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Brandon Cole

Making Connections While Diving in Southern Japan

Friendships are forged and wonders shared in the seas along the southern coast of Japan

By Brandon Cole | Authored On October 26, 2023
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Making Connections While Diving in Southern Japan

Map of Japan with the area the author visited zoomed in.

Monica Medina; Elizaveta Melentyeva/Shutterstock; Cadmium_Red/Shutterstock

Samurai, Sushi and Tea Ceremonies.

What did I really know about Japan? Precious little. Certainly not the language or cultural intricacies. Not even the style of scuba diving. But I did have a passing acquaintance with the marine life; I had been coveting pictures of the critters forever. And here was one of the absolute coolest of them, live and in the flesh, smiling malevolently up at me from the silty bottom. I was face to freakish face with a monkfish, or in the local lingo, kiankou.

For a recreational diver at 70 feet, this was a rare meeting with the normally deep-dwelling anglerfish, a much larger, scarier relative of those cute, common frogfish on coral reefs. This 2-foot-long bearded monster uses its camouflage, wicked teeth, cavernous mouth and irresistible, dangly esca lure to vanish prey, which on a hungry day can be nearly as large as the monkfish itself. The monkfish had been top of my wish list. And here it was, only the beginning of our trip. I owed this stunningly good fortune to Tatsuya Iida, our guide/driver/interpreter/fixer. His hooting and hand waving had spoken volumes from across the murky void. My understanding was immediate. I swam over fast and… hai indeed!

A yellow monkfish, known as kiankou in Japanese, lies camouflaged on a silty bottom off the Izu Peninsula, waiting for its prey.

Brandon Cole

Back on shore, I babbled excitedly about Frankenstein with braces, gave Tatsuya-san a high-five, and repeated, “Double domo arigato!” He replied with a beaming smile, a solemn bow and a machine-gunning chuckle that proved infectious.

Related Reading: An Unforgettable Dive: A Cry for Corals

Happy Gaijin Anomalies

Colorful sea fans and soft corals adorn the stern of the Asahi Marushipwreck off Atami.

Brandon Cole

Most foreigners visiting Japan aren’t there for the diving. Springtime cherry blossoms and snow monkeys immersed in onsen hot springs both captivate larger audiences. The few folks that do have scuba on the mind are likely venturing to tropical Okinawa, more than 900 miles south of Tokyo. During three weeks of dive and drive travel in which we explored temperate waters with 12 scuba centers on Honshu—the country’s main, central island—we met zero fellow Americans in dive kit, and only a handful of Europeans. Diving is actually quite popular among the Japanese, but we gaijin were anomalies, heavily outnumbered by endemic sea life and human life alike.

It is common to see a few hundred divers at Osezaki on summer weekends, the majority coming for the day via bullet train from Tokyo. We rocked up in our 10-seat Toyota rental van, stuffed floor to ceiling with dive gear. It was January. The air was a brisk 45 degrees. Only a few dozen people were gearing up on blue tarps spread in orderly fashion over Ose Beach’s black pebbles under the distant but all-seeing, snow-glinting gaze of majestic Mount Fuji. This is where we found the monkfish and other interesting creatures such as pipefish, a yellow pygmy goby in a bottle, gurnard lionfish with spines bristling, and searobins—hobo in Japanese—with green and blue pectoral fins flared.

After sundown, we submerged again for a night dive using the same easy shore-entry point. Our lights revealed pelagic peculiarities such as larval flounders, dimesize squid pulsing rainbow colors, and Phronima amphipod “pram bugs” pushing around salps they have hijacked and repurposed into protective brood chambers for their minuscule, spidery babies. It’s a ghoulishly fascinating bit of marine biology. Ally and Rich—our like-minded and creature-compelled partners on this extraordinary Japanuary expedition—won top honors with their paper nautilus.

Related Reading: The Charismatic Animals You Can Only Dive With in the Galapagos

Clockwise from above: A longwing searobin (Lepidotrigla japonica); a diver surfaces after exploring the Asahi Maru; A baby Japanese snow monkey at Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park near Nagano.

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Sango Kirei

Osezaki’s location on the northwest corner of Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka Prefecture is on the doorstep of deep, deep Suruga Bay This helps explain the somewhat regular yet ultimately still random appearances of rare marine life, from monkfish and oarfish to the rakish John Dory, or matodai. Weirdness ascends from the abyss with wintertime upwellings of cold water.

