Through my work as a professional photographer I’ve had the pleasure of traveling all around Japan. There are many areas I love visiting, but one of my favorites is the southern islands of Okinawa.
As many know, Okinawa is not just one single island, but actually a chain of islands, each with their own character and flavor. My most recent trip took me to Zamami Island, a smaller island, but one known the world over for its Kerama Blue oceans.
First Challenge: Getting There
To get to Zamami Island you must first travel to Naha city, which is located on the main island of Okinawa. From there you take a 50 minute express ferry, or a roughly 2 hour regular car ferry to the main port on the island.
If the weather is nice this can be a great start to your trip. But as I arrived just after a typhoon, the seas were rough, and I ended up spending the entire trip outside battling (and losing to) some pretty bad seasickness. If you are at all susceptible to seasickness I highly recommend going prepared with medicine, as the seas in the area can get pretty rough at certain times of the year.
The Village of Zamami
Once you’ve reached the island, you are greeted by Zamami’s small harbor village.
This would become my base for the next few days, so I was excited to get out and take a wander around the village and the island as a whole, with my camera. I was there to work, but luckily I had a few days of free time to get out and shoot before my scheduled work day.
If you wish to explore the island, you can walk to many of the main beaches from the harbor. But there are also options to rent cars, scooters, and bicycles, if you wish. There is a single city bus as well, but no taxi service on the island.
After a quick lunch of Okinawa soba, I decided to start my adventure by walking over to Ama Beach, which is part of Ama Village and only a 10-15 minute walk from Zamami Harbour.
The narrow road goes along the ocean and was quite a nice little walk with a great view of several of the smaller islands in the area. Part way you will come across the Marilyn Statue, which is a statue of a local dog. I won’t go into detail here but the story of this dog is actually quite amazing, so please do look it up if you have time.
In Ama I thought I would take a stroll around the village before checking out the beach area. Less than half the size of the Zamami village, it really didn’t take me too long to walk the entirety of the village, but it was interesting to explore all the little paths and alleyways throughout the village.
I also came across many SHISA (a mythological animal that is a cross between a lion and a dog) ornaments at the entrance to people’s homes. These are set as protectors to ward off evil spirits, and can be found in front of many homes around Okinawa. There are a wide variety of designs and styles so I really enjoyed spotting these little protectors and photographing them.
Coming out of the village you head right into Ama Beach. This is one of 3 main beach areas on the island, and is quite popular with tourists and locals alike.
On this day I was lucky to have the whole beach to myself, and as this is one of several designated swimming areas, I jumped in for a quick swim to beat the summer heat. I should note that there are many “beachy areas” around the island, but in an attempt to protect the local coral reefs, swimming and other marine activities are limited to specific areas.
These areas are amazingly beautiful, so there is not much need to go elsewhere. But if you do wish to travel off the beaten path a little, you can hire a guide to show you some of the more hidden wonders of the island.
After my swim I decided to head back over the Zamami village and see what secrets its backstreets might be hiding.
Much like the Ama Village area, Zamami village has many small paths and walkways that I found very enjoyable to explore. Often slightly overgrown with vegetation, you don’t really know where you will pop out at times, but that is part of the fun when exploring with your camera.
Since I had to meet up with the crew for dinner I called it a day here and headed back to my hotel.
Day Two - Exploring Farther Afield
For day two of my trip I decided to tag along with the rest of the crew, as they had cars and would be traveling to a few places on the island that would be a little too far for me to walk on my own. As I said there are several options to rent vehicles on the island, which would be great if you want to see more than Zamami and Ama areas.
We first traveled to Furuzamami Beach, which is a 800m long white sand beach area, and probably the main beach area of the island. As the crew was working, I sat and enjoyed a book (nothing I could do to help them).
There is also a swimming area, small cafe, and a couple shops where you can rent snorkelling gear, etc., You can even hire a guide to take you out on a jet ski to visit some of Zamami’s smaller islands. At this time I just read and took a short swim, but I’ll come back to this area again in a heartbeat.
