Golden Week in Okinawa pt. 7: All Aboard the Queen Zamami!

The Lost Blogs #31

Travel Dates: Sat, April 28, 2012 – Thu, May 3, 2012

Zamami Island

Our day trip to Miyako Island was probably the highlight of our Okinawa vacation, so it was so hard to board that plane and return to Naha for the night. We knew we had to get out of Naha again for our last full day in the islands, but without any other flights planned, there was only one other option: we needed to island-hop by ferry.

Luckily, a friend of mine had recently taken a trip to Okinawa and had posted pictures from a place called Zamami Island. Even luckier, there is an English teacher on Zamami who put together a very informative website called Zamami English Guide, which made it very easy for us to plan our day trip to the island. Zamami belongs to a group of islands called the Kerama Islands, a group of 22 islands about 20 miles southwest of Okinawa Honto. Only four of the islands are inhabited: Zamami Island, Aka Island, Geruma Island, and Tokashiki Island. The Zamami English Guide website also provides tourist information for Aka and Geruma Islands.

Queen Zamami III Ferry

Zamami Island is located 50-minutes away from Naha by ferry. English ferry information can be found here. From Naha’s Tamari Port, there are two ferries which can take you to Zamami Island: the Queen Zamami III and Ferry Zamami. The Queen Zamami III is a small passenger ferry that runs twice daily regularly, and three times daily during peak seasons like Golden Week. The Ferry Zamami is a larger boat which is cheaper and can take passengers in addition to vehicles. We chose to take the Queen Zamami III and purchased our tickets the same day as our departure.

Queen Zamami III Ferry

And here we are, super excited to get out of rainy Naha and out onto the beach!

I wish we had a picture for what we looked like just a few minutes later. The ride, though short, ended up being extremely rocky. We were making jokes about being on a roller coaster, and then suddenly all of us were holding onto our stomachs, feeling queasy, trying not to vomit. The early rainy season had brought along stormy weather, and with the storm, strong winds, which were causing large waves in the ocean. It didn’t help that there was another passenger boat running alongside us, which also sent waves crashing into our boat.

Zamami Port

50 minutes later, we arrived at Zamami Port. The weather wasn’t anywhere near as nice as we had experienced in Miyako, but at least the rain had stopped. We spent a good half hour inside the lobby waiting for our stomachs to settle and grabbing maps for the area.

Zamami Island

Once everyone was feeling better, we started to make our way on foot to Furuzamami Beach (古座間味ビーチ). It is the most famous beach in the Kerama islands, so many tourists come here. We were expected it to be crowded when we arrived, but we suspect a number of people may have canceled or changed their plans because of the early rainy season, because there weren’t that many people on the island when we arrived.

Zamami Island

Zamami Island

Furuzamami Beach is located about 1 mile east from Zamami Port. English maps are available in the Visitor Information Center in the port. There aren’t many roads on the island either, so you don’t have to worry about getting lost. Though it’s only a mile away, it took us more than 20 minutes to reach the beach because we were enjoying the rural scenery…

Zamami Island

Zamami Island

Also, it was an uphill walk, but it’s a little embarrassing to mention that we struggled with that. ^^;;;

Zamami Island

Furuzamami Beach (Zamami Island)

Yay! We made it!

Furuzamami Beach (Zamami Island)

Furuzamami Beach (Zamami Island)

Furuzamami Beach (Zamami Island)

Furuzamami Beach (Zamami Island)

Upon arriving at the beach, we came across a small building which has two restaurants, rental companies, and shops. The shops carry sunscreen and underwater cameras, and the rental shops provide umbrellas, lounge chairs, and snorkeling equipment. If you rent from them, they’ll provide a free ride back to the port when you’re ready to head back.

Furuzamami Beach (Zamami Island)

Furuzamami Beach (Zamami Island)

We were pretty hungry, so we decided to eat first. The only other places to eat were back in the small town north of the port, and we didn’t want to walk back after coming all the way out here.

