Dive Trip in Japan

Copyright © 2002, Glenn Story

Monday, August 12, 1985, 7:50 pm: I’m standing in front of the Tokyo American Club waiting for a ride. This is the beginning of a week-long trip to the island called Miyake Jima. The purpose of the trip is to go scuba diving. A truck from the dive shop that arranged this tip is coming soon. From here we will drive to some pier on Tokyo bay and from there we will catch the overnight ferry. The accommodations, I am told, will consist of one large tatami-covered floor shared by all passengers. My prospects of a good night’s sleep are dim, but sleeping on a Japanese ferry will be a new experience for me.

This trip is a foretaste of the more ambitious diving trip I have planned for October. On that trip I plan to visit Okinawa, the Philippines, various Micronesian islands, and if we’re not worn out, Hawaii. It should be an exciting trip–expensive too! I was looking at the cost today; I was tempted to back out. But I have the money (working in Japan, among its other virtues, is very lucrative.)

My musings are cut short by the arrival of Roy.

After a short ride through what passes as Tokyo’s Chinatown, we arrive at the docks. Here we find an unbelievable mass of people, going or coming from the boats.

Japanese like to do everything together and everyone takes their vacation at the same time. This is partly because the school vacation is much shorter than in the U.S.

We come to an open square where we must wait. (We have to arrive, I am told, around 8 o’clock in order to get our baggage checked, even though the boat doesn’t leave until 10. The area where we are waiting is mobbed with people–all standing around waiting as we are. The scene makes me think of what I imagine a town square in Calcutta to be like, packed with throngs of people milling aimlessly about. There are two differences however: first there is no one in rags or dirty clothes: the Japanese cultural love of cleanliness plus Japanese affluence would make such a thing unthinkable. The second difference is that, although it’s difficult to see, everyone is waiting in more-or-less straight lines behind numerous wooden signs, presumably designating the boat and class of service.

Roy had warned me that we are riding on a “cattle boat”. Now I see he’s not far off–the boat in front of us is called “Cattleya Maru”.

Eventually our group’s name is called: “Roisu Daivingu Sukuru”– Roy’s Diving School.

The boat is everything it’s advertised to be, except instead of tatami there is cheap industrial-grade carpeting. We are ushered into a large windowless room well below decks. There is a central aisle and a number of areas divided from one another by low shelves. We remove our shoes and stake out one of these areas. Immediately everyone lies down to ensure they will have enough room to sleep. Even after this test, everyone sits with legs extended to reserve maximum space, unlike the usual style of sitting cross-legged.

Soon someone appears with a bull-horn and exhorts everyone to move closer together. “Konde kara desu” (because it’s crowded) he explains. It seems backwards to me: it is crowded because he cajoled people to move closer together.

Somehow I drift off to sleep. I wake several times during the night having collided with one of my neighbors, or having gotten sore from the hard surface. Blankets had been handed out, but it is warm so I use mine as a pillow.

At 4:30 am the cabin lights are switched on and the PA system announces that we will soon be arriving at Miyake Jima. We all stumble to our feet and begin to make our way to the deck.

Eventually we make our way out to see the sky beginning to lighten. (Eastern Japan is well east of its time zone, and dawn comes early here.)

The sight of the ocean and the cool air is refreshing after the confinement of the boat.

Even though the wait to gather our baggage isn’t long, the sun rises during the interim.

I’m now sitting in my room in the minshuku where we are staying. A minshuku is Japanese-style vacation lodging. It is traditional in style–we sit on tatami and sleep in futons–the Japanese quilt bed placed on the floor. It is cheaper and more informal than a ryokan. I am hard-pressed to describe the difference between a ryokan and a minshuku–except to say that the latter is more casual. One expects to wear traditional Japanese robes–yukata–in a ryokan, whereas shorts are more common in a minshuku.

I am sharing a room with five men–all Japanese. There are a comparable number of women down the hall.

