“Occasionally I have bumped into a deer standing in the middle of the village when I came home from the bar” Sarah of the Seasir dive base on Aka Island says. “So now I take a flashlight when I go out late”. Peaceful Aka Island is one of four inhabited islands of the Kerama island group. There’s only one small village. And there’s a colony of sika deer (shika) who came here with settlers from Kyushu in the 17th century and have developed into a sub-species endemic to the Kerama Island group.
The human inhabitants of the Kerama islands, about 40 km to the west of Okinawa mainland, originally were fishermen. But today, like Sarah, most work in the tourist business – mainly whale watching and diving. The village of Aka only consists of a couple of dive bases, pensions, two shops and one bar, fronted by a beach overlooking light blue and turquoise water. Sea turtles are often seen at a nearby larger beach.
On our first day on Aka we explore the area by bicycle. We cycle over the bridge to the next Kerama island, Geruma, with its own tiny village: two streets, a few cobbled pathways and even a school. In the middle of the hamlet there’s the island’s only cultural attraction, a traditional house which once belonged to the village chief.
We don’t expect the place to be open as it’s off-season and we haven’t seen any tourists except for dedicated divers – but to our surprise there’s an old man sitting in the corner of the garden, selling tickets. He’s 88, it turns out, and came to the island as a young man during the war.
You aren’t Americans, are you? No? Oh good. Look, this is what the Americans have done to this house!”
He points to a damaged wooden pillar and mumbles some more while we explore the small rooms, the kitchen and the goat pen and pigsty. When we come back to the old man sitting on his chair, he asks us something in his broad Japanese dialect, it’s about photos apparently. “Er, well – shashin?,” we ask and comment a little on what kind of photos we take. He doesn’t hear well, so communication is even more complicated. But then he gets his Sanshin (not shashin after all!) out, a typical Okinawan three-stringed instrument made from snake skin, and plays a few songs for us.
The next day, when we are going out for a dive at the Kerama islands, the sea is somewhat rough and our guide reconsiders our diving site. Nakachinshi, a rather remote and apparently very beautiful spot of corals, has too high waves, so we end up in a low-key spot next to a tiny uninhabited island in the middle of the Kerama group – clearly not the top destination in an island group widely known for its beautiful coral reefs, and obviously visibility is nowhere near the 50 m that are possible here. But still it’s a nice environment to dive and it turns out to be a rather relaxed experience (read about our struggles with diving at the PADI course). And during our stay we meet a number of diving enthusiasts who regularly come especially to Aka – so there must be better diving around…
Relaxing at Zamami Island
And then we move on to Zamami Island, only a little to the North of Aka. In fact, the islands are so close that famously a dog called Shiro used to swim over from Aka to visit his favourite dog-lady, Marilyn, on Zamami. Zamami is not much bigger than Aka but far more developed and far more popular with foreigners (lots of information in English). The village has a whole grid of streets, and there are several smaller settlements around the island, especially around a large bay that served as a natural harbour for the trading ships from China that came to the Kerama’s since the 14th century.
These days, the Chinese come – along with other foreigners – to Zamami for the whale-watching. During winter, a number of different whales, but especially humpback whales, come to the area in great numbers. If your are lucky you can even see them from the shore (even better by boat). That said, you are lucky if you see a whale doing those spectacular breaches or fluke up dives from the advertisement photos. Most of the time they just swim, their backs bobbing up and down, a bunch of tourist boats following them around.
But even if you do not go diving or whale-watching there are snorkeling beaches and some nice look-out points you can walk to. Overall the Kerama islands make a nice and easy side-trip from Okinawa mainland. They are easily reached by ferry, have a good infrastructure (no car needed) and amazingly clear water.
Note: Our stay at the Seasir diving base and our dive was sponsored by Seasir. Other expenses were paid by ourselves.