Zamami-jima: When Japan meets the Caribbean
The sound of waves crashing on the shore and a soothing sun warming our skins had led us to the brink of slumber on that late afternoon when suddenly a burning question arose, shattering that perfect moment a peace.
“The last ferry departs in less than 30 minutes, are we staying here or are we going back?”
-Hotel staff: Hey, we have only one room for our hotel, how are we gonna make money?
-Prison architect: Don’t worry lad I got you !
An image instantly popped up in our heads: half a dozen wooden triple bunk beds with the thinnest mattresses we had ever seen (and felt), a bleak greyish curtain hiding the inhabitants of these little boxes to their neighbours, which didn’t prevent them from hearing everything at night from one snoring to another scratching their intimate parts. It was only fair to say the memory of our small guest house back in Naha, the biggest city on the main island of the Okinawa archipelago, wasn’t much in comparison to the little paradise that was lying in front of our eyes.
Plunging our hands in the little backpacks we had carried with us, we realized pretty fast that we were going to have a rough night should we decide to spend it on the island. No toothbrush, no spare clothes, no blanket of any kind, but Zamami-jima was simply too amazing to care about these commodities and we couldn’t leave so soon. Time was ticking but we didn’t care anymore as our decision had been made: Naha could wait.
Sun was now much lower in the sky and a shiver went down our spines, prompting us to get back on our feet and reluctantly say goodbye to the white sand, corals and turquoise water of our postcard perfect beach haven. There was still quite a long way to go to the actual city of Zamami though and our somewhat rusty Japanese helped us get a ride from a local restaurant-owner back to the ferry pier, which would be the starting point of our exploration.
Devoid of tourists, the streets of Zamami were completely empty except for a few stray cats keeping us company until we got to the entrance of a small restaurant serving pork specialties only, as shown by the big piggy signboard in front of the said place, from ramen in a light tasty broil to dumplings. As we crossed the threshold, the owner seemed puzzled to discover two foreigners at his doorstep, hair still wet from bathing in the sea, so we put on our best smiles along with uttering a couple words in Japanese and were eating to our heart’s content only a few minutes later.
Our bellies were full when we stepped out and night was falling on us fast. Checking how much money we had left, it turned out we could still afford a couple late soft drinks out of a convenience store. Fortunately and despite the size of the town, Zamami was no different than any other Japanese city on that matter and we only had to walk for five minutes with our kitty friends before finding a konbini with stalls full of barley tea pet bottles and other grape-flavoured Fanta cans plus some mellow nikuman, the Japanese equivalent of Chinese steamed buns. Not to mention the usual shelves displaying the latest Shônen Jump magazines, of course! It had been a perfect conclusion to a perfect day until now, except for one thing: we didn’t have a room for the night, and judging by the content of our wallet, we definitely wouldn’t have any. Therefore our mission was simple; we had to find a roof over our head.
Weather was still superbly mild and we walked past traditional houses topped with kawara red roof tiles, crossed bridges over small canals running through Zamami before we finally heard the roll of the sea once again. Back we were to the ferry pier, about to let out a dispirited sigh when suddenly we saw the opportunity we had been looking for all evening. Next to what seemed like a diving club was a small waiting area made out of a few plastic benches under a concrete roof. Mission accomplished!
It took us quite long hours of adapting our backs to the cold stiffness of our benches and an ominous jump scare, when we mistook a diving suit hung on a boat nearby for a creep staring at us, to finally grab some sleep. When we opened our eyes in the early morning however, the magic atmosphere of a barely awaken Zamami made us forget the hardships of the night. A fragrant sea breeze caressed our sleepy faces, inviting us to make the most of the town while no one was around.
We followed the empty road next to the sea, occasionally jumping on the many anti flood barriers and obstacles set up all along the shore. Hidden behind a bend on the road, we then discovered the statue of a dog bearing a flower necklace. A friend of the infamous Hachiko back in Shibuya perhaps? Leaving that question unanswered, we kept moving forward as the path got lusher and the trees on the side of the road got unexpectedly covered with as many pineapples as a Forever 21’s t-shirt. We spotted an elderly woman stretching in the distance before the town caught up on us again and a vision of bright red torii (temple gates) and traditional Okinawan statues named Shisa, a mix between dragons and lions, replaced the pineapples entirely. Further into Zamami’s streets, we found out the ultimate Miyazaki fan as the owner of a tiny house had built and put on display numerous Ghibli characters in front of his house, and leading them all was an army of Totoros spelling the name of island on their round bellies.
As we begged a last farewell to Zamami hours later, on the deck of our ferry back to Naha, pictures of idyllic beaches, traditional temples and tasty ramen were getting along better than we would have ever thought they would in Japan. Next time, we’d have to come back to do some whale-watching!
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