This morning, after our arrival from Tokyo, we are supposed to sleep, but this proves difficult. First, there is a scratchy PA system outside somewhere that chimes 7 o’clock, Big Ben style. Then there is a constant parade of Japanese children running up and down the hall, several of whom open our sliding door and peer in. I get up and try reading for a while, then when sitting on the tatami floor becomes uncomfortable, I move to a small divan in the entrance hall. As another western accuterment, there is a cuckoo clock here, which delights two small Japanese children when it sounds the hour. (To them, it doesn’t say “cuckooo” it says “po-po”.

Looking out the window, I see a series of paper lanterns, one of which bears the characters which I would translate literally as “mountain of the top” and I would guess at pronounc ing “ue-no yama”. I’m probably right about the meaning, but I could be way off on the pronunciation–Japanese characters typically have multiple pronunciations, often one of native Japanese origin and one of Chinese origin. For example, , mountain, can be pronounced, “yama” (Japanese) and “san” or “zan” (Chinese).

Later I will discover that is also written on a large turtle shell hanging on the outside of the building, from which I surmise that it must be the name of the minshuku.

Finally a late breakfast is served, Japanese style: grilled, highly-salted fish, rice and nori (a kind of edible paper, made from seaweed), and fried eggs (served cold).

After breakfast we walk down a narrow one-lane road which descends steeply to the sea. We can see a strong surf and I wonder if we will be able to enter the water. There is heavy plant cover on both sides of the road–both trees and bushes, interspersed with quaint Japanese buildings–mostly weather-worn, unpainted wood walls with grey tile roofs. Here I really feel like I’m in Japan. Tokyo, where I live, is, by contrast, a typical modern city of concrete, chrome and glass.

After a few minutes we reach the coast, along which extends a two-lane road. After walking along that road for a few minutes we come to a concrete pier from which we are to dive. We prepare our equipment and after a hot wait we are in the water. We swim out a short distance on the surface looking for a pipe running along the botttom. the water is about 25 feet deep and so clear we can easily see the bottom. Once we see the pipe, we head for the bottom.

Why do I put up with sleeping on the floor in an overcrowded boat with barely enough room for my body? Why do I put up with having to share a room with a dozen other people? Why am I planning to spend several thousand dollars on a roundabout route back to the U.S.? Down on the bottom, the answers are clear. Scuba diving is a way to enter another world, a magic colorful world as alien to our everyday world as if it were another planet; a world populated with strange creatures beyond description. A world where even the color spectrum is different–a world of blues and greens. A world where even the laws of gravity are changed, and one can float effortlessly and weightlessly.

The most striking feature of today’s dive is large numbers of tiny brilliant blue fish that cling to and permeate the bottom.

We are in relatively shallow water today, and as a consequence the water appears clear, rather than blue. Suddenly we come to a 20-foot drop. As we drift over the edge I contemplate how effortless it is, and how a twenty-foot drop on dry land would have stopped us cold.

The hardest part of diving is getting in and out of the water. Today’s entry was easy: we just jumped off the pier. Getting out is a different story: the exit point is steep and there is enough surf to push us around. Then we have to climb up a combination of lava rock and slippery concrete.

For lunch we have curry rice–a dish transplanted from India and now thoroughly Japanese. They thought we’d be tired today from last night’s boat ride so they only scheduled one dive. In the afternoon we go skin diving for a while and then drive around the island. The drive reinforces the fact of the volcanic origins and nature of this island. (In 1983 there was an eruption here that destroyed several buildings.) There is lava rock everywhere here–black or dull gray, grotesquely jagged rocks. Even the beaches are black–when there are beaches; in many places the lava flowed into the sea and the boundary between sea and land is jagged rock. There is one spot on our drive where the recent erruption has killed a forest, but left it standing. Why it didn’t push the trees over or burn them up, I have no idea. (Maybe it is ash and not lava that blackens the ground beneath the denuded trees.)

In another spot we see the burnt remains of a car completely encased in lava.

