Kerama Blue: Tokashiki and Zamami Islands in Okinawa
I can safely call the tiny island of Tokashiki – thirty minutes off the coast from Nara – and Zamami Islands as my two happy places in Japan. When I say “tiny”, I mean really tiny. In Tokashiki, you can walk between the main two happening areas, namely Aharen Beach and Tokashiki Ferry Terminal in an hour. Despite the short distance, it can however still be a challenging task if you are in the island during summer heat and more importantly humidity.
Tokashiki and Zamami: My First Encounter
My first encounter with Tokashiki and Zamami Islands dates back to September 2018. I was traveling in Southeast Asia with no definite plans and was soon running out of my visa time in Thailand. I found a cheap air ticket to Naha, Okinawa from Bangkok (overnight flight for USD 150 with Japanese low cost airlines Peach Air) and decided to make the island my entry point to Japan for a three months long trip. September is still the typhoon season in Japan and Okinawa would be a quite risky choice if I did not have a whole three months ahead of me allowing me to take the risk of ferry and flight cancelations. However, if your schedule is not as flexible and you already have an international ticket out of Japan, August and September visits to Okinawa may be really stressful with the high risk of cancelation of various transportation options.
So you probably saw this coming. The day I arrived in Naha, all the ferries out to the nearby islands including Tokashiki were cancelled due to the high winds except for one ferry to the neighbouring island of Zamami. Even though my booking was with Kerama Backpackers Hostel at Tokashiki, I decided to take the ferry to Zamami Island instead of staying at Naha, which is not a bad town but just a town like many others in Japan where you need to try very hard to catch the island vibe. Zamami is even smaller than Tokashiki but at least as beautiful. There is one international hostel on the island called Zamami International Guesthouse (which I did not like much, not as nicely kept as most other hostels in Japan) in addition to minshuku style accommodation. The island also has a camping ground available right by a beautiful beach – Ama Beach, which is highly popular among stand-up paddle (SUP) enthusiasts. Zamami, despite its size, has a good range of eateries including food cart style ones, which pop up nearby the beach right before sunset. Furuzamami Beach is another popular beach in Zamami, which can get very crowded during typhoon free periods.
During my first visit, I got to experience best of both islands. I made it to Kerama Islands with the last boat out of Naha (for at least three days) and most of the island visitors were already back to the mainland Okinawa due to the approaching weather hazard. The wind did not directly effect the islands but made the travel on the sea challenging and dangerous (got to experience it first hand during the short small boat trip from Zamami to Okinawa). This resulted in empty but perfectly swimmable beaches on both islands.
Tokashiki Island: Swimming Beaches
The most popular beach at Tokashiki is Aharen Beach where you can find many low key eateries and sports centers offering various water activities including kayaking to nearby deserted islands for snorkeling (and banana rides). Aharen Beach is however not my favorite as it is usually quite busy and does not have the secluded and the cove like feeling that Tokashiku Beach has. The view point which is at the end of Aharen Beach is worth checking out though.
When in Tokashiki, I almost exclusively go to Tokashiku Beach, which is about 40mn walking distance from where I stay – Kerama Backpackers Hotel. The beach is usually very quite especially early in the morning. You are almost guaranteed to swim alone (with the occasional company of a rainbow) if you go right after sunrise. The eating options here are considerably more limited then Aharen Beach so I highly recommend that you pack your own food. There is also a marine shop here where you can rent canoes or SUPs.
Tokashiki Island: Dining Options
Since I always stay at Tokashiki Port side, my dining options are limited compared to Aharen Beach where all the action seems to be happening. During my first visit to the island, I ate at a nameless outdoor yakitori place almost very night. The place had everything you would wish out of an island life, same locals visiting the place very night, bar like sitting, yakitori sticks at 100Yen each and cheap beer in addition to local Okinawan drink awamori, which is too strong for my taste. The place was not open during my recent visit in my last two visits in 2019 and 2020 but make sure to ask it around as it can re-open at anytime. Another alternative is the Riverside Izakaya with its very friendly owners.