Other oddities drift by on warmer subtropical currents from the south. It’s a dynamic place, showcasing species diversity and seascape splendor. Off Cape Ose, at the diving “point” locals call Sentan, we photographed exotic anthias, clouds of neon damsels, and scarbreast tuskfish. We were also blown away by prolific soft corals blooming in the current from 80 to 120 feet deep along the steep boulder slope. There were towering trees in pastel pink and apricot orange, tangles of wire corals glowing lime green.

Tatsuya Iidia

Brandon Cole

Tatsuya Iida

Our expedition leader Tatsuyasan was scuba certified at age 19 while working at a hotel in Okinawa. His favorite dive sites in Japan are Ito (Shira-ne) and Mikomoto. Someday he hopes to dive in Mexico for marlin, and Papua New Guinea. When asked what message he would like us to share with other foreigners considering a visit to Japan, he replies, “Please remember that Japanese people are very shy, and sometimes you need to be the first to make contact or start a conversation. Thank you.”

My wife, Melissa, later commented that while we were underwater her brain kept screaming that it felt wrong to be wearing a drysuit in such a Fiji-esque tableau of hot colors. Her computer read only 60 degrees, but that didn’t compute with the much warmer visual input.

Map of the Izu Peninsula

Monica Medina

Sango kirei—pretty, lovely, beauteous soft coral—is a signature of many Izu Peninsula reefs. A winding, two hour traverse in our van across the forested, mountainous interior brought us to much more of the gorgeous stuff on Izu’s eastern coastline. Five minutes by boat outside Atami Harbor we descended in 40-foot visibility to the top deck of the Asahi Maru at 65 feet, a sunken ship disguised as a reef colonized by sango kirei, especially on the stern down to 100 feet.

For two tanks we kept busy creating wide-angle photos of the luxuriant, vertical hanging garden of sea fans, soft corals, and gorgonians, around which buzzed dozens of cherry anthias. Males, who have a blockier profile and are dressed in richer red with white blotches, vigorously worked to corral their wandering harems of sleeker, smaller, orange females who each sport a single black spot on their dorsal fins.

On a cold, breezy, drizzly day, we sloshed our way offshore the town of Ito in a spartan fishing boat well weathered by time and hard work. Traditional fishing craft and their captains are regularly hired by dive shops when needed for offshore scuba excursions. The partnership is woven into the indigenous dive culture. Tatsuya-san had relayed my special request—eels in a soft coral setting, please—to Ito expert Hidekazu-san, and having hatched a plan the two tag-team guided us to deliver three excellent dives on Shira-ne South Point, a seamount ridge with multiple peaks.

They showed us all manner of reef life, but my focus was on eels: kidako morays perched in fans or lounging about like discarded feather boas speckled yellow and brown, and a sinister reticulate hookjaw eel lurking in a pillowy bed of Izu’s finest sango kirei. We celebrated our success in a hot tub at the dive center afterward. This was not just any spa treatment, however.

We still wore our drysuits (except for poor Tatsuya san, hardy soul, who between bouts of teeth chattering re-explained the advantages of diving wet) and were luxuriating in a decommissioned, cleverly converted boat into which hot water had been plumbed—an “onsen maru!”

Clockwise from above: A reticulate hookjaw moray eel peeks out from bright soft corals; a type of pelagic amphipod commonly called a pram bug protects itself and its eggs inside the body of a salp; suited-up divers enjoy a post-dive soak in hot water that has been pumped into a decommissioned fishing boat, a sort of improvised hot tub, at a dive center in Ito.

Brandon Cole

Connecting with Smartphones and Smiles

English—as a spoken language, on the posted rules of onsen etiquette, on road signs, in fish ID books, even on the mind-bogglingly complex illuminated control panels of the space-age toilets we encountered—was about as rare in Japan as witnessing a kiankou attacking a takaashi-gani (giant spider crab) in a tide pool, in summer. Everything required translation and explanation. For this and so much more, our sincerest gratitude to our main man Tatsuya-san. One evening, while he arranged the next day’s activities, we had to fend for ourselves.