Volcanic islands such as this make for good diving: there is very little top soil for the rain to wash into the sea to muddy visibility.

In the evening, after diving we all go down to the beach to shoot fireworks. Several other groups and families are also doing the same. Apparently there is no special occasion, however. The fireworks seem different from American fireworks: these shoot up into the sky, whereas most fireworks I have seen in the U.S. send up a shower of fire from the ground, but as for these Japanese fireworks, there isn’t much variety.

Next we decide to play Japanese children’s games. First, a complex form of tag, in which I immediately become “it” since I don’t understand the rules. but soon, I catch on. Then we play an elaboration of “Jan ken pon”, known in America as “Hammer, Scissors, Paper”. This elaboration is a process of elimination. In our case tonight, the loser gets thrown off the pier into the ocean.

Now we’re back at the minshuku sitting on the patio. Someone notices my writing and asks me in English if I’m writing a diary.

I reply, “something like that”, which is not understood, so I say “chotto onaji”, an approximate Japanese translation. I ask about the signs reading . It is indeed pronounced “ueno yama” and, yes it’s the name of the minshuku. The translation I’m given is “over the mountain”.

Wednesday, August 14. It is evening and I am sitting alone in the patio in front of the minshuku. This is the first real time I’ve had alone since this trip began. The Japanese love groups and love to do things in groups. Now they’re watching TV as a group. Since I can’t understand the dialogue, there’s no point in my watching. Besides it’s hot in there and somewhat cooler out here. And finally, I find it uncomfortable to sit on the floor– a fatal flaw for someone living in Japan.

The other people in the group must think I’m strange to be out here all alone, but I enjoy the solitude. Anyway, they’re bound to think I’m strange–after all I’m a “gaijin”–a foreigner (literally “outside person”). This at once explains and excuses my strangeness. The Japanese are very forgiving of the strange ways–even bad manners–of foreigners. Yet, I, and all foreigners will always be “outside persons” never fully integrated into Japanese society, never fully accepted as a full-fledged member of a group. This may be less true in Tokyo than in rural regions. I suppose the same is true in rural parts of America when outsiders are regarded with suspicion–but it is much more significant here where group membership is fundamental to social structure. It is also more subtle: whereas in rural America an outsider might be treated with a cold shoulder or even overt hostility, here an outsider is treated with courtesy. But it is this very courtesy which marks one as an outsider–more familiar forms being reserved for group members. I remember seeing a TV show about a Japanese woman living in Tokyo. As part of here job as a journalist she had somehow become friendly with the people in a small farming community far from Tokyo. She is pleased that they have invited her to participate in their harvest festival. Yet, she says, she realizes that she is still considered an outsider since women from the village itself are excluded from the festivities which are normally reserved for men.

The people inside have reverted to playing cards and the quiet is periodically broken by various cheers, crys of surprise, etc., done like everything else as a group. It is done so well in unison that one would think they have a cheerleader. But they don’t: it’s done from years of practice and sensitivity to–being in time with–the group.

An inch-long insect has just planted itself on the wall next to where I’m sitting and commenced to make amazing, loud, and complex noise. It sounds nothing like a cricket and its song is more like that of a bird.

The weather has started a very light drizzle–if it gets any stronger I shall have to go inside.

A small Japanese child comes out and exclames “Semi da-yo”, confirming my suspicion that the insect is a “semi”, a Japanese cicada. I hear a deafening chorus of semi in Tokyo in the summer, but I’ve never heard a solo. The child pokes the insect and it flies away.

The drizzle has stopped–only a few minutes after it started.

At this point Takeuchi-san joins me. He’s from the dive shop and it’s his job to make sure everyone has a good time. How can I be having a good time out here by myself? So he makes conversation.

