Cycle from Tokyo to Okinawa in a day? Yes, you can
Of all the cycling routes in and around Tokyo, the trippiest is the one along the Tama River to Zamami Island in Okinawa. Yup -- that Okinawa.
It really is possible to make a one-day bike trip from Tokyo to a tropical paradise. All you need is a bike, a cycle bag, an air ticket and, preferably, a tent.
From the Ebisu area in central Tokyo, it's about a 20-kilometer ride to Haneda Airport, at the mouth of the Tama River. The easiest route follows Komazawa-dori, crossing Kampachi-dori, down the hill and then left until you reach the paved cycle path along the river.
Even better, if you can get to Nagahara-kaido boulevard from Meguro or Ota wards, go all the way to the bridge, turn left onto the paved cycling path and follow the Tama River for about an hour.
From the red torii gate at the end of the 52-kilometer-long Tamagawa cycling trail, follow the cars to the international terminal entrance, or go between runways to the domestic terminal.
Dismounting, it's fun to roll a bicycle past people getting out of airport shuttle buses. Though authorities say there's no secure overnight parking area, many cyclists park on the grass near the international terminal entrance.
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Some cyclists go to the airport just to have lunch in the planetarium café, or go up to the observation deck to watch planes landing and taking off.
"I enjoy coming here," says Sakura Ozawa, 72, who often cycles from his home 30 kilometers away to take photos of planes on Haneda's runways.
"Sometimes I take a morning flight to somewhere in Japan, and then come back in the afternoon and cycle home."
If flying with your bike, put it in a bike bag (mine cost less than ¥5,000/US$52) and carry it -- rather than rolling or riding it -- to the check in counter. Skymark Airlines charged me an extra ¥1,000 to transport my bagged-up bike in the cargo hold with other luggage bound for Okinawa.
In Naha, while others were waiting for taxis, buses and trains outside the terminal, I reassembled the bike and pedaled across town to the Tomari ferry terminal off highway 58. From there, it's a two-hour ferry to Zamami (¥3,540/US$36 round-trip) or a more speedy one-hour fast ship crossing (¥5,350 round-trip).
From late December to April, humpback whales migrate between the 22 islands of the Kerama group, including the popular Tokashiki and Akajima islands.
Once ashore, the information office near the ticket window can provide maps and other information in English.
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Turning right, it's a few minutes cycle to the main village of Zamami, which has more than a dozen places to stay, starting at ¥3,000/night per person for a room in a minshuku (family-run guest house).
You can hop a local bus for ¥200, or rent bikes (about ¥1,000 per day), scooters (around ¥3,000/US$31 per day), kayaks or even boats for trips to uninhabited islets with great snorkeling.
To reach the pleasant beachside camping area in the grove of casuarina trees, go left from the dock and cycle about five minutes -- or walk 15 minutes -- to Ama hamlet, where you can rent a tent for under ¥1,000 a day.
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If you can handle cold showers and don't mind paying ¥300 per night to camp in your own tent, you can live as long as you want on about ¥1,000 (US$10) a day, or spend a little more on fresh sushi at the Zamami Shokudo and other little shops, including about 10 restaurants and a few pubs.
With a rustic charm, Zamami's lack of tourists makes it an attraction. It's not Yap or the Marshall Islands, but Zamami's beauty gradually seeps into your head through the gentle breezes and the rhythm of the waves.
The people -- about 600 locals sprinkled across three hamlets -- are friendly and unhurried. Their seasons consist of humpback whale mating season in winter, sea turtle season, manta ray season and coral-spawning season.
Festivals include the Hama-uri boat party and music concerts in March, an inter-island swim in April, dragon boat and yacht races in June and various summer festivals capped by a thanksgiving to the ocean god in late September.
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From early January to late March, whale-watching boats (¥5250/US$54 for adults) depart at 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m.
Spotters with binoculars on observation points locate the whales and lead the boats to them. Enterprises such as Heartland, Joy Joy, Natureland and Kerama Kayak Center offer kayak or diving trips with 30- to 40-meter visibility alongside manta rays, whale sharks and even dugongs.
Staying on land, the island is amazing for cycling. A smooth road circles the island, with barely a car in sight. The ride is exhilarating, not taxing. Not too high or steep, the hills provide a challenge without the threat of head injuries from high-speed falls.
A world apart
Cycling to a remote eastern corner of the island, a road leads to something rare and precious in Japan -- an area with no houses and no signs of people. This spot -- and the untrammeled beaches beyond view -- seems to belong to about a dozen cats who block my path to tell me to leave them alone. I do.
Heading back to the campground before sunset, a hilltop observation point reveals cathedral light falling on a distant island.
As I watch the sun go down and the stars twinkle into view, I laugh at the thought that tomorrow I will get on my bike and end up along the Tama River pedaling back home through the world's biggest city.
Tourist information: Travelers to Zamami can find plenty of useful background information in English, courtesy of an American teacher living on the island. David Clumpner’s Zamami English Guide has just about all the travel information anyone could need.
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