Yuki Kawachi

Brandon Cole

Yuki Kawachi

Yuki-san has always felt connected to the sea. She grew up in Okinawa and learned to swim as a young child. She has been a dive instructor and boat captain for four years, one of many women working in Japan’s diving industry. Yuki-san loves diving in Kushimoto because it “is a marine park, and there are lots of fish here.” She asks us to “please tell your friends how much fun it is to dive in Japan, and how many nudibranchs are here!”

Melissa and I were seated with Ally and Rich in the large, cafeteria-like chamber at our hotel du jour. It was dinnertime. We dined both with gusto and that difficult to articulate combination of curiosity and trepidation. With the exception of our party, everyone—there had to be 75 folks, mostly older, and all Japanese—was dressed in traditional robes and slippers.

A distinguished, elderly couple approached our table and bravely asked, “Speak Japanese?” in English. When Rich answered “a little” in Japanese, the gentleman’s eyes lit up. He and his wife launched into a spirited flurry of questions. In Japanese. Try as we might, we never could pry another word of our native tongue from them. But that did not prevent us from having a most memorable, meaningful conversation. We used our phones to show them pictures of us in drysuits, post-dive group selfies of us linked arm in arm with recently met Japanese dive buddies and, of course, a few underwater photos that we had taken so far. I proudly recited my list of memorized fish names, in Japanese no less, and then, for some reason, mimed the art of swimming. (In retrospect, I believe it was the breaststroke. Why that? Completely impractical. I cannot dive like that with hands always full of cameras.)

Our new friends smiled; we smiled. They seemed happy. We most definitely were. When we told Tatsuya-san about our adventure, he smiled. Gaps are meant to be bridged.

Related Reading: Announcing Scuba Diving Magazine's 2023 Underwater Photo Contest Winners

From left: Dozens of banded houndsharks churn at a site called Shark City off Ito, Tateyama; an endemic Shiho’s seahorse (Hippocampus sindonis); a red stingray glides overhead.

Brandon Cole

Love Bites are All Right

Hand signals served us well diving near Ito, Tateyama. (Yes, another Ito. This one is in Chiba Prefecture, a few hours’ drive east from Izu.) The open, upright handon-top-of-head signal is universal for “shark,” part of diverkind’s common language throughout Planet Ocean. The signal gets a workout at this famous Shark City diving point, aka “Shark Scramble.”

“Lots of little attacks,” Tatsuya-san told us as we prepared to giant-stride off the boat. “It’s OK,” he assured us. What followed was a whole lot better than that. Fifty to 100 banded houndsharks—impossible to count them all—savaged us within a minute of touchdown. Or more accurately, they frenzied like 3-foot-long aquatic puppy dogs around the yummy, smelly bait box attached to the line. It was my choice to enter the fray, moving in super close to the action.

The writhing mass of zame (Japanese for “shark”) entranced and enveloped me. They bumped into me, bounced off my camera, swam through my legs, and generally made it very difficult to take quality images. Being in the middle of this sharknado was unbridled fun, pure joy by a thousand attacks.

Watanabe Sochi

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Watanabe Sochi

When asked for his thoughts on scuba divers, Watanabe-san, a fisherman from the Kumomi area on the Izu Peninsula whose father was a boatbuilder, says, “There used to be tension between fishermen and divers, but now we are friends. It is a win-win situation, because there is not always much to fish— especially in winter—and divers hire us to take them out in our boats to scuba dive. This helps us pay for the mooring fees and fuel. It works out well.

The adjacent rocky reef and sand flats between 60 and 80 feet deep are also worth a dive or three. We spotted more elasmobranchs: lots of red stingrays, a butterfly ray, a guitarfish, an angelshark (kasu-zame) and a wobbegong (oose), for whom the sign is an open hand with fingers splayed downward beneath one’s chin. There were also huge schools of fugu pufferfish, chicken grunts and cardinalfish, plus striped boarfish and a few Asian sheepshead wrasse, kobudai. All were species I had never seen before coming to Japan.

Clockwise from left: a small group of striped boarfish; a moss fringehead blenny (Neoclinus bryope) on the reef; a leopard shrimp camouflaged against gorgonian wrapper sea anemones that have overgrown a wire coral.