My husband ordered the loco moco, which is actually a Hawaiian dish consisting of a hamburger patty with gravy and an egg over rice. I went for taco rice and a bottle of sanpin-cha (さんぴん茶). Sanpin-cha is the Okinawan name for Jasmine tea. On mainland Japan, Jasmine tea is just called “jasmine-cha” (ジャスミン茶). In Okinawa, Jasmine tea is actually more popular than traditional Japanese green tea (“o-cha” お茶) or oolong tea (“oolong-cha” ウーロン茶).

Furuzamami Beach (Zamami Island)

After lunch, we got set up on the beach. There wasn’t any sun out, but we got the umbrella anyway. Our plan for the day was to simply lounge around and enjoy the cloudy, but dry, day. Eat some snacks, read some books, listen to islandy music on our iPods, snorkel… you know, just chill. :)

I ended up not renting any snorkeling gear because the water was already deep close to shore (at least, deep to me, in comparison to Yoshino Beach). I mentioned before in one of my earlier posts, but I can’t swim. So, when I snorkel, I usually have to wear the full gear with a puffy life jacket, and I need my husband near me so I don’t panic and get an anxiety attack in the water. The boys both went snorkeling though, and they said there were plenty of fish to see! I was a little envious. But even if you don’t go into the water, it’s a pretty cool beach to explore…

Furuzamami Beach (Zamami Island)

Furuzamami Beach (Zamami Island)

Furuzamami Beach (Zamami Island)

Furuzamami Beach (Zamami Island)

Furuzamami Beach (Zamami Island)

Furuzamami Beach (Zamami Island)

So that was pretty much our day on Zamami Island. There’s another nearby beach, Ama Beach, located west of Zamami Port. We skipped out on this one because it’s not known for snorkeling, although there is supposedly a strong chance of seeing sea turtles here.

We took the free ride from the rental shop back to the port, then walked a few minutes north and into the cute, tiny little town.

Mango Cafe

In town, we came across Mango Cafe, which sells shaved-ice (“kakigori” かき氷) sweets. In case you don’t make it out to Zamami Island, Mango Cafe also has a small booth at Tomari Port in Naha City.

Mango Cafe

Above, you can see I enjoyed a very delicious Mango Kakigori topped with condensed milk, brown sugar, and mango, and coconut. Yum! Let’s have a closer look…

Mango Cafe

SERIOUSLY. YUM!!!

Mango Cafe also serves Okinawa-zenzai (ぜんざい), which is shaved ice with red bean jam and mochi, and mango-zenzai which has red bean jam and mochi served over a delicious mango kakigori like you see above.

Cafe Kafu-shi (Zamami Island)

Cafe Kafu-shi (Zamami Island)

We also stumbled into Cafe Kafu-shi which walking around. We were drawn in by a cute, lazy cat and decided to try it out since they served various flavors of sata-andagi, another Okinawan specialty which we had yet to try. Sata-andagi is a deep-fried bun, similar to Portugese malasadas which are popular in Hawaii. Made of flour, sugar, and eggs, the batter is formed into a ball and deep-fried.

Cafe Kafu-shi (Zamami Island)

Cafe Kafu-shi (Zamami Island)

They carried the following flavors:

  • sugar (plain)
  • brown sugar
  • banana
  • mango
  • “shio” salt
  • “beni-imo” crimson potato

Cafe Kafu-shi (Zamami Island)

We wanted to try them all, but we settled for salt (above), mango, and crimson potato flavors. Everything was tasty! These would go great with a cup of coffee or milk tea.

I enjoyed sata-andagi so much that I ended up taking home a cute sata-pandagi tote bag home as my souvenir. :)

Zamami Island

lazy cats :)

In the late afternoon, the Queen Zamami III came back to pick us up. We were really dreading this ride back, partially because of how rocky the ride had been coming to Zamami, and partially because it would bring us back to Naha. But luckily, the rain had stopped, and we were able to make reservations at GeN, an Okinawan Yakiniku Restaurant that we hadn’t been able to eat at earlier in the week.

GeN - Okinawan Yakiniku Restaurant

Agu pork and wagyu beef for Okinawan yakiniku! Yum!

Check back in a few days for the final post in the Okinawa series!

