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Sunday, Dec. 11, 2011

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Easy does it: The view from a room at the Eef Beach Hotel. HILLEL WRIGHT PHOTOS

Chilling out in a warm Kume Island way


Special to The Japan Times

The first thing a good beach does is immediately make you want to take your watch off. But what makes a really great beach is when you do that — and then kick off your shoes as well. That's exactly what I did when I arrived at Eef Beach on Kume Island, Okinawa.

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New Kumejima, sister ship of the ferry Naha, off ?Tonaki Island. Both boats serve Kume Island from Naha.

The university near Naha on Okinawa Island where I teach on Tuesdays and Fridays canceled classes on Tuesday, Oct. 24 for a students' "Career Day" — meaning that, as my weekends are usually free, I was looking (with delight) at a windfall four-day break. Pacing my pleasure, though, I spent the Saturday taking care of this and that, and the Sunday sleeping in, resting up and checking out where to go, and how.

I opted to take the ferry named Naha from Naha's Tomari Port to Kume Island, about 95 km to the west in the East China Sea. It pays to check the schedule at the port if you can, since there's usually only one round trip a day and, for any number of reasons, regular times may change on occasion.

On the Monday I planned to sail, the boat was due to leave at 8:30 a.m., stop en route at Tonaki Island and dock at Kume at 12:30 p.m. No problem: as a former commercial fisherman, I relish ocean voyages, and a 4-hour passage for me is just as enjoyable as time spent at my destination. Also, I chose the ferry over flying because I wanted to take my bike with me.

On Sunday, the clerk at the ticket window told me that, unlike Tokashiki Island — which was my last local island-hop (as I described on this page on Nov. 13) — Kume had an easily cyclable road between hills from the ferry landing on the west coast at Kanegusuku and Eef Beach on the east, where I would be staying.

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Sunrise with a crescent moon: Getting up early pays off at Eef Beach.

That came as welcome news after my sobering experience on Tokashiki Island, where, despite having a 24-speed mount, I was defeated by the gradients between the ferry port and Aharen Beach across the island — the only time that's happened in Japan. That's why I'd been so keen to avoid a repeat of such a frustrating experience.

So, once off the ferry, I was easily able to ride to Eef Beach in half an hour.

The day I sailed, Mon., Oct. 24, was as perfect as anyone could wish. The sun was shining in a bright-blue sky, the heat was comfortable and humidity low. I arrived at the Tomari Port terminal at 7:30 a.m., bought my passenger and bicycle tickets — sold at different locations, so it's wise to arrive early if you're cycling — then boarded the ship and explored the decks.

Although it was a fairly large vessel, the deck space accessible to passengers was rather limited compared to other Japanese ferries of similar size. In fact there seemed to be just three tables with benches close to the stern — and they were commandeered by knowing truck drivers who stretched out to sleep the entire voyage away.

Forward of that, my exploration revealed a covered area with some plastic seats bolted to the deck. Midships there was an indoor sleeping room — where most passengers grabbed a blanket from a box and lay down to snooze — while next to that was a small room with more plastic seats and a TV. The upper deck space, which was in the middle of the ship, was small for the size of the boat and, sadly, there was no access to the bow or stern.

On my Sunday recce to the port, I'd also learned there was no food or drinks service aboard other than vending machines — and they sold out of most things about halfway through the voyage. So it's probably wise to take along whatever you might need.

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Sundowner: Marinaded yellowfin and squid on the dinner menu at the Eef Beach Hotel.

The following day the ship cast off on schedule at 8:30 a.m. and sailed into a brilliant morning with a calm flat sea, its own movement creating the only breeze.

Thinking it a shame to waste such a beautiful day cooped up inside, I spent most of the time on the upper deck with my camera and zoom lens — in the process meeting several passengers who wanted me to use their cameras and take pictures of them together. One couple were on their honeymoon, the groom a young Frenchman and his bride a native of Kyoto. I also met two young men from Kanagawa Prefecture, which had been my home for 12 years before I moved to Okinawa this year.

We arrrived for our scheduled 45-minute halt at Tonaki Island at 10:45 a.m., and I again happily stayed on the upper deck and watched as cargo was discharged and passengers came and went.

From there, in continuing idyllic conditions of sky and sea and air, we crossed over to Kume Island and arrived bang on time at 12:30 p.m.

