When one thinks of Japan, images that come to mind might include crowded cities, sushi bars and exotic white-faced geishas.
But Japan as a tropical dive destination? Japan as a vast expanse of clear blue ocean teeming with marine life, dotted with strings of white-sand beaches just waiting to be explored?
Indeed. Japan's sunny tropical regions are true "wonders of the sea", which remain much the same as when Commodore Perry and his team first saw them over 150 years ago.
The South-West Islands, or Nansei-shoto, span 650 miles (1046 kilometers) from the southern tip of Kyushu to the east coast of Taiwan. The islands lie in the same latitudinal parallel as the Bahamas and Florida between the northern latitudes of 24 and 27 degrees. The northern half is part of Kagoshima Prefecture, which includes the Osumi and Amami Islands.
The southern half, approximately 160 islands, falls into Okinawa Prefecture and is comprised of 4 main groups: Okinawa Islands to the north, Daito Islands 220 miles (352 km) to the east, Miyako Islands to the south and Yaeyama Islands further southwest.
It's likely that the Okinawa Islands were originally all connected. However, the lowlands became engulfed by water resulting in a number of separate islands, exposed peaks of volcanic and coral mountains.
The Okinawa archipelago divides the East China Sea from the Philippine Sea and elevation rarely rises above 2000 feet (606 meters). Dense, green forests blanket the rugged rich terrain that is home to farms growing sugar cane, pineapples, sweet potatoes, vegetables and flowers. Undersea riches include colorful coral reefs and ancient, mysterious ruins.
Okinawa's earliest inhabitants likely arrived via a prehistoric land bridge from modern-day China followed by Micronesians, Malaysians and Japanese. Historically, Okinawa or the Ryukyu Islands (its former name,) were dominated by a turbulent tug of war between local rulers, mainland Japan and more recently by the U.S.
During the 12th century Okinawa's main island was divided into three kingdoms; Chuzan, Nanzan and Hokuzan where the respective kings fought against one another.
Due to the islands lack of natural resources and its geographical proximity to the Philippines, Taiwan, Korea and China, trading relationships were established. The region became the main hub for commerce and during the 15th century King Sho Hashi united Okinawa marking the birth of the Ryukyu Kingdom.
King Hashi introduced a moratorium on the use of weapons, which gave rise to hand to hand combat. The unarmed Okinawans became fierce warriors able to kill armed enemies with a single blow. This became Okinawa's most famous export, karate.
As an independent nation with centralized power, the kingdom flourished and its own distinctive culture, history and language blossomed. King Hashi continued his advance and by 1571 the outer islands of Miyako and Yaeyama officially fell to the order of the Royal Court, completing the unification of the Ryukyu Kingdom.
This 'Golden Age' ended when the Satsuma clan from southern Kyushu, Japan, invaded Okinawa in 1609. Many treasures were taken and again a moratorium on weapons was introduced. The islands became heavily taxed and greatly exploited; sometimes Okinawans weren't even permitted to eat the fish they caught.
The Ryukyus' sovereignty officially ended in 1879 when the Shimazu clan invaded the kingdom and the islands were annexed to mainland Japan.
Despite their disinterest in Japan, Okinawans were forced into the last part of WW II when U.S. troops landed in Okinawa on April 1, 1945. It took almost 3 months for Okinawa to be conquered with many locals committing suicide to avoid capture. The Battle of Okinawa resulted in a U.S. occupation that lasted until 1972 when the island was returned to Japan.
Despite its torrid history modern day Okinawa remains close to its historical roots and its unique cultural traits.
Of Japan's population of 127 million, 1.3 million live in Okinawa Prefecture. One million are based on Okinawa Island and the remaining locals are scattered comfortably across 49 islands. This leaves 110 islands uninhabited and untouched.
Okinawans have recently been recognition for their life span, the longest in the world. According to a study published in 2003 by Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare there are 457 Okinawans who are at least 100 years old, which is equivalent to 35 centenarians per 100,000, the highest ratio in the world. (The U.S. has about 10 centenarians per 100,000.) A healthy diet, exercise and location have all been offered as explanations.
Spend any time in Okinawa and you're bound to notice its energetic graying population. One morning while boarding a dive boat, I noticed a small obaasan (grandma) smashing up a wooden shed with a sledgehammer. When our boat docked close to sunset the shed was reduced to smithereens. And the obaasan was perched on top of the rubble sipping a sake sundowner.