Golden Week in Okinawa pt. 7: Miyako Island

The Lost Blogs #30

Travel Dates: Sat, April 28, 2012 – Thu, May 3, 2012

Miyako-jima

For our fourth day in Okinawa, we planned a day-trip to Miyako Island via air. Originally, we had thought about doing our island-hopping by ferry, but we read on several travel sites that most of the ferry services between islands had been discontinued. It all worked out anyway, because had we been able to take a ferry, it would’ve been at least a 3-hour trip from Okinawa Honto to the Miyako Islands.

Miyako is known for having some of Japan’s (and Okinawa’s) best beaches and is a great destination for snorkeling and diving in the coral reefs. The weather stays pleasant year round, and we hoped to escape the “early rainy season” which had come to haunt us the past three days on the main island. It is the fourth largest island in Okinawa Prefecture, and the terrain is mostly flat and covered with sugar cane fields. Compared to Okinawa Honto, which is home to the capital city Naha and other developed towns, Miyako is very rural and maintains that laid-back, chill, island vibe.

Miyako Airport

Shisa statues at Miyako Airport. Shisa are traditional Ryukyuan decoration: half-dog, half-lion wards from Okinawan mythology said to protect from evil.

As mentioned in the first post of the series, we booked our round-trip flights using discount airlines SKYMARK. We departed from Naha Airport at 8:15 am and arrived at Miyako Airport less than an hour later at 9:05 am. Our plan at Miyako Airport was the same as when we had first arrived in Naha: rent a car upon arrival at the airport. Miyako Airport is a very small airport. There were a couple of information kiosks, but I recall only two of them being for rental companies, and one was unattended. We waited in line to speak with the attendant and after a bit of a wait, we were told that there were no rental cars available at the moment. Again. There were a couple of motorbikes available, which was out of the question because (as mentioned in the Naha post) only one of us met the requirements for renting a vehicle. There were only two other options: a very large van which was out of our budget, and a car that would become available for pick-up at the airport around 12:30 pm. Our return flight back to Naha City was scheduled for 8:30 pm, so we decided to go ahead and make arrangements to pick up the car around noon. Perfect for our plans in the afternoon, but it was only 9:30 am and we were still stranded at the airport with no way of getting around for three hours.

We decided to split on a taxi to take us to the nearest beach, Maehama Beach, also known as Yonaha-Maehama Beach. We read online that it is a white sand beach which ranks very high as one of Japan’s best beaches. Having never been to any remote, tropical destinations before, I was extremely delighted and surprised to discover that it was truly a white sand beach, with an ocean of different shades of blue. Even better, the rainy season storms had not come anywhere near the Miyako Islands. There wasn’t a single dark cloud in sight!

Maehama Beach

Since we still had to pick up the rental car at the airport, we made arrangements with the cab driver to come back around noon and bring us back, and also kept one of his business cards with a phone number in case he forgot to come back around. But until noon, we could lounge on the beach and relax!

Maehama Beach

Maehama Beach

At noon, we headed back to the airport to pick up the car. We didn’t want to waste any time heading into the town for food, so we decided just to swing by a COOP supermarket on the way to our next beach destination and pick up musubi, drinks, and snacks.

Miyako-jima

Driving around Miyako was pleasant and easy. The roads were sometimes narrow, but there was nobody else on the road. Sugar canes made up most of the scenery. We headed straight across the island heading south-east to Yoshino Beach, also referred to as Yoshino Kaigan. It is the best beach on Miyako for snorkeling because swarms of colorful fish surround you as soon as you enter the water. Just a few steps into the ocean and you’re surrounded by a large coral reef maze full of marine life. You don’t have to go out very far to see the fish, which is great for people like me who really can’t swim.

Yoshino Beach

Upon arriving at Yoshino Beach, you’ll find that there is only one rental shop which is next to the parking lot. The people who run the shop are very friendly, though they don’t speak much English. For a flat fee, you can rent a full set of snorkeling gear: masks, fins, water shoes, snorkels, and snorkeling vests. A free shuttle van will take you down the winding road from the parking lot to the actual beach. The shuttle drops off next to another small shop that sells food and drinks. One of the dishes they sell is a local specialty, Miyako Soba. In case you forgot to rent snorkeling gear by the parking lot, a limited amount of snorkeling gear is also available for rent down by the beach.