After retrieving my wheels, taking a few photos of the harbor and getting directions from the guide at the ferry terminal, I headed out on Route 89 for Eef Beach.

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Sights to see: Passengers on the ferry named Naha stare blindly at their cellphones as Tokashiki Island rises on the horizon.

Validating the sound intelligence I'd been given back in Naha, just about the entire 5-km, half-hour ride to my hotel by the beach passed in between rich green fields of sugar cane extending as far as the eye could see in every direction. It reminded me of being on Hawaii Island in 1969, before the sugar mills were shipped to the Philippines to exploit a cheap labor force made available by the Marcos and Aquino families.

But besides the verdant vistas made possible by the island's abundant sources of fresh water, I was pleased that, as I'd been told, there were only two moderate climbs on the entire route. It made a delightful contrast with my traverse of Tokashiki Island from the port to Aharen Beach on my previous island hop.

As clearly evidenced by all that sugar cane, Kume Island, which covers 63.5 sq. km. and is home to 9,000 people, makes its living on agriculture — sugar cane primarily, but also from wagyu beef cattle.

In recent years, though, these old staples have been joined by aquaculture in the shape of an onshore tiger-prawn farm which uses cold mineral water pumped up from 600 meters down in the ocean. There is also a small yellowfin tuna (kihada maguro) fishery and, of course, tourists like me heading for its pristine beaches and remarkable coral reefs. Also, since the island escaped any fighting during World War II, its historic architecture is all original.

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The still of sunset at Gima fishing port.

Despite all those attractions, I found it hard to tear myself away from beautiful Eef Beach, which I memorably first beheld in all its stunning glory upon emerging from cane fields and seeing its wide, 2-km stretch of pure-white strand stretching away to meet an azure sky. And, it being a weekday in October, the beach was almost deserted. Other visitors were likely desporting themselves diving, playing golf or driving around in rental cars seeing the sights.

However, as a Canadian from Vancouver Island, I've noticed that Japanese people in general and Okinawans in particular need the sea to be much warmer than do my compatriots before they'll venture in. So, as was the case at Aharen Beach on Tokashiki Island in June, I was again the lone swimmer in what to me was perfectly warm water, and in which I spent a wonderful hour up to 5 p.m. — alone in one of the most glorious stretches of ocean I've ever encountered.

In fact, the only beach I've known to rival it — and I've been to Bali, Baja and the Bahamas — was Hapuna Beach on Hawaii Island in 1969 before the government made it a state park, so popularizing and blighting it. Indeed, time on Kume Island was like traveling back 42 years, and nearly 5,000 km across the ocean. Best of all, I felt like a 25-year-old again !

After swimming and biking I made it back to the Eef Beach Hotel around 8 p.m., nicely in time for dinner which is served from 6-9 p.m. I had the Special Prawn dinner (¥3,000 including a glass of Orion beer), which began with a marinade of yellowfin tuna and squid, followed by minestrone with prawns, gratin with prawns and local vegetables, seasonal salad, rice (or bread), dessert and coffee (or tea). Both food and service were excellent and the ocean view across the patio was superb.

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I awoke early enough the next day to see the sunrise, biked around some more before and after the buffet breakfast, visiting the fishing port at Gima and a mangrove marsh down the Arahama Beach road on the west coast of the island. Then, all too soon, it was time to board the ferry at 1:30 p.m. in time for its 2-6 p.m. passage back to Naha.

For all its brevity, I looked back as the island sank beneath the horizon sure in the knowledge I'd just had one of the best mini-holidays ever. In fact, I'm planning to return with my wife, Shiori, in May.

The Kume Island ferry from Naha's Tomari Port departs daily at 8:30 a.m. (boarding from 7:30 a.m.). When it goes there directly, it reaches Kume at 11:45 a.m.; when it stops at Tonaki Island, it arrives at 12:30 p.m. The passenger fare is ¥3,000 one way or ¥5,700 return, with a ¥2,100 round-trip supplement for a bicycle. The island's airport is served daily from Tokyo's Haneda Airport and thrice-daily from Naha. Eef Beach Hotel ([098] 985-7111) charges ¥8,000 pppn, including a great buffet breakfast. Dinner is extra.


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