The indigenous religions of Okinawa are animism and shamanism influenced by Japan's religious beliefs of Shinto, Buddhism and China's Taoism.
At the core of animism is a strong belief that many kami, spirits, inhabit the world. Rituals performed throughout the year placate these kami and ward off evil.
Obon, for example, is a summer festival where nightly processions welcome the ancestors' spirits back to their village. Clad in beautiful Ryukyuuan costume, locals perform Eisa, gracefully singing and dancing to the accompaniment of drums and shamisen (a three-stringed instrument made from snake-skin). Eisa is performed from store to store throughout the village.
Shamanism maintains that good and evil spirits exist in the world and can be channeled through mediums. The kaminchu is a priestess in charge of religious rites and the yuta, or shaman is an intermediary between the worlds of spirits and the living.
A part of the Pacific Ocean, Okinawa offers a splendid diversity of marine life like more notable Australia, Yap and Palau. It's as though Van Gogh had a hand in creating thousands of species of colorful hard and soft corals that cover gently sloping reefs and dynamic drop offs.
The water temperature ranges from 72 degress Fahrenheit (22 degrees Celsius) in winter to 86 F (30 C) in summer. Visibility is typically 100-feet- (30-m-) plus. The diving varies from island to island but includes reef walls, caves, caverns, wrecks and ruins of an ancient underwater "lost city", which has been featured on the Discovery Channel.
All diving is land based and most sites are reachable within five to 20 minutes. Dive operations often have a fleet of boats ranging from small skiffs to luxury day cruisers. Larger boats come equipped with a dry room, tank racks, heads and showers. Depending on the size of the vessel, entry is either a back roll or giant stride.
Dive excursions are typically daylong that include up to four dives. Bento, lunch boxes containing fish or meat, rice, vegetables and salad will often be eaten at an uninhabited islet that doubles as a snorkeling spot.
In 1972, Japan's Ministry of the Environment formed the Okinawa Oceanic Quasi-National Park. A complex system of rules and regulations was introduced to protect the Kerama Islands and Okinawa Island's aquatic eco-system. Within the park's boundaries nothing can be taken out of the water using scuba gear. Iriomote Island is called Japan's last wilderness, and as a 'National Park' enjoys the highest levels of protection.
Naha at the southern end of Okinawa Island, is the prefecture's capital city. It is the largest island in the region, measuring 67 miles (107 km) long by 17 miles (27 km) at its widest point. Its highest point is Mt. Yonaha at 1494 feet (455 m). Multiple daily flights from mainland domestic airports make Okinawa easily accessible in less than two hours.
The coastline is dotted with luxury resorts, making it a full-service vacation destination. In July 2000 Okinawa received a drastic makeover in honor of visiting dignitaries for the international summit. Roads were re-surfaced, trees planted, hotels renovated and a new airport constructed.
As you head north on highway 58 the cityscape gives way to sugar cane plantations and the sweet smell of pineapples. The locals drop business attire for shorts and t-shirts and clocks are traded in for the rise and fall of the sun. A rugged, dramatic coastline bursting with deep green foliage descends towards clear blue water and a labyrinth of caves.
Toshiaki Hirobe, a local diver, recently discovered what is believed to be one of the longest underwater caves in Asia, Hirobe Gamma.
Topside attractions include ancient castles, bustling markets and tsuboya "“ the 400-year-old pottery industry.
The Kerama Islands are a sub-tropical paradise that lies 20 miles (32 km) southwest of Okinawa Island. Only four of the Keramas' 22 islands are inhabited: Aka, Geruma, Tokashiki and Zamami. They are easily accessible on a 15-minute flight from Naha or aboard a 45-mintue-boat ride from Naha's Tomarin Wharf. Surrounded by sweeping white beaches with zero development and very few western visitors, the islands offer nirvana to the discerning diver seeking traditional culture and pristine nature.
The Keramas' shallow depths and gently sloping reefs make them suitable for all levels of divers. This part of the East China Sea is believed to contain the greatest number of corals and marine species. Ribbon eel, crawling filament finned stinger, pinecone and mandarinfish as well as leaf scorpion are some of the more rare inhabitants of the reef. Schools of circular spadefish, barracuda, palette surgeons, blue green chromis and purple queen anthiases can also be seen.
