YOU COULD BE FORGIVEN for thinking that Okinawa is the only place in Japan to go diving. The island-group renowned for its reefs and abundant marine life draws a certain number of international divers, but could they be missing out on other high-quality Japanese locations?
The small town of Kushimoto in Wakayama, on the mainland island of Honshu, does draw divers – from all over Japan. Most foreign tourists have never heard of it, but this “mainland mecca” of diving is a popular alternative to Okinawa for the Japanese, especially when typhoons cause flights to the western islands to be cancelled.
So I jumped on the Bullet Train from Tokyo to Osaka before taking local trains down to Kushimoto to see if we Brits might be missing out on anything.
On arrival I met Kumiko-san, my guide; Aki-san, my dive instructor; and Mr Shimano, the owner of Nanki Seaman’s Club, where I would be diving. All were keen to show me what Kushimoto had to offer.
The best time to dive Kushimoto, I was told, is from late September to the end of November, when the visibility is at its best at around 15-25m, and average water temperature is a balmy 27°.
While conditions are also good during the summer months, July and August are when hordes of Japanese divers head to the small town for their summer holidays, so it’s best to avoid this peak period, particularly because, of the 25 or so dive-shops in the town, only a couple can currently cater for English-speaking visitors.
During the rest of the year, the water temperature drops to around 15°C. While the Japanese consider this far too cold, British divers willing to travel with their own drysuits (Japanese sizing is very small!) could enjoy clear waters and good conditions from December to April.
Unfortunately, my own timing wasn’t ideal. The week before I arrived, several typhoons had hit Kushimoto and all dives were cancelled for a couple of days. So I was understandably nervous about the weather forecast.
Thankfully, by the time I arrived it was possible to dive again, and the visibility was improving. However, another typhoon was brewing, due to head straight for Taiwan, and there was no telling whether it might deviate from that path and hit us instead.
All we could do was keep a close eye on the forecast and hope for the best.
A LIGHT RAIN BEGAN TO PATTER on the windscreen as we drove down to the dive-school. Within five minutes it was a total downpour. As we huddled inside waiting for more news on the weather, it didn’t look promising.
While we waited, I admired the underwater photography framed around the dive-shop, all taken by students of Aki-san and Mr Shimano.
After a sly glance at my, admittedly, basic camera, Aki-san was kind enough to lend me his Olympus Pen – according to him, most Japanese underwater photographers preferred the Olympus brand.
After lots of dusting, wiping and polishing (the Japanese are particularly neat and clean – definitely no spit in lieu of defog!), we were ready for a tutorial.
I was anxious that I’d find the camera difficult to use or that I might break it, but it took only about 30 seconds to show me all the settings and, after a quick play, the Olympus Pen was mine for the week – if the rain eased off enough for us to take the boat out.
Eventually the deluge began to ease and we got the all-clear. The weather was too bad to visit the open ocean so we were diving Bizen, closer inland.
We could barely see the sky through the sheets of rain slamming down, and the sea was a thick, inky grey.
The boat was thrown around so much by the huge waves that we dropped down the descent-line straight away to avoid being swept away in storm-tossed seas.
Given the grey sky, rolling waves and hammering rain, I was surprised by how clear the water was just a few metres down. Yes, it was darker than the azure Caribbean in which I’d been diving a few weeks before, but we had crystal visibility of about 15m.
Landing on the seabed, we saw what looked like an expansive lunar landscape, with huge boulders as far as the eye could see. There was plenty of life around the rocky outcrops – longhorn cowfish, yellowtail parrotfish, lionfish, a huge pufferfish, a shoal of bright pink and orange sea goldies and an enormous strawberry grouper.
Aki-san summoned me over to where a sailfin goby sat by a burrow, waving its dark, dotted fin from side to side. Behind it, just out of sight, was the almost-totally blind shrimp with which it has a symbiotic relationship, the goby sharing its home in return for warning of approaching predators.
A special sighting was a tiny juvenile emperor angelfish, its navy body and circular white markings almost unrecognisable from the blue and yellow stripes it would develop as an adult.
WITH SO MUCH TO SEE we stayed down as long as we could, but it seemed like no time at all before it was time to ascend.
After a quick lunch we returned to nearby dive-site Sumisaki, which was similarly crammed with life: long-nose hawkfish, Japanese butterflyfish, sunburst anthias, Japanese spiny lobster and the bright red petals of a nudibranch egg-mass wafting gently in the current.
From a distance we glimpsed a ray darting past and caught the silhouette of a turtle surfacing way above us.
Many of the organisms were clearly regular sightings, as the crew knew exactly where to find them: they would fin purposefully towards a specific section of coral and, sure enough, there would be a depressed spider-crab or a tiny goby hiding.
Yet even the other instructors were jealous that we had caught a rare glimpse of a small pink frogfish.
It had been fairly calm at around 20m so I’d almost forgotten how rough it was at the surface. After being jerked up and down by the descent line during our safety-stop and battling the waves to get back on the boat (narrowly avoiding a ladder to the face), I was overwhelmed by a wave of nausea.
