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Visiting Aka Island (Aka-jima): Tropical Paradise Found in Japan

In August, we visited Aka Island (Aka-jima), an island off the coast of Okinawa.  Most visitors don’t come to Japan for the beaches, but Aka Island was incredible – one of my all time favorite beaches.  Getting there requires a bit of advance planning (and good sea conditions) but is well worth it.

Aka Island

Planning to Visit Aka Island

When we were planning our late August to Japan and South Korea, we wanted to include a beach part of our trip. When researching, we were considering a few options. Some we ruled out for colder water (Jeju Island in South Korea), others we ruled out because travel time and/or flight prices weren’t realistic (Ishigaki in Japan.)

The one place that was looking feasible and fit what we wanted was either Zamami Island or Aka Island.  Two of the Kerama Islands, they had a lot of what we were looking for: accessibility (a 60 minute ferry ride from Tomari Port in Naha, Okinawa) great beaches, not highly developed, something a bit different. Flight deals were really good (we ended up paying $600 for a multi-city booking that took us from San Francisco to Okinawa and then back to San Francisco from Seoul on China Eastern, with a layover in Shanghai each way) and this was lining up really well. We booked it and were super excited to get to Aka Island.

Ferries and Accommodation

View from Kawai Diving

We only booked our trip a month before leaving and this is where things got complicated on two fronts: ferries sell out quickly (and can only be booked 23 days in advance if you don’t have a Japanese credit card – so are often sold out by the time foreigners can book) and accommodations book up quickly.

Most of the hotels, rentals, and guesthouses on these islands are not on Airbnb, the hotel booking websites, etc. Some have their own booking systems on their websites, others you just have to email. When first looking, many places were either booked up or really overpriced (I checked both Aka Island and Zamami Island.)  I then emailed around 10 places and then found a hit – Kawai Diving Accomodation on Aka Island. We got our ferry booked, and were ready to go.

Arriving in Okinawa – and a change in plans

When we landed at Naha Airport in Okinawa, we took a quick fifteen minute taxi ride to Tomari Port to catch our ferry to Aka Island. However, the seas were rough and as a result our ferry was cancelled due to rough seas. There are two types of ferries that go there – the Queen Zamami (large ferry) leaves once a day and can handle swells up to 3 meters. The High-Speed Queen Zamami leaves 2-3 times a day but can only handle smaller swells. The swells were too high – so it was cancelled.

We were worried for a few reasons. Besides not being able to get where we wanted to go, we also were worried about going the next day, because the swells were looking so high that we may not even be able to catch the large ferry back. We left without booking the ferry for the next day, and booked a last second hotel in Itoman for that night where we would go and figure it out next.

When we got to Itoman, we knew it was not what we were looking for. We were in a big resort and far from anything – not the ideal environment for us.

Hizushi Beach
Empty beaches were awaiting us on Aka Island

We kept looking at pictures of Aka Island and we knew what we needed to do – try to get to Aka Island the next morning.

However, when we checked the website to book the large ferry, it was sold out. We booked the morning small ferry, knowing that it may be cancelled.

Next morning, wake up early. High-speed ferry is cancelled. Ferry Zamami – there’s seats! Try to book. When booking, it sells out. No luck. Aka Island is looking less likely.

Because the ferry was first sold out, then not sold out, then sold out again, I kept going on the page for an hour and refreshing over and over again. With 40 minutes to go before the Ferry Zamami was leaving, two spots opened up. I booked them and we literally ran to check out and scrambled to the ferry terminal (30 minutes away) to catch the ferry.

Making it a few minutes before departure, we were super excited, and Aka Island did not disappoint!

Aka Island
View soon after arriving at Aka Island

We made it!

The island, with less than 300 residents, was incredible.  This was one of the highlights, if not the highlight, of our Japan vacation.

 

Kawai Diving
Looking from our room at Kawai Diving

When we arrived, we got picked up by Ai-san, the owner of Kawai Diving, and she took us to the bed and breakfast. The room was mostly empty with sleeping mats – common in Japan (and very comfortable, although it may not seem so if you haven’t slept on one before.  Ai-san was super nice and helped us figure out where to go on the island (spoiler: an island with 300 residents doesn’t have many options.) and we rented snorkeling equipment. The island is really small and can be accessed in full by either bike or just by walking.

View of Nishibama Beach while visiting Aka Island
Nishibama Beach

This is a place where you can go to a beach and it’s actually empty. On our first day, we went to two beaches – and saw 4 people at the two beaches combined.

At Nishibama Beach, there was one other family. Even with the lack of visitors, there was also a lifeguard on duty (although his shift ends at 3 – and he seemed to really not want us to swim after he left.) This was a really good place to lay out and chill in the sun.  Nishibama doesn’t have the best snorkeling, and we eventually left to go to a snorkeling beach.

Hizushi Beach on Aka Island
Hizushi Beach

Hizushi Beach, on the west side of the island, was really cool. We were the only people there and it had pretty good snorkeling, with both high density of fish, coral, and a lot of variety. There were also hermit crabs at the shore!

A note about the town: there aren’t a lot of options. There’s two restaurants (one with local Okinawan cuisine – think pork or deer udon) and one with Italian options.) Kawai Diving included two meals a day (Ai-san handles all of the cooking – the dinner was multi course and was excellent – one of our best meals in Japan) so we only had to worry about finding a spot for lunch. Besides that, there’s a grocery store and it’s mostly houses. Overall, the main attraction is the beach.

Day 2

On the second day, we had the highlight of our experience by going to Turtle Beach. Near the ferry port, this beach’s name is due to the large population of turtles that live in the waters here. Ai-san told us the snorkeling here was great and it really beat expectations. We went in and saw 4 massive turtles – each was probably around 3 feet long, as well as lots of other cool fish. This beach was also the most crowded we encountered in Aka Island, with around 15 others at the beach, mostly there for the turtles as well.

 

Turtle Beach on Aka Island
The water at Turtle Beach

Unfortunately, we had to leave on the ferry at the end of the day to catch our flight from Okinawa to Osaka the following morning. It was a good thing we had the Ferry Zamami booked for the way back – the swells rendered the smaller High-Speed Queen Zamami out of service.  The ride back was a bit too bumpy for my liking but well worth dealing with to be able to experience Aka Island.

Overall, we easily could have done 5 days on Aka Island. It was a great place to experience incredible beaches and a less well known side of Japan.

Info to help you plan a visit to Aka Island

Flights: You’ll have to fly to Naha Airport (OKA) in Okinawa.  The airport serves both domestic and international flights.

Ferry: This can be booked on the Zamami village website.  As mentioned earlier, the Ferry Zamami is a much safer bet as the High Speed Queen Zamami is more likely to be cancelled.  The Ferry Zamami costs 2,120 yen (around $20 each way)

Lodging: Kawai Diving Accomodation, you’ll have to book by emailing them at kawai@oki-zamami.jp. We paid 7200 yen a night per person (around $70 USD) which includes two meals a day (dinner was great, I’m not a big breakfast person.)  The room had a great view of the water and as the name makes clear, they can arrange diving trips if you want. There was only one other couple staying there when we were there and Ai-san was a great host – with really helpful information and rides to and from the port.

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