Island Off Okinawa, Japan
by Teng Correa
Wednesday, August 24, 2016
As a country that safeguards its unique culture while keeping up with the rest of the world, Japan’s charm lies in its distinct ways of the modern and the traditional. Each of its prefectures has character that cater to different types of traveler – from temple and shrine enthusiasts to night owls and fans of Japanese cuisine to anime to Harajuku fashion. While being all these, Japan is rarely about one thing – beaches.
This was precisely my thinking when I was researching on which parts of Japan to visit on my birthday this year. Japan has always made me curious as a country but I was torn with my wanting to be under some sun as turn 30 this year. Then for some stroke of luck or maybe as a sort of a birthday gift, I came across an online article on Okinawa.
It was then that I learned that this southernmost part of Japan has lovely beaches. However, as part of a country that has four seasons, there is a window when people actually came in to fully enjoy its many islands. That was the tricky part. And so I was not that lucky.
It was March that time and despite knowing that it was just the opening season for the beaches, I decided to go anyway. It was a risk I took and I paid for it that I ended up being an onlooker of the turquoise water in one of the beaches in Zamami, an island an hour of ferry ride from Okinawa’s capital city, Naha. I did tell myself then that I would go back when the beaches would let me in.
And I did. And it happened a few months later and a few days before today.
SWEETER (AND MORE HUMID) OKINAWA THE SECOND TIME AROUND
The first thing I noticed upon arriving is the humid weather. Having come from a tropical country (the Philippines), I initially thought this should not be a problem. But it was. It was rush hour when I arrived and I found myself (with my backpack) squeezing in the monorail on the way to my hostel in the Makishi area. On the bright side, it gave me drive that despite lack of solid plans on which beaches to go to, I knew I had to make that happen. I just had to fight that humidity by having time at the beach. Okinawa has lots of neighboring islands but with the limited time I have, I opted to go to those reachable by ferry than those that require a short flight.
TOKASHIKI is accessible from Okinawa’s main land Naha via ferries on scheduled trips. There are two types of such – a high speed boat which goes to island in about 35 minutes and an aptly called ‘slow boat’ with travel time double of that. Tickets are sold either one-way or roundtrip, latter recommended during peak seasons from July to September. Just a note, however, that if your trips are from with different ferries, instead of a ticket, what they give is a reservation to be paid at the Tokashiki Port on the day of departure.
Unlike the other island I went to the first time I was there (Zamami), there are no online reservations available for the ferries. However, they accept reservations from the ticket center in Tomari Port at least a day before the trip. In my case though, I was not able to do this as I arrived past their opening hours until 5 in the afternoon. So what I did was arrive at port as early as half past seven in the morning. Still, the boat I was aiming for – the earliest and the high speed one that leaves at 9AM is fully booked based on reservations that I had to take the slow one at 10AM.
I spent my waiting time going around the port to buy what I could need on my beach-slash-camping trip. I try to camp simply that all I needed are water and some snacks. This, plus the fact that I essentially have my backpack with me. But for those who need more stuff, there is no need to worry as there is a Lawson convenience store and a shop beside it that sells almost everything essential for a beach trip – from swimwear to slippers to sunblock and snorkeling gear.
It was around 20 minutes before 10AM when I walked my way to the boat to board. It was the first ship docked so it took me around 2-3 minutes. Just like others, I preferred to board early to find myself a comfortable space inside the ship. There are no seat assignments so I had to be creative to enjoy the ride. My personal strategy is to get a spot where I can sit, one that is near the deck outside so I can get some fresh sea air from time to time without losing chance at airconditioning.
My favorite is this area where everyone sits on the floor. It was an interesting common space with me as I get to watch people – an opportunity for me to get to see how locals and tourists are in the place I am in. Other options are seats in an also airconditioned space usually at the middle and open air decks if one is brave to face the heat – with occasional relieving wave splashes of course.