Brandon Cole

Tatami Mat Diving

To find and photograph new (to me) species is a powerful motivator for a self-confessed fish nerd. The obsession is one of the main reasons we crossed the Pacific to tour Honshu. A treasure hunt of this flavor demanded a stop at Hayama on the Miura Peninsula in Kanagawa Prefecture. As before, Tatsuya-san contacted a team of resident keen-eyed critter hunters to obtain fresh intel on the whereabouts of my much desired, high-value targets. Teru-san, owner of the diving service, quipped that this would be “tatami mat diving,” all of us packed tightly together in a small space, going slow and getting low, back and forth.

Armed with macro lenses, we made four long dives over two days at two different sites: Yugiro and Goyotei mae, aka White Lighthouse and Emperor’s Villa. We were introduced to tiny fringehead blennies (koke-ginpo) big on charisma, Shiho’s seahorses (hanatatsu) hiding in algal turf, and a family of pineconefish among the boughs of a branching black coral tree. They looked every bit like glittering ornaments dangling from an olive-green Christmas tree. Bonus gifts in Hayama included a blue-lined octopus, pink frogfish, a ball of feeding catfish and more nudibranchs too small for my aging eyes to register.

Related Reading: Best Dive Destinations for Witnessing Healthy Marine Life

## Common Ground, Underwater

Vibrant marine life coats the Gyosho artificial reef near the town of Owase

Brandon Cole

Our total immersion cultural exchange program was showing promise. I was learning above and below the waterline. I could now point at (with a gentle open palm, never a menacing lone finger) barbecue chicken on a stick (yakitori) at 7-Eleven to round out my road-trip food stash of sweet bean buns, onigiri rice balls, and matcha-flavored Kit Kats. I was semifluent with basic Japanes salutations, and I knew which slippers to wear when and where in ryokan accommodations—traditional Japanese inns. It was all coming together.

On the eight-hour drive west to our first diving destination in Mie Prefecture, we passed time asking Tatsuya-san questions about his life in Japan. We reciprocated with musings on our own lives and, of course, future dive dreams. We were now connected to his circle of friends in cyberspace, who were eagerly following our adventure via social media posts. In turn we were introducing all things Japan to our own dive peeps back home.

Naofumi Ueda

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Naofumi Ueda

Naofumi-san is one of Japan’s top salamander guides. He has 21 years of experience with the giant amphibians in the Koza River near Kushimoto. His big smile and boundless energy convey his passion for sharing this unique encounter with others, even in winter when the river water temperature is only 50 degrees. Ueda urges visitors to return in the August to September summer spawning season, when salamanders are more active and the water warms to 68 degrees.

At the Gyosho diving point near Owase, an artificial reef 50-plus years in the making wowed us with resplendent soft corals and sea fans overgrowing hundreds of open concrete blocks, each about 8 feet to a side. Strewn over an area the size of a few houses, the blocks were piled pell-mell to create a million twisting swim-throughs for us. Marine life of every stripe called this site home, including bluestriped angelfish, golden hawkfish, lionfish, xeno crabs, and blue lightbulb tunicates.

A few years back I discovered, through the digital grapevine, the impressive portfolio of Noriyuki Otani, a photographer who has logged hundreds of dives here. From email and Facebook messages exchanged during COVID-time, I learned more about Owase’s critters. Otani’s exceptional lenswork convinced me I needed to see this structure for myself. We were deeply honored when Noriyuki-san and his wife, Yukiko-san, drove two hours in the rain to personally escort us underwater at nearby Kajika. As a gift, the Otanis presented us with a bottle of sake from a highly respected distillery in Iga, the “ninja region” where they live. They also brought us good luck. In their company, we finally found a neko-zame, the Japanese bull-head shark.

Related Reading: Ask a Pro Photographer: How to Capture the Perfect Shot

A 2½-foot-long Japanese giant salamander in a cold freshwater mountain stream

Brandon Cole

Found In Translation

In Wakayama Prefecture we detoured for a spiritual journey, hiking part of the ancient Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route through the towering grove of centuries-old cedar and cypress trees at Daimonzaka. We paid our respects at the Seigantoji Buddhist temple, a quintessentially Japanese vermilion pagoda next to Nachi waterfall. And for something completely different we spent an afternoon clinging to boulders in the icy, swift-flowing Koza River with Naofumi Ueda for a quick glimpse of a Japanese giant salamander. Outstanding!

The Buddhist temple Seigantoji and Nachi waterfall in Wakayama Prefecture.