Thanks to typical Japanese efficiency, it was just a few minutes before we revved our engine and sped back to shore, the breeze on my face immediately relieving my seasickness.
I was ready to relax back at the Kushimoto Royal Hotel where I was staying, which has its own onsen – a public bathing pool heated by natural springs.
Once I had psyched myself up to enter (it’s customary to bathe completely naked!), I eased my tired limbs into the soothing mineral water and enjoyed the spectacular view over the Hashigui-Iwa rock formations along the coastline.
THE NEXT DAY WE WERE TO revisit the same areas as the day before, because it was still too rough to venture out to the open ocean. Yet, thanks to the expert knowledge of Mr Shimano’s team, our dives were packed with different sightings.
Back at Bizen we found what looked, at first glance, like a piece of purple coral. On closer inspection I saw peeping out from underneath the eyes and pincers of a Lauridromia dehaani crab, which carries coral on its back for camouflage.
Nearby, we found a Calvactaea tumida crab about the size of a quail’s egg, with skin disturbingly close to the colour of human flesh and bulging, orange eyes. There was also an emperor shrimp clambering across the back of a large red nudibranch.
We swam past a small midnight snapper with pretty black and white markings and long fins trailing in the water before spotting a black combtooth blenny sticking its head out of a hole, seemingly bemused as to why five huge lumbering divers were all peering at it.
A cleaning station was swarming with fish of all shapes and sizes, but it was the transparent, pin-size emperor shrimp cleaning each of them in turn that held our attention until the end of the dive.
Back at Sumisaki we found a large nudibranch the colour of autumn leaves, with white dots thickly outlined in black and egg ribbons spiralling out from it.
However, most of the group missed it, preoccupied as they were with a dragon moray posing for pictures metres away.
An arresting pair of harlequin shrimp with vivid blobs of colour on their shells were guarding a starfish snack. They were clearly regularly sighted here, because Aki-san knew exactly where to find them.
The same applied to the tiny squat shrimp he picked out easily from the background of its sea-anemone home.
Again the dive seemed to fly by too quickly, and just as we were beginning to ascend another bright orange dragon moray popped its head out to snap its jaws at us.
Good Wrasse World was our next dive-site. Here we found fewer crabs and shrimp but a wider variety of fish: a painted sweetlips, a tiny juvenile golden damselfish flitting about and several red firefish gobies with distinctive long dorsal fins.
Moving onto a patch of sand, we saw a handful of tiny gobies with yellow faces swimming near the seabed.
As soon as we got too close they darted back into their burrows, faces poking out slightly to try to work out who we were and what was going on.
Back on the boat the drizzle had begun again with a vengeance and, above the rolling ship, the sky was a murky grey.
Although not usually affected by seasickness, the swell was too much, and I suddenly had to run to the edge of the boat to vomit. Knowing the Japanese propensity for cleanliness, I was mortified.
Thankfully the nausea passed as quickly as it had arrived, and within a few minutes we were back on shore to warm up in the hot showers.
OVER A LUNCH OF BENTO BOXES and miso soup, we discussed the approaching typhoon. I’d been really unlucky with the timing of my trip; although Japan is affected by typhoons in July, August and September it was rare to have this many approaching one after another in such a short space of time.
The forecast for my last few days was only getting worse. Disappointingly, after a jam-packed couple of days of enjoyable macro experiences, the approaching storms left us no option but to cut short my dives for the week.
On the plus side, we didn’t have to worry about an early start the next day. Kumiko-san, Aki-san and Mr Shimano took me to a local izakaya tavern for sushi and sake before moving onto a karaoke bar to sing our hearts out over a bottle of bourbon until the early hours.
OK, we were slightly fragile the next morning but there was so much to see above ground that we were sure to make the most of our final days.
The great thing about diving from the mainland is that there is so much to do during your no-fly time. Kushimoto is just a short drive from the spectacular temples at the Kumano Kodo – a pilgrimage walk paired with the renowned Camino de Santiago in Spain – and one of the best known waterfalls in the country, Nachi.
What’s more, tourist hotspots Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo are only a few hours away by train.
Japan is such a fascinating country with so much to experience above sea level that it was hard to be disappointed even amid the persistent typhoons.
My first snapshot of this lesser-known dive destination only made me want to return to Kushimoto for more.
GETTING THERE: Finnair flies daily to Osaka via its hub in Helsinki, www.finnair.com
DIVING: Kushimoto Dive Station, www.kushimoto.com. Nanki Seamans Club, nankiseamansclub.com. Kushimoto Diving Association, www.divekushimoto.com
ACCOMMODATION: Kushimoto Royal Hotel, www.daiwaresort.jp
WHEN TO GO: Late September to the end of November.
CURRENCY: Japanese yen
PRICES: Return flights to Osaka from £695. Room for two at Kushimoto Royal from 8550 yen (£67). Two boat dives from 15,000 Japanese yen (£120)
VISITOR INFORMATION: en.visitwakayama.jp