Bonnie Waycott on moving to Japan set herself the tasks of exploring its little known diving delights. Here is her guide to the Land of the Rising Bubbles
1 Ishigaki Island, Okinawa
Southern Japan's warmest and most tropical seas surround the islands of Okinawa (The Ryukyu Islands). The possibilities here are endless, with rich coral reefs, landscapes, range of currents, rock formations, hammerhead sharks and even some mysterious underwater ruins. Thanks to its warm waters, Okinawa is the only place in Japan where it's possible to dive all year round without having to resort to a drysuit. I'm a fan of giant creatures such as manta rays, and in Japan they say that if you're after some manta madness, Ishigaki Island is the place to be. Manta Scramble is the point where the mantas congregate, or rather scramble, to be cleaned and to feed off the blooming plankton.
2 Miyakojima Islands, Okinawa
The world's oceans and coral reefs have been through a lot of turmoil in recent years and those in Okinawa have not been immune. Typhoons are also frequent visitors but the reefs are still thriving and healthy with efforts underway to protect them. Miyakojima Island takes you away from giant creatures and into a world of staghorn coral, gorgonian fans and table coral - spreading for miles at shallow depths of 10 to 12m. The island is also a real eye-opener in terms of just how volcanic Japan's geology is, and one example is the dive site Gakeshita. The site is scattered with large volcanic rocks one of which is hollow and you can enter. Inside the pitch-black dome you can surface and you are surrounded by sheets of mist. The vapor is formed when the water level rises and falls in an area of high humidity. The sea inside the dome is a transparent blue and the eerie mist creates a magical effect. A lot of sites at Miyakojima range from 5m - 40m and are for divers who don't mind winding their way through narrow passageways or tunnels.
3 Kerama Islands, Okinawa
Further west of the Okinawa mainland lie the Kerama Islands, which are well worth getting up early for. The islands have perhaps the most prolific marine animal life in the area, including yellow boxfish, stripe tailed damselfish and various crustaceans. With stunning coral formations and a host of flora and fauna, the Kerama Islands are a fantastic diving opportunity for both confident divers and novices. They're about 2 hours away by boat from Okinawa's main city Naha, and offer a range conditions for divers of all levels. The strength of the currents varies and the sites are usually only accessible by boat. Most dives are conducted within 20-25m with a maximum depth of 35m.
4 Yoronto, Kagoshima
The Amami Islands, further north of Okinawa, are home to even more discoveries. One of my favourite destinations there is Yoronto (or Yoronjima or Yoron Island) on the southernmost end of Kagoshima prefecture in Kyushu. Its beaches, with soft white sand, are genuinely stunning and tiny little pieces of coral from the surrounding reefs wash up as star-shaped sand. That's quite exciting in itself but then there's the diving. The visibility here is excellent and the shallower points between 8 and 15m are full of macro life. Clownfish eagerly defend their offspring and their anemones and small crabs cling to the tentacles. Shore and boat dives (maximum 15-minute journey) are available. The current can be stronger at points further away, so these are available to intermediate or advanced divers only. Experienced divers can also visit a ship wreck that sunk in May 1993. Now it lies on the seabed at just over 30m, where schools of tuna and trevally drift past.
5 Amami Oshima, Kagoshima
Coral reefs and cobalt blue sea surround Amami Oshima, and when diving off the northern coast it's possible to see dogtooth tuna and other large migratory species. Southern points have some beautiful stretches of coral reefs where divers can observe anemone fish and other tropical species up close. One of the most popular fish off Amami Oshima is the tiny and endearing Gilbert's cardinal fish that lives in large aggregations among the coral in sheltered lagoons and bays. They are steady and focused, numbering in their thousands in tornado formation, hovering over the many rocks that are surrounded by carpets of white sand. The maximum depth of the shore dives is around 15m, and with no current, they are suitable for beginners or those who enjoy macrolife or exploring the rocks. Some deeper boat dives are also available.
6 Miyakejima, Tokyo
As summer arrives in Japan, the diving options increase and if, like me, you're itching to get into the water before the heat kicks in, you can't go wrong by visiting the Tokyo area, in particular Miyakejima, six hours south of the capital on an overnight ferry. In 2000 the island's volcano erupted, damaging the underwater environment but don't let this put you off! May is the best time to visit as the Kuroshio current raises the sea temperature and the marine world really comes to life. In May squid spawn off Miyakejima, depositing long white tubes full of eggs in clusters. Boat dives are available, but to see the squid divers go to Okubohama beach for a shore dive down to about 14-16m where they congregate. The dive starts with a rocky landscape, which then changes to a big stretch of sand on which divers can lie and take plenty of close-up shots as the squid swim here and there.