He asks me the usual questions almost all Japanese ask foreigners: How long have I been in Japan? How do I like Japan? How old am I? Before long we are joined by others, who have come, I suspect, not so much to keep me company as to escape the heat inside. Takeuchi-san summarizes our conversation for them. They express surprise that I am 39 years old. They say I look younger. I suspect this is flattery since I have some grey hair; more perhaps than is usual for one my age, but very definitely more than an Asian would have at my age. Actually I’ve been feeling my age on this trip: not the color of my hair, but rather my physical stamina, which is significantly less than the other members of the group–all of whom are probably in their 20’s. Several, I know, are college students, which explains their childlike behavior: they have yet to enter the adult world of work and marriage, a more significant transition in Japan than in the U.S.

For Japanese students, college is a kind of four-year vacation. After having passed their “examination hell”–the incredibly difficult and competitive tests one must pass to get into the prestigious schools, like Tokyo University. Once the student has passed and gained admission, he is pretty much assured of graduation. Then it is time to rest after the rigors of high school and exams.

There are other cultural factors, I believe (although I can’t name them) that make Japanese teenagers and young adults act in more childlike ways. I find it very charming in both men and women, but particularly the latter. It is this propensity that led us to play children’s games on the pier the other night.

Thursday, August 15: Today we went boat diving. A lot of my preconceptions about diving are being challenged on this trip. First, I had the idea that I didn’t like skin diving, but I quite enjoyed it the other day. It was peaceful to just float on the water (i.e. I didn’t have to keep up with those damn kids). Today’s preconception: boat diving is easier than shore diving. The shore diving has been very easy here, and boat diving has its own difficulties–lugging equipment on and off the boat both at the pier and at the dive site for one. Still boat diving has its advantages: one can visit otherwise inaccessible locations and can generally dive deeper. This latter has the difference that the greater volume of water filters out more of the short light waves, from the red end of the spectrum. This gives everything a marked blue tint.

The reader will note that I am writing very little about the time I spend under water. One reason is that we actually spend very little time under water–about 30 minutes in the morning and a like amount in the afternoon. In some cases there might be one more dive at night–but not here on Miyake Jima. I asked Takeuchi-san last night why we didn’t do any night diving. He told me that the fishermen’s association forbids it. He added “they are very powerful.” I asked him what would happen if someone disobeyed this rule. He said he didn’t know–no one had ever tried. It is typically Japanese to follow the rules and typically American to consider the consequences before deciding on compliance.

I suppose the consequences in this case would be animosity between the fishermen and the divers, which, I suppose, could end boat diving. And anyway, I’m sure the Japanese would think, why disturb the harmony between the groups?

Anyway, I was contemplating why it is difficult to write about diving. A more fundamental reason is that the experiences I have on land are sufficiently familiar, even here in the thoroughly Japanese minshuku, that I conceptualize them in my thinking. By conceptualizing them I can put them into words. Diving, on the other hand, is too new for me, and I tend to experience it directly. There is a flash of color as we float over some coral; a flurry of movement as a school of fish dart by; a sudden void as we swim out over the edge of some undersea cliff. All these things and more in a dizzying procession. I have no time to think it in words; it is a bubbly blur of scenes as if someone is showing a slide show but changing slides, without commentary, too fast for the viewer to absorb. Each slide is unique: a black and yellow striped fish; the antenna of a lobster poking out from a cave. A sandy area with little life. But the slide analogy is inadequate, in that it leaves out the other senses: the sudden unforseen drop in temperature felt mostly on the face, unprotected by the wet suit. The sounds: dominated by the bubbles produced by breathing, but also intermittent clicks and other noises both unidentifiable and indescribable. And beneath it all a constant consciousness of my heart rate and breathing– for the air here is no longer free and unlimited. I paid for this air, literally, when I paid for this trip. And it will all too soon be gone, neccesitating a return to the “normal” world– the conceptual world–and also, on this planet, the exceptional world.

I seem to have disproven my own thesis, having just penned a volume of words about that which I said I did not experience in words/concepts. But these words I have written did not occur to me at the time, unlike most of the words in this journal.

