Gorgeous Middles of Nowhere: Part 2

It is very easy to become addicted to the Ryukyu Islands. Once I stepped foot on the first one, it didn’t take much for the second to lure me in. On the way back from the third island I realized I couldn’t stop and desperately longed for a new dose of adventure. As soon as the summer approached, my mother and sister arrived to Okinawa-honto. Sergey and I decided to take them to one of the islands and impress them with the beauty of one of my favorite middles of nowhere. So, we headed toward Aka, screaming with childish excitement when flying fish jumped up from the water, leaping for several meters and diving back in. At this point I was already sure we made the right choice to bring my family to one of the Kerama Islands.

If you decide to go to Aka-jima, you will really explore three islands: Aka-jima, Geruma-jima and Fukaji-jima. The ferry from Tomari Port in Naha takes you to Aka, the largest of the three, yet not large enough to have car rentals as was explained to us at the port. That was somewhat of a bolt from the blue, and the prospect of walking under midsummer burning sun rays seemed quite daunting. We could have rented bicycles, but rejoiced later when we stumbled upon a family of deer we surely would have missed if cycling.
A few of these cloven-hoofed animals peacefully grazed behind the bushes when we were passing by, heading toward the vast Nishihama Beach. Sergey, the tallest of us, spotted what at first glance seemed like a goat. Once we came closer, however, we saw it was the Kerama deer— one I was hoping to find on Aka, since this species is endemic to the three islands as well as Yakabi-jima, which is uninhabited. The closer we approached to take a good picture, the more the deer backed off. Finally they jumped away into the bushes. Surprisingly, our luck was not done for the day: we kept encountering the deer every now and then, either alone or in a herd of fifteen, right next to the port on the way back to our lodging.

Even though Nishihama is a great, long, stretching beach with white sand and crystal clear water, we found it deserted when we arrived. On the contrary, Aka Beach, which did not even look like a beach to me, was packed with people. The key was—you guessed it—turtles! Aka Beach is the turtle beach, no doubt. We snorkeled up and just ten meters offshore a turtle was swimming by, not paying attention to us; it was enjoying its meal: coral. A colorful fish accompanied the turtle from below, while we followed its every move from above through the transparent water. The one we saw was a green sea turtle, probably the most common type found in Okinawan waters. The other two types you may see here are hawksbill turtles and loggerheads. Check out Sea Turtles of Okinawa site1 by Julia Janicki to learn more.

We stayed in a minshuku—a Japanese-style guesthouse— called Housei, conveniently located close to Aka beach and the port. It is a nice place to stay, which serves delicious meals and guarantees an outstanding view. Once we left the room to enjoy the sea view and take a slow walk on the shore, we noticed a crab, initially just one, feasting on an orange fruit fallen from a nearby screw pine, Pandanus tectorius. As we looked around, we saw hundreds of them! Some were in a hurry and some were hiding, carefully sticking their legs out from under their shells from time to time. As you shift your attention from the microworld of the crab to the macroworld of the expansive landscape, you’ll see a bridge connecting Aka-jima to Geruma-jima. Once we crossed it, a curvy road led us all the way to Geruma bridge, which connects Geruma-jima and Fukaji-jima. We took a break on Geruma enjoying a nice view from Azanamui Observatory. This lookout did not leave us speechless, but it is a perfect place to hide from the ruthless sun and recover one’s breath. At this point if you are hungry, make sure you drop by the only restaurant on Geruma-jima before continuing on to the next island.

Fukaji does not have any places to eat; in fact, the island is uninhabited. It only holds the non-functioning Kerama Airport and one observatory. The airport has not been used for several years, but it doesn’t really look abandoned. We could go inside where everything is miraculously clean and neat, and of course there are vending machines with the usual refreshing beverages. Once we reached Fukaji Observatory, we enjoyed the view of the many islands scattered around, as well as the airport runway.

If Zamami is the whale country (as I wrote in Kuroshio’s pilot issue), Aka is most certainly the country of the deer. Here even sewer lids have deer crafted on top and the bridges are adorned with antlers. However, being “animal islands” is not the only link that connects these two fascinating places; there is also a love story…of dogs. Not far from Zamami port there is a dog monument called Statue of Marilyn, just like one very close to Aka port, named Statue of Shiro. Apparently, Shiro was a devoted lover who would swim three kilometers from Aka-jima to Zamami-jima to meet his girlfriend Marylin. This story inspired the movie ‘’Marylin ni aitai’’ (マリリンに逢いたい, 1988). I was surprised to find the DVD is available on Amazon. Unfortunately, it is only in Japanese.

We spent only two days exploring the three islands, which is most definitely not enough to embrace the serenity and uniqueness of Aka. On the way back to Okinawa-honto,  standing on the deck of the ferry, I kept wondering what was more astonishing: the fact that particular circumstances left a number of species inhabiting only very specific and tiny pieces of land scattered out there in the ocean, or the way the citizens of those islands enjoy living in small villages of around three hundred people, surrounded by breathtaking nature, seemingly completely cut off from the rest of the world. I felt both pleased to have seen all the beauty of the nature, but also somewhat sad to leave Aka so quickly. Yet, I’m always excited by how many more islands there are out there to explore!

Images courtesy of Larisa Sheloukhova

1Julia Janicki, “Sea Turtles of Okinawa,” Okinawa-Turtles, last modified January 15, 2017, http://okinawa-turtles.com/ 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.