7 Shiretoko Penisula, Hokkaido
Anyone looking for something different, challenging or something to impress your dive buddies back at home with is to dive off the Shiretoko Peninsula in Hokkaido, northern Japan. In winter the peninsula becomes a key area for observing drift ice that blows south from the Sea of Okhotsk. Donning yourself into a drysuit and entering the freezing waters may seem a bit mad when the south lures with tropical seas, but being submerged under the huge ice boulders is a whole new experience. There may be very little marine life here, but you might spot an extremely tiny clione, a type of sea slug also known as a sea angel - which is a great name for a creature with cute little wings. The diving here is more of a taster or introduction to ice diving, although try dives are not available and a minimum of Open Water is required. Divers must stay close to the entry and exit point at no deeper than 10m and within the designated area. The dive site is about 10 minutes walk over the ice from the dive shop, and necessary items such as tanks or emergency equipment are stored next to the entry and exit point. The ice diving season usually runs from February until March.
About the author
I was born in the UK and grew up in Japan between the ages of 8 and 13. I became interested in marine life when my father taught me how to snorkel in the Japan Sea near my mother's hometown. In 2006 I moved to Tokyo and now work as a freelance translator and narrator. Japan never really came to mind when I thought about diving in Asia. That changed when I went to Okinawa in early 2011 and knew I'd stumbled across something. Soon I became captivated by Japan's array of marine creatures and environments. I set myself a challenge to dive once a month in Japan and began recording my adventures on my blog Rising Bubbles (http://bonniewaycott.wordpress.com), which today is a comprehensive guide to the country's dive spots.
NEED TO KNOW
Japan's eight regions are divided into 47 prefectures.
When to go
In general, the Okinawa Prefecture (the Ishigaki, Miyakojima Islands and the Kerama Islands) can be dived year round, with water temperatures around 23C in winter and 28-29C in summer. The Kagoshima Prefecture (Amami Oshima, Tokunoshima and Yoronto) warms up from around March, while anytime from around May into the summer is best for diving south of Tokyo (Miyakejima Island, Kozushima Island and Atami). January and February are the best months for ice diving. August to October is typhoon season.
For more accurate weather predictions visit the Japan Meteorological Agency website at www.jma.go.jp/jma/indexe.html
The operators below speak some English. They can also supply information on accommodation and places to eat and drink.
Umicoza, Ishigaki Island
With a range of Japanese and foreign guides on hand, Umicoza is a family-run dive centre that offers a variety of trips. Dives to Manta Scramble are arranged daily during the manta ray season and other outer reef dive trips can be organised depending on the weather. Visit their website (www.umicoza.com/english) for more information.
Dive Kids, Miyakojima Island
Dive Kids is an extremely friendly, family-run dive shop and offers the chance to see Miyakojima's limestone and fascinating rock formations at a range of dive sites. Visit their website (www.en.okinawastory.jp/facility/dive-kids) for more information.
Reef Encounters, for the Kerama Islands
Based in Chatan town, 40mins from Okinawa's main city Naha, Reef Encounters offers a range of dives close to Naha or further out at the many smaller islands off the Okinawa mainland. They also offer trips to Yonaguni, the last island in the Okinawa island chain that's famous for some mysterious underwater ruins. Visit their website (www.reefencounters.org) for more information.
Discovery Divers Tokyo
Discovery Divers, or DDT are a group of Japanese and non-Japanese divers based in Tokyo. Dive trips and training courses are offered mainly in the summer, with regular diving weekends south of Tokyo or in nearby areas such as Atami. See their website at www.discoverydiverstokyo.com for more information.
Nangoku, Kozushima Island
Nangoku provides a range of dive certification courses and trips to various points off Kozushima Island. Located next to a couple of restaurants and above one of the main beaches, the atmosphere is fun and friendly. Visit their website (www.kozu-nangoku.com/kozu-english.html) for more information.
Iruka Hotel, Shiretoko Peninsula, Hokkaido
This shop is a hotel and dive school in one, and known for offering short ice diving trips about 5mins walk from the hotel itself, which is located on the Shiretoko Peninsula. There is a warm relaxing public bath and delicious seafood available for dinner. Two ice dives a day are offered, depending on the weather. Their website is only available in Japanese but some English is spoken. Visit their website (www.iruka-hotel.com) for more information.
Marine Service Kamui, for Tokunoshima Island
The tiny dive shop is located right by the sea. The shop has recently acquired a new boat and offers whale watching tours around February. The website is only available in Japanese but some English is spoken. Visit their website (www.ms-kamui.com/top.html) for more information.