Often when I travel I take a camera. I find when I have the camera along, I am constantly observing the scene as through a viewfinder. I am constantly, mentally or with a camera, framing pictures. When I leave my camera home, I observe things in a more direct way. On this trip, I find myself framing things in words. But not when underwater.

When we come up from the afternoon dive, the boat is nowhere to be seen–it was supposed to be following our bubbles. We bob on the surface perhaps a quarter of a mile from land, but there is no beach–only cliffs. Then as we ride to the top of a wave, we spot the boat in the distance–it is heading away from us. The Japanese–always clowning–yell in feigned panic–but the boat is too far away to hear us.

Actually I feel quite safe here. The water is not cold, and anyway our wet suits insulate us. And our buoyancy control devices act like (or better than) a life vest and keep us effortlessly afloat. One of the others blows a whistle, but it sound like a dying bird. So I blow on mine, which sounds more like an angry policeman. Evidently the boat hears it because it turns about and heads our way. It seems that he was chasing a shark. Had I known that I wouldn’t have been so complacent in the water.

As we come back in, I am struck by how different the island looks from the sea. From here (on this side of the island anyway) there is no evidence of volcanic violence. There is one prominent peak, but one couldn’t guess it is an active volcano– not from appearances anyway. It is covered to its peak by deep- green vegitation, as is every inch of the island as seen from here. It is as if there is one tree-covered mountain that has somehow been dropped whole into the sea. Missing, too, is any evidence of human habitation. Then we round a point and can make out–although barely–the roofs of the houses that make up the village where we are staying. The roofs wind up away from the coast following a steep canyon that gives a disarray to the placement of the rooftops. Then we can see the ugly concrete sea wall that protects the miniscule harbor and beyond that what passes for a beach–covered with black volcanic pebbles rather than sand. From the sea, today, no black can be seen; only a random splatter of every imaginable color. The reason for the display of color is not visible from the boat, but it is well known to me: the beach is literally saturated with people: scuba divers, skin divers, wind surfers. For this is the summer holiday.

Our boat does not proceed directly to the dock but instead heads for a large expensive-looking cabin cruiser anchored in the bay. Our boatman exchanges pleasantries with someone on the yacht who nevertheless does not respond to our tentative hand waving.

I’m writing this in the late afternoon on the minshuku’s patio, which has become my favorite writing place. Earlier a small boy sat and watched fascinated for several minutes while I wrote. He probably never watched anyone write longhand before. Likely he never saw anyone write left-handed before, since such is still discouraged in Japan–as is any other deviation from the norm.

As I write, I am happy to have the company of one of the prettier women in the group. I am also happy that she doesn’t want to engage in small talk; I don’t have the energy to attempt either Japanese conversation or what I think of as “special English”– English slowed down and devoid of figures of speech and idioms. (My term, special English, derives from Voice of America broadcasts in a similar style.) It takes extra energy to converse in either way and neither of us seem to have that energy at present. Instead she is content to read from her book and listen to her walkman, and I am content to admire her from afar. Her shoulder- length black hair shines in the afternoon sun and she occasional ly scratches a mosquito bite on her calf which give me an opportunity to admire here shapely legs–unusually long for a Japanese and thus all the more attractive. I have noticed this girl earlier on this trip: not only is she pretty, but she works at being pretty. We are usually not long out of the water after a dive before she gets out her compact and is checking her face, looking for what I don’t know. Now she is dozing. Occasionally one of the guys in our group will sneak up and try to turn up the volume on her walkman. But they can never figure out which knob to turn and she always wakes up and yells “dame, da-yo”–the same thing mothers tell their errant children. Well, boys will be boys, especially with girls around.