Once the crew was finished with their work we headed out to a couple of the observation decks around the island.
The first one we visited was the Kaminohama Observation Deck. After a short walk down from the parking lot, this observation deck provides a great view of the surrounding islands, as well as the deep blue waters of Ama Beach.
Although there is only a small area around the deck to move around, I really enjoyed photographing the islands I could see below me and off in the distance. If you are a landscape photographer I think this is one place you could spend a good amount of time shooting. Also, if you have the time, I am told this is a great spot to check out sunsets. But unfortunately, we had another spot to check out first.
The second observation area we visited was the Inazaki Observation Deck. This observation area was recently reconstructed by the Ministry of Environment and is now a really nice wooden construction structure with a modern architectural feel to it. Having taken many pictures at the previous deck, I decided to enjoy the view with my book again, while the crew got what they needed.
Although Furuzamami Beach was a nice place to read, the view and the breeze made the Inazaki Observation deck an even better place to relax and forget about the flow of time. The construction style of the deck makes it a very comfortable place to relax, and the wooden benches were the perfect spot for a short power nap.
Checking Out the Wildlife from the Water
From here we were basically free until sunset. So, one of the crew and I headed back to Furuzamami Beach to charter a guide and go snorkeling.
One of the main attractions of Zamami, and Okinawa in general, is all the amazingly clear water, and thus the different marine activities you can take part in. At Zamami there is snorkeling, SUP, sea kayaking, and many more.
One reason we chose snorkeling was that we heard the local sea turtles come up to Ama Beach around high tide to eat, and you can swim with them (no touching though). We both really wanted to do this.
After a quick jet ski ride over to Ama Beach, our guide quickly pointed out one of the turtles for us. I had never seen a sea turtle in the wild, so I was very excited to swim up alongside it [VIDEO]. I was told some of the turtles are quite people-shy and will swim away if you try to get too close, but this little guy didn’t seem to even notice us. It was quite the experience, and something I highly recommend to anyone thinking of visiting the island.
As we still had a fair amount of time, our guide suggested we check out another point only accessible by boat or jet ski. After 2-3 minutes, we were off shore of one of Zamami’s many islands, and right above an amazing coral reef. With the water being especially clear that day and the sun out in full, it was a real treat to get to dive at this spot. Not only were there an amazing amount of coral, but an untold amount of local fish as well. It really was a fun way to spend an afternoonーand paying the extra for a guide was well worth it.
Our last stop of the day was an attempt to get some pictures and time lapse of the sunset. Depending on where you are, the sun will set directly into the ocean, which can be quite the site for those who have never lived near the sea. Unfortunately, due to some low cloud cover we didn’t get an amazing sunset, but it was still a fun way to finish off a couple days of exploring the island.
Equipment Recommendations and Image Selection
When doing this kind of exploration/street photography I would highly recommend being very selective of the equipment you take. You may be tempted to take everything you have “just in case,” but lugging all your gear around can be quite exhausting and take away from the pleasure of your trip. Pick two lenses, a nice fast prime for ease of use, and pleasant bokeh and a wider lens (24-70mm) or something similar. They will cover most of what you will see, in my opinion.
Of course there may be moments where you wish you had a big zoom lens, but making due with what you have will also force you to be creative and expand your photographic ideas.
If you are looking to do any time lapses like you see in my video, a decent tripod would be helpful. Saying that, I took my time lapses with a GoPro Hero 8, and they are so light that all you need is a mini standーor simple light monopod if there is no wind. It’s a perfect way to keep your gear light on these kinds of trips!
Now when exploring a new location with a camera, I often search for pictures that show the local flavor of the location. In this case the Shisa statutes are a perfect example. They are very well known to be from Okinawa, but each is still unique enough that they are fun to find and to photograph.
Furthermore, the weather may not always provide clear blue skies all day long. But don’t be afraid to take your landscape photos with cloudy skiesーsometimes these images have more personality than ones with perfect blue skies.
Author: Jason Halayko