, surrounded by the hills of Tokashiki-jima from the sides and multiple hills of the islands all around it. The calmness of the emerald, cyan, dark blue water with almost no waves to disturb it fills you after the initial exciting torpor, so that having spent some time sitting on the white sand you believe it is actually real until you notice an iridescent butterfly floating above your head. We could have stayed at Marine House which is located nearby, but our lodging, Pension Sea Friend, was next to another amazing beach, Aharen, which appeared to be more popular with a variety of activities available. We mistakenly took an underwater sightseeing tour on a submarine, which proved to be not only boring, but also expensive. Snorkeling just next to the shore was much more enjoyable with various types of fish shoaling right next to us in the shallow waters. Many places to eat are also nearby in Aharen Village, so in the end we probably made the right choice to stay there. We only spent two days on Tokashiki-jima and absolutely fell in love with this sweet middle of nowhere, with so much stunning nature and so few people.
There are many more islands to explore, each with its own character, but what unites them all is their ability to make you feel privileged to step on land only a few people have had or will ever have a chance to walk on.
Images courtesy of Larisa Sheloukhova
Larisa Sheloukhova is a PhD student in the class of 2015. Her background is in linguistics and neurobiology. Being fond of the ocean and marine life, she feels fortunate to have moved to Okinawa and uses this opportunity to explore the other Ryukyu Islands.