As an island nation that itself is subdivided into smaller and smaller islands across the archipelago, Japan lends itself well to being understood as a series of self-contained cultures within cultures, all bound together strongly, which only accentuates their differences. Nowhere is this perhaps more evident than on the far-flung southern islands some forty kilometres west of the Okinawan islands towards the very end of the archipelago where we find Keramashoto National Park. On one hand the tropical climate, pure white beaches, and deep blue waters are difficult to pair with the mainland to some degree, but on the other hand in the twisting trees and familiar flowers, nature never lets you forget that you are in Japan. Likewise in the warm Japanese omotenashi welcome you are assured, the distinct island culture becomes all the more apparent.
Located some forty kilometres off Okinawa, whether you arrive by ferry, speedboat or chartered helicopter, the collection of islands that forms Kerama feels instantly a world apart from the relatively developed island of Okinawa. Granted protected national park status as of 2014, the vast majority of Kerama is guaranteed to stay in its pristine form, all in addition to the ongoing efforts of local people to gather any detritus that washes on its fair shores.
On arrival it is easy to see where this pride comes from as no-matter the season the waters of each harbour and cove sing blue, running from palest turquoise through cerulean and deepest blue no-matter the season. Indeed, that moment when you shift from looking at the island paradises from a distance as you make your approach, to the one when you land and are suddenly looking out at the seas from the island vantage point is a profound shift in mentality and one that sticks with you throughout your stay on the Kerama islands.
Ferries stop at the larger Kerama islands of Tokashiki, Zamami and Aka, with many many smaller islands waiting to be explored beyond that, and clustered at each port are a satisfying number of inns and friendly restaurants ready to invite you into the welcoming community-led island culture. The inns offer local food, can also help schedule activities on the island and offer recommendations, offering a pleasant alternative to conventional hotels in keeping with the unspoilt islands of Kerama entirely free of high-rise developments.
When you are ready to venture out from the island villages, the top priority for most visitors is the whale watching that can be enjoyed from many locations, including the Zamami Whale Watching Association that also includes an information centre for those wanting to learn more before they take to the seas. Between the months of December to April, which while technically winter are still pleasantly warm, the seas around Kerama islands positively teem with whales in the mating season as they migrate from seas to the far north down to the Japanese archipelago. Your odds of seeing at least a couple are remarkably high, and the thrill of the chase as you leave harbour looking out for signs of the humpback whales’ blow on the horizon is infectious, and the moment you catch sight of a magnificent thirty tonne giant appearing fluke up from the blue waters is unforgettable. Furthermore some ships are equipped with underwater microphones so you can listen to the whale song for an experience as close as you can possibly get to these remarkable creatures without encroaching on their habitat.
Beyond the seas, the islands themselves offer a huge variety of potential walking routes, taking in the coast to mountainous peaks, all within sight and earshot of the blue oceans that surround you. Guided nature trails abound, and there are also Nordic walking options for those wanting a trek with a difference. From the islands’ piercing Kerama azalea and winter cherry, and calls of birds overhead, the islands really are a paradise for nature enthusiasts, while also offering a stimulating walk through varied and verdant pastures for those who just want to relax and take it all in.
Of course, that is to say nothing of the scenery that alternates between one pristine beach after another, interrupted only by craggy cliffs that tell tales of the earth’s shifting activity, and submerged shorelines where the vegetation sits by the seas. Whale watching can also be enjoyed from the comfort of land on observation decks such as those at Teruyama and Inazaki, and for those wanting to learn more about the history of the islands there exists Peace Monuments on Zanami as part of the Takatsukiyama Observation Deck trail built in the hope that the peace that the islands now enjoy will exist indefinitely.
For those looking for more activity there is SUP boarding and other water sports available across the island, and for an experience that truly speaks of island paradise why not consider SUP boarding at Tokashiku beach at dusk as the sky is painted red as the sun finally sinks into the gentle ocean. If you wish to get in the water, then experienced divers will be in their element with sweeping coral diving routes that take in table, branch and horned coral, in pure transparent seas. Even beginners can enjoy reefs and sea-life near the beach with snorkelling trips, with hawksbill and green turtles a surprisingly common sight, and one that is breathtaking in person.
After all that there is nothing more satisfying than to relax by a barbecue and let the seas serve up exquisite seasonal fish to be as the stars shine down on you overhead.
For a paradise island experience where it is the nature of the island that is brought to the fore, make Keramashoto National Park your next destination. No matter the season you are guaranteed an idyllic experience that shines light on a Japanese way of life that few who make it beyond the mainland are party to.
Zamami Village (Zamami Island, Aka Island, Geruma Island)
Zamami Village Office
Tourist Activities at Zamami Island, Aka Island, Geruma Island
Zamami tourist information
Tourist Activities at Tokashiki Island
*Nature walking, Nature hiking, BBQ, Night tour (Star watching) / Sunny Coral
*SUP, Sunset SUP / Acoustic Life
*Swimming with Sea Turtles / Island Trip
Keramashoto National Park visited in February