Diving in Toshima

I needed a plan for Golden Week, the last week of April when you are off Monday, Thursday and Friday in Japan. I had been thinking of making a dive trip, but it’s hard since most dive shops don’t know much English. Asking around though I find out that my colleague Tore is a diver and that he has dived a lot with a dive shop in Yokohama! He gives me the number and assures me that she (the owner) speaks good English. I call her and find it only to be half true, she used to speak good English, but that was when Tore last was in Japan, seven years ago… Parking lotWe manage to understand each other well enough that I make my way over to her dive shop that same day to try out equipment. She says I can come along on the trip planned over the weekend to Toshima, an island due south of Tokyo. Since I haven’t really got a plan B, I’m not very hard to persuade. So with a few hours notice I’m booked for the first part of Golden Week, and about to do my first diving in Japanese waters!

I need to find some swimwear though, to have under the wetsuit. So Thursday evening I go to Shibuya and pick up some. I also grab some coffee at the Starbucks by the Shibuya Scramble. When I finally manage to get a window seat I happen next to a friendly Australian kid named Marcus. We get to talking and I mention that I’m going diving this weekend. Turns out he is a diver as well, and an experienced one at that with some 300 dives. He shows me some really nice photos and also teaches me a thing or two about underwater photography. Very nice coincidence!

Friday evening I meet up with Mariko-san (the dive master) and seven other divers (all Japanese) and board the ferry for Toshima. The ferry takes all night to get to Toshima and the sleeping accommodations are rather interesting, it’s basically a parking lot for people, a carpeted area with tape markings for each spot and a tiny pillow. If you want a blanket, that’s 100 yen.

On our way backOur first dive is at 10 am and we start preparing ridiculously early, Japanese like to be on time… The boat takes us to the west side of the island. The site doesn’t have much coral, mostly large boulders and different kinds of seaweed. What’s the first thing we do after descending by the way? A group picture of course, it’s Japan after all! The picture takes a good seven minutes to arrange, eating away at precious dive time, but what can you do..? Not much is seen on this first dive, but right at the end we manage to see a turtle!

Back at the dive shop there is a hot shower waiting, reeealy nice! (I’ve since learned that hot showers increases the risk of decompression illness, but seeing how careful the Japanese are about decompression limits I think we’re safe.) After a lunch bento we are off to a second dive, this time with an awesome drift! Since we’re boat diving we can just safely let the current carry us away, the boat will pick us up wherever we decide to ascend. It’s really fun playing with the current, I notice that whenever we ascend over a rock the current grabs hold and sweeps you off and when if you descend right after the rock you find a spot where you can be still for a while. There is much more life on this dive and we also manage to see another turtle. They’re not hanging around though, both we’ve seen took off like torpedoes.

The last thing on the agenda for today is a dolphin swim. This is done with only snorkeling equipment since what happens is that you go to the area where the dolphins hang out, you go into the water and the dolphins play around a bit, swimming in circles around you and such. But then after five minutes or so they decide they don’t want to play anymore and go away. Then you go back on the boat and go look for another pack. I notice that one of the dolphins is cross-jawed, that is the lower jaw pokes out to the side. The owner of the dive place later explains that this is due to a parasite. We also have a TV-crew with us, doing some story about Toshima island. They’re accompanied by some girl in an entirely white wetsuit that has some serious apnea skills. She holds her breath for minutes at a time and swims around down deep, playing with the dolphins. It’s like watching a mermaid!

Since the TV-crew is here the lady who owns the guest house we’re staying at has brought out the big guns and cooked a feast! There is lobster, both sashimi and cooked, bigass turban shell and many other fishes and greens that I don’t catch the name of.

Just chillin'Since I’m being treated to all manners of strange food I fight back by treating the Japanese to some Swedish liquorice: Turkisk Peppar. As expected everyone thinks it’s horrible. =P Oshira-san, the oldest of the bunch at around 60 plays a joke on me by sticking my chopsticks into my rice bowl so that they stand straight up. Before I came to Japan I was warned that this is considered very rude since it is something that is only done at funerals. You stick the chopsticks of the deceased into his or her rice bowl to symbolize their passing. But everyone just laughs when Oshima-san does it to me, so I guess it’s not such a big deal.

Breakfast the next day is typical Japanese with all that entails; raw egg, seaweed, rice, natto (fermented soy beans that has built up a cover of slime, sort of like snot really), sashimi and of course soy sauce. While waiting for the first dive of the day we play some Super Mario on the Wii and I discover that the old gaming reflexes are still there… The first dive is done together with the TV-team and in much the same environment as yesterday’s dive, not that many new things but a very nice dive nonetheless.

At the dive shop between dives there is a strange noise coming from the harbor, something like a distressed coffee pot. After a while we realize that it is a diver, speaking in a full mask, amplified for the people on land to hear. There is a crane by the harbor hoisting up concrete blocks from the harbor basin and down there is a diver hooking things up. Later we get to see the full mask and it’s equipped with two balls mounted on sticks that you can extend to fit into your nostrils in order to equalize, really neat, I hadn’t thought about that!

We do yet another dive after lunch and right after that there’s another dolphin swim scheduled. Since I’m not likely to get another shot at swimming with dolphins anytime soon I tag along for that one as well. This time a young couple and their daughter is along for the ride and the TV-team makes it into a feature where the kid gets to swim with dolphins for the first time, probably good TV. It probably means that we get some extra dolphin time as well!

We squeeze in a last dive as well, this time on the other side of the island. The landscape is very different on this side, more greens and blues and much more rocks. There is also waves gently tossing you back and forth, making it an interesting dive. We see a lobster and yet another turtle this time.

My diving friendsDinner back at the hostel is yet again very nice, and joker Oshira-san buys me some Sho-ju (booze at about 25%) in some effort to get me drunk or something. Not very successfully though, since even though I get drunk fairly easily, the Japanese need very little at all.

Idly watching some TV later that evening there are breaking news of a 5.8 earthquake in Tokyo! The footage makes it seem very severe, but as I talk to friends in Tokyo later it wasn’t much at all. The kid from the dolphin swim earlier sees me practicing my Hiragana and Katakana and decides to help me out. So she brings out her school books and start drilling me on Hiragana, very fun! We have to cut the session short though because it’s time to log our dives. The Japanese take the logging very seriously, it’s a real ritual where all the logs are passed around and everyone writes a message for you and draws little pictures. It’s really nice!

The guest house we’re staying at by the way is in traditional Japanese style with tatamis, roll-out beds, a low table at which you sit on cushions and sliding doors made out of paper. So not only do I get to spend a weekend exclusively in the company of Japanese, I also get the entire Japanese living experience! Monday morning before heading back, we stop by at the dive shop to pack our gear and a group picture. The owner has a picture of every group that has been there the last two or three years, and as far as I can tell I’m the only non-Japanese in the bunch!