Another typical Japanese dinner: fish cooked in batter, sashimi (raw fish) and seaweed, tofu (soy bean fermented into jelly-like cubes with a bland taste) soup with pretty little star-shaped things of undetermined origin. I can often play a mental game of “animal, vegetable, mineral” with Japanese food, having no idea of what I’m eating. Last night’s soup had some strange things in it that looked for all the world like rocks. Apparently this was strange to the Japanese too because they began to discuss it among themselves. One of our group then explained what it was. This was followed by a chorus of “ah so!” and “Hajimete.” (“This is my first time.”) I could understand as much of the conversation as I’ve related here, but I didn’t understand the actual explanation of the strange soup ingredient. Nor did I ask. I have a strict policy regarding Japanese food: don’t ask what it is! I also try to follow this rule of Japanese etiquette: Try at least one bite of every dish that is offered, and eat all of your rice. I confess, however, that I make exceptions to this latter rule for some of the stranger of ingredients, like for example, last night’s soup stones.

I have wanted to add a description of the minshuku where we are staying. The patio I often refer to, and where I am once again sitting, is actually in in front of the building directly between the main entrance and the narrow street. The patio’s floor is concrete and the roof is in two sections: one is made of thin lengths of bamboo that screen out the sun but not the rain. The other section is made of corrigated fiber-glass of the type common in American patios. The patio furniture, too, is familiar white-painted, round, metal tables with a hole for an umbrella (but no umbrella owing to the previously-described roof), and folding aluminum patio chairs with brightly-colored nylon webbing.

The outside of the building, too, is not very Japanese looking: wood frame painted a dull light green suitable for army barracks. There are more doors than in an American house, but the most tell-tale Japanese touch is the large sea-turtle shell appended under the eaves of the peaked roof, with the establishment’s name, –“Over the Mountain”.

Once one steps in the main entrance, the building becomes definitely Japanese. First, there is a small square entrance hall whose concrete floor is at the same level as the ground outside. Instead of knocking on the outer door, as one would do in the west, the visitor steps into this entry hall and calls out “sumimasen”, or more formally, “gomen kudasai”.

To proceed further, one must remove one’s shoes and step up to the raised wooden floor.

From here, there are two branching hallways leading left and right. Leading off from these hallways are shoji-screen doors leading into the guest rooms. There are similar sliding doors separating the rooms. These can be opened or removed to create a larger room. Actually many of the doors in this minshuku have frosted glass rather than the traditional paper shoji. The floors in the hallways are hardwood; those in the rooms are tatami mats made from straw and parts of the rice plant. These rooms are multi-purpose in the traditional Japanese ways of economy of space: tables are set up at meal-time and cushions placed around them. At bedtime, sleeping mats are layed out. Everything is done at floor level. Strangely, pictures are hung at ceiling level; they are, however, tilted at an angle such that they can be viewed more or less straight on from below. Actually there is a good reason for this placement: most of the wall space is actually sliding/removable shoji.

There are two baths here: one large one that can be shared and a smaller single-user one. In Japanese style one soaps and rinses before entering the bath. As with many things in Japan, there is a specific ritual for this, not all the details of which have I mastered. Unlike idyllic descriptions of Japan of yore, these baths are segregated by sex; somehow the women always end up with the large bath.

The minshuku also has a kitchen suitable for preparing meals for all of us. But, I have not seen it: as in Japanese homes, it is impolite for guests to enter the kitchen.

Saturday, August 17: Today is our last day on Miyake Jima. In another hour or so we leave for the boat landing and our journey back to Tokyo–a journey I am not looking forward to: six hours on an overcrowded, hot ferry.

Well the symbolic, if not actual, moment of departure has arrived: it is time for me to switch from my rubber zori back to shoes and socks.

Sunday, August 18: the boat trip wasn’t so bad. We got a spot on the deck which means we had fresh air and a view. We were on the sunny side, so it was pretty hot, but it also means we were on the side where we could see the other islands in the chain: Ni Jima and O Shima. Then the Isu Peninsula, Yokosuka, Yokohama, and finally Tokyo. It was dark when we arrived; we had watched the sun set on Tokyo bay–a fitting end to our journey.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *