About a 2 hour ferry ride west of Naha, the Kerama islands are a small archipelago. I should say relatively small, since there are still a total of 22 islands! The majority of the islands though are very small and uninhabited.
The main islands are Aka jima, Zamami jima, and Gurama jima. Tourists on these islands are a mix of Japanese and foreigners. In general, don’t expect good english proficiency.
To go there, there are two ferry types : Queen Ferry, the fast one (6,000 Yen round trip / 1 hour) and Zamami Ferry, the biggest and the slowest (4,000 Yen round trip / 2 hours).
Staying over night on these islands might be even more economical than the cheap guesthouse of Naha. You can find cheap guesthouse from 2,000 Yen/night. However, the real charm is somewhere else- in a traditional Japanese Minshuku.
In a minshuku, you will be welcomed in the house of the family (sometimes only one or two people in the household). You will have your own room in the house during your stay, with tatami and a traditional futon. It is a gauranteed change of scenery. The rates range from 4,000 Yen per night/person to 8,000 yen per person/night, generally including dinner.
On Aka jima, I stayed in a minshuku where the owner was also a fisherman. Every morning, he would go fishing. At night, he would cook and serve the fish he caught during the day. All the tenants were invited to eat the delicious food together, creating a nice atmosphere.
If you want to meet Japanese people, staying at a minshuku is a very good opportunity. For those who just like fish, cooked or raw, it’s also a must go.
On Zamami, I stayed in a minshuku that had a very old style wooden Japanese bath. The owners were very nice, and would come pick you at the port, and then bring you wherever you want on the island.
What to do
On these islands, the beaches are just fabulous. The water is crystal clean. You are easily able to see all of the fish and other marine life, making it a real paradise for snorkeling. Some of the beaches are totally deserted, whereas others are crowded and benefit from the presence of life guards.
The beach fronts are mainly constituted of shell, smoothed after being washed for hundreds of years by the waves. The shells are not painful, but some people dislike the feeling of walking with their bare feet, so don’t forget your sandals.
If you want to know which beach is more adapted to you, just ask the locals. They don’t speak English, but « sakana » means « fish », if you want to do snorkeling.
Keep in mind, some beaches are completely deserted for good reason: the coral is dead and no fish are to be seen around. For exemple, the northwest’s beaches of Zamami are not a good snorkeling spot, and despite their relative tranquility, they are just not suited for a swim.
By the way, on Zamami island, the waves break at the enterance of the creek, far away from the beaches, making the waters inside the creek very calm on the surface. This is not the best spot for surf or even kite surfing, as the wind is weak too. Nevertheless, the submarine current can be strong and dangerous, so it’s better not to go alone.
It is possible to rent all of the gear needed for diving. You will see sting rays, turtles, and all the wild marine life you can associate to a tropical island. The tour cost around 5,000 to 8,000 Yen, for half a day (or a full day). For this price, you’ll share a boat with 3 to 5 other people, you’ll have all the gear you needed and that often includes food and beverages.
You can also take advantage of the taxi boats, as they’ll bring you to the best snorkeling spots for 1,000 yen per person. Usually, they’ll drop you off on one of the uninhabited islands, with pristine beaches and no one to see around, advise you where to go and where not to go to stay safe (the current can be very strong in some spots), and they let you fix an picking time for the return.
You can also go fishing, by yourself with a harpoon, or by renting a boat to fish in deep water.
During the first quarter of the year, you can also enjoy whale watching. Many companies offer their service to go spend the day in the sea around the island to watch the whales as they come and frolic in the waters. Prices are about 6,000 Yen per person, in average. Be ready to come very close of the whales!
Each inhabited island has its own festival, called Matsuri, a traditional Japanese event that usually takes place during summer. It’s always a privileged moment in the life of the island, and the locals gather to celebrate. It’s always a good moment to share and have a fresh drink !
One of the more enjoyable things of these islands is to go to a beach at night, lay down, and watch the stars. There are no articifial lights at night, therefore you can see the sky much better than in a normal city. You may have the luck to see a shooting star, and you’ll be able to observe the galaxies like never before, while the humming of the waves provide an audio bliss.
The forests of the different islands are a mixed bag. Some are totally uninteresting, others are well worth a walk.
This is the point that will make you realize you are on a small island : almost no shop to be seen, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing! For example, the Zamami island counts 600 people, and the city has only one traffic light! Some announcements are broadcasted on the whole island by one or two load speakers.
There is only one or two restaurants, one place to buy hand made burger or bento for when you go spend a day snorkeling on a inhabited island, and only one shop where you can buy food, drinks and other stuffs. This tiny supermarket is open until 11 PM. As you can see, it is wise to bring some food and stuff you need with you before going there, as buying everything at local stores can be a bit troublesome at times.
While you can walk around the island in a day, avoid getting lost in the forest. Don’t go to an uninhabited island by yourself at night, as they may be infested with snakes (the locals know this and don’t get there themselves, so you will be all alone at night). The bigger islands, like Zamami, have seen the snake populations decimated by the cats and the ferrets that were introduced to kill the rats in the first place. But the uninhabited islands are a refuge for those snakes, and some are completely infested. You will see, in the sand, all the prints they leave when they came back in the morning from their nightly hunt. In the day, you’ll never see the snakes, as they’ll stay hidden somewhere and you will not notice them.
As for other things, you can drink the water if you want. The people of the area are very nice and law-abiding. Committing a crime is almost unheard of in this area of the world.