Although this may come as a surprise given the current climate of Japan's whaling policies, humpback whales migrate through the Keramas every winter. The whales are highly protected and locals abide by strict laws that prohibit any contact ensuring distance is maintained unless the whales approach.
In summer pacific manta rays with wingspans of up to 20 feet (6 m) congregate to feed on the blooming plankton. Whale watching tours and snorkeling with the mantas take place during surface intervals for divers and non-divers alike.
The Keramas are a true eco-tourism destination with the focus on outdoor activities such as windsurfing, kayaking, fishing and hiking. The nightlife centers on a handful of small restaurants and bars.
Although there are 160 islands to choose from, one island in particular deserves mention. A 1.5-hour flight southwest of Okinawa Island takes you 68 miles (109 km) off the east coast of Taiwan to Yonaguni Island.
Japan's most westerly point, Yonaguni, is characterized by a dramatic coastline of towering cliffs and is just 2.5 by 6 miles (4 by 10 km). It is populated by fewer than 2,000 people and Mt. Kubaru, at 758 feet (230 m) is its highest point. Top-side Yonaguni is home to one of the world's largest moths known as yonagunisan, indigenous wild roaming horses, Cheju and three awamori (Okinawan version of whiskey) factories. Tours of the island can be taken by car, motorbike or bicycle. Your hotel or tour operator may also provide a guided tour.
Yongauni's dynamic scenery does not stop short of the surface though. In 1986 Kihachiro Aratake, a local diver, was out looking for resident hammerheads, when he discovered the Yonaguni Stone Monuments, a set of underwater ruins said to be the sister city to Atlantis.
The entry area to this site is at 33 feet (10 m) and is dominated by huge megaliths. Etched into the rock are carvings believed by some to be evidence of ancient writing.
Northeast, around a right-angled corner, lies the main monument. At 164 feet (50 m) long and 66 feet (20 m) high it is an impressive set of stone steps and terraces that resemble the Mayan ruins of South America. Rising from its bedrock base at 66 feet (20 m) the steps range from one half to a few meters in height. The symmetrical corners seem to be carved at perfect 90-degree angles, leading some theorists to believe the structure to be man-made.
Dated at around 10,000 years old the historical significance of this site will most certainly set your mind racing. Are the monuments remnants of some lost civilization or could they be a natural phenomenon? A huge turtle carved out of stone adorns the main terrace, south of this is a little 'plaza', and 1640 feet (500 m) southeast lies the 'stadium' with steps leading up to a large flat area. A 'loop road' and a 'retaining wall' connect all of these sections making this whole region resemble a small city. To this day the origins of these ruins remain a mystery, which is hotly contested.
Although the monuments are the main attraction, coral encrusted caves and caverns surrounding Yonaguni provide for a multitude of interesting dives. Drift diving is the norm here, with swift currents and deep depths that make it suitable for experienced divers.
'Hammer Point' attracts schooling hammerheads in winter. Located next to the ruins 'Ishibutai' has a huge mysterious face called 'Jacques Mayol' carved into a 30-foot (9 m) rock wall. Shallow depths make this a beginner site. 'Dana Drop' has a reef wall that drops off at around 60 feet (18 m) and plummets to about 200 feet (60 m), a mecca for turtles, tuna, schooling bannerfish and goldie anthiases. 'Happy Bridge', close to the harbor, has numerous tunnels and swim-throughs. Shallow depths in emerald green water make this one of Yonaguni's most relaxing dives.
Yonaguni, a tiny island in the far west, has remained untouched by modern civilization. Experiencing its dynamic landscape, diving and traditional culture is well worth its exploration.
Visit southern Japan and you'll learn that the Okinawan Island people have a symbiotic relationship with the ocean, recognizing that for nature's timeless rhythmic cycles to continue a harmonious balance must be maintained.
Pristine diving, a variety of beautiful beaches, and a rich culture accented with ancient and mysterious monuments above and below the surface make the South-West Islands the undiscovered cultural adventure of a lifetime.
For tours and detailed information about travel to Japan contact Open Coast
Tel: 866.628.3425 Toll Free, 310.433.6653 Main
Web site: www.opencoastravel.com
Written by Lisa Slater and Lee Cowan
Photographs by Lisa Slater and Kihachiro Aratake
Originally published in Dive Training Magazine October 2004