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Zamami Village: The perfect Okinawa escape
Okinawa's Akajima and Zamami islands offer tasty food, upbeat nightlife and glorious beaches -- even in the off season
“It was a mistake to come!” I shout at my boyfriend as I stand thigh-deep in the icy waters of Nishihama Beach on Akajima, the numbing cold stabbing at my limbs.
I'd snapped up cheap air tickets to Okinawa with the idea it would be a balmy tropical paradise, even during late fall.
Most people come to Okinawa between January and March for whale watching, or from April to early October for the beaches.
More on CNN: Whale watching in Okinawa
We were here in late October, a vacation no-man's-land, hoping to get lucky.
Somewhere out there -- I can even see it, a sprawling midnight blue patch further from shore -- is a magnificent coral reef, teeming with rainbow-colored fish and comet sea stars.
I’ve heard great things about that coral reef. It's supposed be the home of an impressive array of marine life, some 260 fish species and 246 species of corals, luring scores of snorkelers and divers every summer.
If only I can get my frozen legs to move.
My boyfriend is already wading back to the beach in defeat. Soft.
I start to panic. I paid hard-earned money just to stand in the sand? Nothing to write home about and -- gasp -- no bragging photos on Facebook?
It turns out my fears are unfounded.
My luck changes when I return to Nishihama beach on Akajima for a swim the next day, after the mercury rises.
Since it's off season the beach is mostly deserted, with fewer than 10 campers and divers sharing a one-kilometer stretch of sand.
It almost feels like we have the island to ourselves.
Cooler weather, warmer people
Akajima and Zamami -- half an hour apart by ferry and an hour from Naha, the captial of Okinawa -- feel miles away from the usual tourist activity.
The two islands, together with two other (even smaller) islets Geruma and Fukaji, form Zamami Village, which has a combined population of roughly a thousand residents.
Many of the locals are inn operators or dive instructors and are eager engage us in friendly chatter.
If the weather gods happen to frown on you, here's a list of things to do on Akajima and Zamami that don't involve water.
Pig out on Zamami
La Toquee is a fusion Japanese restaurant serving fresh island produce at friendly prices.
The sashimi marinated in Korean sauce served with raw egg yolk is a clear winner (located above Heartland Diving Shop, +81 98 987 3358, open 6 p.m.-midnight).
Campagna is an Italian restaurant serving dainty portions of thin-crust pizza and pastas. (Next to Joy Joy at 434-2 Aza Zamami, Zamami-son), open from 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.-10 p.m., closed Tuesdays.)
Facing the water, Zamami Shokudo serves hearty portions of fresh sashimi and sushi. (95 Zamami, Zamami-son, +81 98 987 2671, open 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m., and 6 p.m.-10:30 p.m., closed Sundays.)
Zamami bar crawl
Zamami island might be tiny, but there are a surprising number of watering holes around town.
La Toquee (see above) has a well-stocked bar that serves cold beers and Awamori sake cocktails.
Urizun is a cozy izakaya located across from Shirahama Island Resort. (Open 6 p.m.-1 a.m., closed Sundays.)
For ¥1,000 you get all the Awamori (Okinawan sake) you can drink at Shisa Izakaya. (Located next to the river in Zamami, open from dinner till late.)
Joy Joy has a yakitori beer garden that's open during the summer. (434-2 Aza Zamami, Zamami-son.)
Geruma Island heritage house
Geruma Island is a small islet off Akajima connected by the Aka Bridge. Most visitors cross the bridge to see Takara’s House, a well-preserved hut built by a trading vessel captain during the Ryuku Dynasty.
If you get on the caretaker’s good side, you might be able to convince him to teach you the shamisen, a three-stringed Japanese instrument.
Chase deer on Akajima
The Kerama deer are an endangered species unique to Akajima, and a smaller and darker subspecies of the Japanese deer.
They're known to swim to uninhabited islands off Akajima. A count of Kerama deer in 1995 put the population at 130.
Kerama deer are elusive -- we spotted one on a road and it was gone in a blink-- so photographers may want to keep their zoom lenses at the ready at all times.
Where to stay
Nakayamagwa Guest House has tatami rooms and shared bathrooms. The owner speaks fluent English. Rooms go for ¥3,000 per person a night. (159 Zamami, Zamami-son, +81 90 3254 4434)
Joy Joy is a bed and breakfast with a dive shop attached. Rooms start from ¥5,250 per person a night. (434-2 Zamami, Zamami-son, +81 98 987 2445)
Ferry Queen Zamami is a high-speed boat that operates to Akajima and Zamami two to three times a day from the Port of Tomari in Naha. Journey time is around one hour.
Call the Zamami Village Office for the daily ferry schedule. (+81 98 868 4567, www.vill.zamami.okinawa.jp)
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