Yoshino Beach Snorkeling

We rented an umbrella and lounge chairs and left our things there so we could all go out into the water. The water is so clear and the area reminded me a little bit of Hanauma Bay in Hawaii, except much less crowded, and with a lot more fish. I wasn’t very good at taking pictures underwater (I was a little nervous about being in the water because I can’t swim!), but my husband was able to snap a few pictures of the tropical fish. :)

Yoshino Beach Snorkeling

Yoshino Beach Snorkeling

Yoshino Beach Snorkeling

After spending some time in the water, we went back to our lounge chairs to relax. Shortly after returning to the beach, we were approached by a friendly old man who I had read about online…

Photograph courtesy of non-profit organization Okinawa O.C.E.A.N.

The man you see above Take-san, also known as Yoshino no Ojisan, or Yoshino’s Uncle. He is a self-proclaimed care-taker of Yoshino Beach and can often be found walking around the beach greeting visitors. He speaks great English and is very pleasant to chat with. He makes necklaces out of coral and string while talking to visitors about the beach and the work he does out there. He told us WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), which is a world wide network of organizations linking volunteers with organic farmers. For an annual fee of 5,500 yen, WWOOFers (volunteers) can choose from any number of farmers worldwide through the network, including over 400 hosts in Japan. In return for the volunteer work, the WWOOF hosts provide food, accommodation, and opportunities to learn about organic lifestyles.

Take-san is one of these WWOOF hosts, though the work volunteers do for him actually has nothing to do with organic farming. Instead, volunteers basically help out with keeping Yoshino Beach clean. You can learn more about Take-san and WWOOF in the Japan Times article “You don’t need to be bbarking to wwoof“, or… you could just fly out to Miyako and listen to Take-san tell you about his life himself. ;)

Take-san also gave us a “small gift” of Miyako sand to take home. Most people may not notice, but a lot of the sand on Miyako Island is star-shaped! I forgot to take a picture, but here’s a good example showing a close-up of the Okinawa’s star-shaped sand which I found on Flickr.

All in all, it was a good day!! We came to Okinawa to swim, snorkel, and soak in the sun, and after three days in Okinawa Honto, we were finally able to get all of that, and meet some of the locals too, who are all really nice! Unfortunately, we had only planned our stay in Miyako as a day-trip, so we had to eventually return the car and get back on a plane to Naha, which we were actually dreading a little bit, knowing that the rainy season would be waiting for us back there…

Soki soba

We had our dinner at one of the restaurants in the airport. My husband ordered the dish above, which is called Sōki Soba. Sōki (ソーキ) are stewed pork spare ribs, usually boneless, with the cartilage still attached. First it is boiled to remove excess fat, then stewed in a mixture of awamori (Okinawan alcoholic beverage), soy sauce, and vinegar for a few hours. This meat is then served on top of Okinawa Soba. Okinawa Soba noodles are different than the traditional buckwheat noodles of mainland Japan. The noodles more closely resemble udon noodles, while the broth is more similar to that of ramen.

Miyako soba

Not wanting to order the same thing, I chose the Miyako Soba instead. It’s actually very similar to standard Okinawa soba, and unlike the sōki soba above, Miyako soba is served using sanmai-niku (pork belly). The broth tasted light and savory, with flavors that reminded me of Chinese noodle soup I used to eat when I was a child. This is in contrast to Japanese udon and soba broths, which usually taste sweet. (Actually, I don’t really know what the difference is between Miyako Soba and Okinawa Soba. I tried to read a little about it in Japanese, and my conclusion is it has something to do with the way the toppings are arranged, though I don’t know if there are any flavor differences as I didn’t try Okinawa Soba during my visit.)

Yuki-shio Omiyage Shop

Lastly, before going to our gate, I made sure to buy some omiyage for my co-workers, since I had taken a few days off during Golden Week to come out here, while the rest of them stayed to teach classes. I bought several pieces of yuki-shio-chinsuko (Okinawan salt cookie) to give as gifts, because it was the best Okinawan snack I had eaten.

I may have also bought several pieces of chinsuko for myself, too… ^-^;;;

Check back next time for Golden Week in Okinawa Part 8! We spent our fifth day in Okinawa doing more island-hopping!

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