Exploring the Okinawa Archipelago
In search of the perfect spot for a Japanese lager, TOM WESTBROOK stumbles upon Zamami Island, a slice of paradise on the Okinawa archipelago with water so deeply sapphire it earned a slot on the color wheel.
Published on Jun 14, 2016
IT'S A WONDROUS occasion when your setting, mood and circumstances align in such perfection that you feel like you're in a commercial. That's what happened to me while sipping an ice-cold brew on Zamami's camera-ready alabaster shore.
The idea for the expedition was born a year earlier on an evening in Sydney's Kings Cross. Orion beer was half-price at my local Japanese restaurant and it was an offer I couldn't refuse. I'd never heard of it, but the crisp draught from Okinawa was refreshing and well worth the bargain. One Orion led to another and over dinner my girlfriend and I hatched a plan to visit the beer at its source and try the refreshment on one of the exotic beaches there. Bucking the grand tradition of drunken pacts, we actually stuck to it.
From Okinawa island itself, where Orion is headquartered, we head west to the Kerama Islands, a chain of 22 tiny islands, surrounded by water so brilliantly hued that they named a color after it: Kerama blue, which is a dark, royal shade set aglow in the sunlit shallows. Zamami is one of the four inhabited islands in the Kerama chain, and its waters share the famous sapphire color. Afloat in the Pacific Ocean, 600 kilometers south of mainland Japan and closer by half to Taipei than Tokyo, this dazzling gem on the endless-summer archipelago of Okinawa is easy to reach, but remote enough to be a peaceful paradise—and the perfect place for a pint.
Blue seas like nowhere else. Mike Lyvers/Getty Images.
The magic begins before we even set foot ashore, while soaking up the sun from the roof-deck of the slow ferry from Naha, Okinawa's capital. Chugging over the Pacific Ocean, the Japan of snow-capped mountains, hill temples and sprawling metropolises drifts away. Monsoon clouds roil on the horizon then retreat leaving us under a broad blue sky with the sun beating down on the deck.
From the dock at the azure harbor, it's a five-minute walk to anywhere in Zamami Village, a quaint town of rickety fishing shacks, coffee shops, bars and a police box for the island's lone cop. It's where most of the island's 600 residents live and the bulk of the island's Orion is found in ice-cold Kerama-blue tins. Hotels range from Japanese-style guesthouses with pillows and futons on tatami mats, such as Nakayamagwa, to the high-end resort Kerama Beach Hotel, secluded at Asa Village on the island's east.
Once we dock, I begin to scout the lay of the land, keeping my eyes peeled for the perfect spot to enjoy an icy Orion. Okinawa's islands are well visited by Japanese domestic tourists, but to a couple of gaijin, the tatami-floor minshuku (guesthouses) and hole-in-the-wall izakaya seem surreal among the surfboards, sand, heat-haze and deigo flowers of the subtropics.
An icy Orion. Tom Westbrook.
After a 20-minute walk from the harbor, we find ourselves at the beach at Furuzamami, on the island's south coast, the premier spot for a swim, and rated by Michelin as one of the world's best beaches. Here we stop at the beachfront food shack, Parlor Ikoi (Furuzamami Beach), which has a view over the water, a cooler of my beloved beer and a historically weighty signature snack: taco rice. The dish, minced beef and taco seasoning on a bed of rice, is said to date to 1984 when it was invented to cater to American troops. It owes its continued existence to the large U.S. military presence on Okinawa Island, some 25,000 personnel, who live on bases first occupied during World War II, when in 1945 a three-month battle raged for control of the island chain. The war exacted a hard toll on Zamami, and dragged out for decades in the form of a political fight over whether the military had forced civilians into mass suicide before the advancing Americans. But the island has slowly emerged from its long shadow as a sleepy, sun-soaked paradise.
Bellies full, we wander across the white strip of Furuzamami beach where the sand curls between two green, jungle headlands. The deep-blue sea turns turquoise in the shallows. Coral teeming with fish runs right up to the shore and we jump in the cool, crystal ocean for a snorkel, straight off the beach.
Under those deep blue seas. Takau99/Getty Images.
It is enough to work up a thirst, which gets me thinking about another beer. So I bring a few chilly Orions to the beachfront, to enjoy with our toes in the sand. The waves run along the shore leaving a swash of foam matching the froth atop my Orion, and I decide that I've found the exact spot I've been looking for all along. I totally feel like I'm in a beer commercial.
The klieg lights, set director and film crew add to the sensation. You see, I am in a beer commercial, or at least surrounded by one. It turns out I'm not the only one who thinks Zamami Island provides superlative scenery for sipping beer. The marketing crew behind Orion are just along the beach, having picked this very location to shoot their next TV campaign. A group of dancers pirouette to a catchy jingle along the sun-bleached sands in front of me, then drink from their Kerama-blue beer cans, smiling toothy grins for the cameras.
My search for the perfect glass of Orion has come to a cinematic conclusion. At sundown, the shoot ends and we have the beach and practically the whole of Zamami Island to ourselves. Twilight casts the beach in a rosy glow and I finish the last of my beer in a satisfying swig.
That's a wrap.
This is Zamami's signature dish. The island is famous for mozuku, a slimy, skinny and salty seaweed it exports all over Japan. Wayama Mozuku, a small lunch shop east of the harbor, sells fresh soba with the seaweed kneaded into the dough, and served cold on top of the noodles.
Mozuku soba is the island's signature dish. Tom Westbrook.
If beer doesn't cut it for you, this local firewater will. Distilled from rice, it tastes like shochu only stronger. Okinawans credit their famous longevity to the drink. Consumed with water and ice, it will put hair on your chest. It's also used in cooking and to prepare a fermented tofu dish, tofuyo, that tastes a little like blue cheese. La Toquée is a happening izakaya with Pacific-island décor right in the middle of the township and a fun place to meet locals and fellow travelers alike over a drink.
Slow-braised in soy, mirin and awamori to melt-in-your mouth consistency, we loved the version at Marumiya (432-2 Aza-Zamami, Zamami Village).