After a 70-minute boat ride (few minutes of that spent on the outside deck enjoying my beer), I arrived in my destination. As the port was a small one, it was a breeze finding the bus takes people to Aharen Beach – the more accessible beach in town. (The other one called Tokashiku is not so far away but is not accessible via public transport). I intended to camp in that area for a night and the bus dropped us off at the office for campers. The beach is about 5 minutes from there as well.
The place immediately made an impression on me as this is far from the image of Japan that I had. It was a small town, its simplicity hard to not fall in love with. Streets are quiet, structures are few and short – yet the town isn’t incomplete for the comfort of its visitors as guesthouses and restaurants are present.
After registration at the youth travel campground office, I walked to the left following a short dirt road leading to the campground. The old lady at the office told me to meet someone there who would rent me a tent for 1200 yen. When I arrived there, there were others setting tent but I did not know who to approach that I was ‘homeless’ for the first 15 minutes probably. Two strangers may have noticed my cluelessness that they told me that if I am looking for the one who rents out a tent, I should just look for that old guy in a three-wheel cart and that I should not worry because he comes there often. True enough, I didn’t have to wait long. After about 10 more minutes, he was there. Just like the woman at the reception, he spoke very little English but for some reason, we understood each other.
All I did was put my bag inside the tent then I immediately went to check out the beach. The same strangers told me there were two beaches, the one nearer the campsite which was less crowded but was apparently not an area for swimming while on the left (nearer the reception area) is where most guests are. I opted to walk from the campground to the less quiet part. To my surprise, the busy swimming area is not that far anyway. What actually separates the two is just this rock arch that’s perfect for some shade.
I immediately took a dip. Sand bed was rocky near the shore but it becomes more sandy as you get farther. What I noticed is that the bed gets deep quite suddenly – no wonder most kids are swimming in areas near the shore.
It was obviously a busy day so I just found my seat spot in a relatively quiet part near the swimming area. It was a busy beach, shore lined with rented beach chairs and umbrellas. It took a while for me to kick in why those are necessities. There is no natural shade in the area! And as I could not afford being toasted, I had to keep moving between the water, sand in the beach and some walk around town – latter leading me to the simplest discoveries of random stuff that gave me glimpse of everyday life in that quiet town.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
Ferry from Naha via to Tokashiki
Tomari Port – Take Yui Rail Monorail from the Naha Airport to Miebashi Station, go down at exit on the left. Do a sharp left and continue walking on the road in perpendicular to the monorail. Continue walking until you see Richmond Hotel, turn right – walking past a small bridge, keep on walking along a main road. Other landmark on the right is Red Planet Hotel. One needs to cross to go to the port on the other side.
Bus from Tokashiki Port to Aharen Beach
On the left side upon arrival hall are buses to Aharen Beach priced at 400 yen which is paid before boarding the bus. Take note of bus schedule posted in a piece of paper in front of the buses. It can be useful for your return.
Walk from Aharen Beach Campground Office to Aharen Port
From the reception area, walk to the main street, turn right and keep walking getting past by Aharen Elementary School, a restaurant called Blue Eyes. After passing a bridge, take the right when you reach a fork on the road. Continue walking until you reach the port area. Mitsushima waiting area is a little further down the road. There is no sign in English but you can see one with the ferry’s mobile number in it.
WHERE TO STAY
Youth Travel Village Campsite – 500 yen per night for space, then rental of tent at 1,200 yen from another party. There is a toilet and sink on a white building near the campsite but there is also paid hot shower (300 yen) and toilet.
You may also check guesthouses within the area – all are within walking distance to the beach.
HOW TO FULLY ENJOY
Credit cards are uncommon so make sure to bring enough cash.
Snorkel gear, fins, floaters are available for rent and for sale on stalls and shops at the main entrance to the beach. Parasols and chairs are available for rent. Snorkeling tours and trips to an uninhabited island (based on schedule) are also available from the same stalls.
Food and drinks are no problem as there are restaurants that are open until relatively late at night. There is a supermarket that is open until 9PM.