Brandon Cole

Fauna found at Kushimoto was more tropical in character. This was the southernmost diving point on our circuit and has greater exposure to the warm, northerly flowing Kuroshio Current. As always, we were warmly welcomed by dive center staff who showed us around their polished and professional operation. Owner Taniguchi-san politely asked if there were any specific animals we hoped to see on their reefs. I bowed gratefully and pulled out the list Google (and Tatsuya-san) had helped me prepare. I interpreted the resulting bow and thumbs-up as “10-4, Roger that.” Good news.

Over the course of six dives at four different sites, we crushed it. Camouflaged leopard shrimp on wrapper anemones? Hai. Stripey fish? Hai. Psychedelically colored nudis? Hai hai! (Ally has a special affinity for umiushi, and she spotted more than all of us put together.) When Taniguchi-san swam over to me and brandished his deluxe Etch A Sketch, on which was written “Big Pig,” my heart flip-flopped.

Could it be? Sure enough, just a few kicks away was a Japanese pygmy seahorse. It swayed jerkily to and fro, gripping a bryozoan with its prehensile tail. It was ginormous for its kind—fully 1 centimeter—thereby giving me a chance for an image. Japapigu: World famous (in my circles), only recently described, and living nowhere else but in these spectacular seas.

Yukiko Ohtani

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Yukiko Ohtani

Yukiko-san is a schoolteacher who lives in the Iga region, Mie Prefecture. Her favorite dive site is Owase’s Gyosho, because “you never know what you will find and the soft corals are so beautiful.” She offers sage advice about living in harmony with one another and the ocean: “Japanese people try very hard to be kind to each other. I hope other people remember to do that too. Since we all enjoy diving so much, we need to work together to protect the ocean.”

One more smiling set of group selfies, thank yous and goodbyes. “We will miss you and your country’s amazing diving!” via translation app. Yuki-san, the boat captain, thumb-typed a reply with the mastery of youth, her phone’s chirpy robot voice broadcasting, in English: “Please come back soon and bring your friends!”

Tatsuya-san honked the horn. The shop staff waved in reply. Our van surged forward, pointed north to the next dive site full of promise. We had been given honorary nicknames that would forever connect us to the Japanese people and marine life. What could be better than that?

Ally-ushi, Rich-apigu, Meli-zame, and Brando-dai were on the road again.

Need To Know

When To Go

Diving along the southern coast of Japan is possible year-round. We chose January for our first trip to Japan because cooler water improves chances of seeing certain unusual species of marine life. Water clarity is often better in winter and many dive sites are less crowded. Plus, we wanted to see the snow monkeys; viewing is generally best in winter. Each season has its own charms and advantages.

Dive Conditions

Generally speaking, Honshu’s southern coast can be considered temperate to subtropical diving. Water temps range from about 55 to 77 degrees,depending on season and location. We had 58 to 65 degrees in January. Drysuits are popular in winter, 5 mm to 7 mm full wetsuits in summer. Viz ranges widely from 15 to 70 feet. Currents are present at some sites. Local guides will suggest appropriate sites based on conditions as well as diver skill level and interest. Shore diving is popular. Some sites can only be accessed by boat.

A typical narrow, winding street in Kyota.

Brandon Cole

Trip Planning

Researching where I wanted to go was productive using Dive in Japan (divein-japan.com), an extraordinary online English resource for all aspects of the diving experience—marine life, operators and logistics.

For someone who doesn’t speak Japanese, communicating directly with scuba operators (I dived with 12 during my three-week trip), booking the diving and arranging transportation and accommodations will likely prove very challenging. I connected with World Tour Planners and explained the details of what I wanted to do. This full-service diving travel agency organized my trip logistics.

Before you travel, study up on basic tourist etiquette in Japan. Download a translation app onto your smartphone. I found the book The 50 Best Dives in Japan, by Tim Rock, useful for dive planning as well as learning about Japanese culture and customs.

Large scuba tanks and nitrox were rarely available where I dived. Small 10-liter steel tanks (often only fi lled to 2,500 to 2,700 psi), with yoke valves, filled with air, were pretty much standard. Dive centers may have rental dive equipment (BCDs, regs, etc.) available, but very large and/or tall people may be out of luck. Inquire in advance or bring your personal gear.

Stay in a traditional ryokan inn at least one night to experience tatami floors, real Japanese food and the onsen hot springs. Take the Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto to tour temples, visit bamboo groves, and watch a kabuki theater performance.