As for breakfast or lunch, my favorite day time hang out in Tokashiki is Sunny Coral with its stylish decoration, delicious breakfast/lunch sandwiches and its friendly owner, who is heavily involved in community work in the island. If you tell him in advance, he will also prepare dinner for you as long as his community teaching schedule permits.
Kerama Island Hikes
Tokashiki Island is not very rich in terms of hikes even though you will come across breathtaking views almost everywhere. There is one nature trail, which starts near Aharen Beach and takes you to the southern end of the island. It is a nice hike but partially requires you to follow the car road. On the alternative, you can hike up to the mass suicide memorial near Tokashiki Port, a site devoted to one of the most tragic historical events in the history of Okinawa. It is reported that – during the World War II, the residents of Tokashiki Island were asked to take their own lives by the Japanese officers during the American occupation to avoid being captured by the enemy. While the official history of the country challenges the accuracy of this story, there are many sources claiming its authenticity. The site, which is located up in the hills chills you to the bones, especially when you are the only visitor there. But well worth the hike.
Zamami Island is slightly richer in terms of the hiking options and there are number of view points that you can hike up to. It may be a little challenging with summer heat but remember that you can always jump into the sea when you get back! Takatsukiyama hike is among the ones where you can really experience the tropical island feeling both with the sea color and the surrounding very lush scenery.
How to Get to Zamami and Tokashiki Islands
The quickest way to get to any of the Kerama Islands is to fly to Naha. You can then get to Tomari Port within 25 minutes by public bus. For both Zamami and Tokashiki Islands, you have the slower and cheaper ferry option in addition to the fast ferry. You can check out the schedule for High Speed Queen Zamami and Ferry Zamami at the website of Zamami Village and can even make online booking. If high speed ferry Queen Zamami stops at Aka, the trip will take 70 minutes, if not 50 minutes. The regular ferry to Zamami will take you to the island in two hours. The high speed option costs around 3100 Yen whereas the regular ferry costs around 2100 Yen.
As for Tokashiki, there are again two options. The high speed option Marine Liner Tokashiki takes only 35 minutes and costs 2580 Yen whereas the slower option – Ferry Tokashiki takes 70 minutes and costs around 1690 Yen. You can check the operation info and also do online booking at the website of Tokashiki Village.
You can also travel between Zamami Island and Tokashiki. I usually take a day trip to Zamami from Tokashiki every summer. The boat leaves from the wharf near Aharen Beach and you need to call one day ahead to make a booking. The ferry or boat Mitsushima leaves near Aharen Beach at 9.05am and arrives at Zamami at 9.40am after a brief stop at Aka Island. There is only one boat a day and the return trip from Zamami is at 15.30pm getting you back to Aharen at 16.05pm. If you stay at Kerama Backpackers, the hostels shuttle will give you a ride to the boat in the morning and also pick you up in the afternoon. You can check out this English site on Zamami for schedule updates.
Quick Notes on Kerama Islands
In Tokashiki, I always stay at Kerama Backpackers Hostel, not new but well maintained facilities and experienced owners. They also offer free shuttle service to the beaches. You can get a dorm bed for around 2500 Yen a night. They have a nice kitchen if you want to cook your own food. There is a fairly well equipped grocery store nearby.
Sunny Coral in Tokashiki is a good place to pick up a breakfast or a lunch sandwich. They run out of both breakfast and lunch quite early though due to their popularity with islanders. Upon request, they can also arrange a dinner for you. Nice music, nice chat + wine and beer.
Tokashiku Beach in Tokashiki Island for better swimming and less crowds. Ama Beach at Zamami for very laid back atmosphere, camping and SUP. Next time I visit the islands, I really want to try the campsite at Ama Beach, which looked very appealing especially on a sunny day.