With 29,751 km of coast and 6,852 islands, anyone would guess there should be some decent diving somewhere in Japan. Indeed, there is, and it is incredible. However, it has remained so far out of the radar of international dive travellers for one main reason: the language barrier. The Japanese scuba diving community is big and active, there are many clubs all around Japan, but almost none of them can offer service in English, and if you cannot listen to a dive briefing in Japanese, game over. The only exception would be Okinawa, which started to make a name for itself internationally as the best diving destination in Japan. The tropical archipelago is 640 km south of mainland Japan, and there you can find dive centres with English-speaking divemasters and instructors. For historical reasons, Okinawa is still the home of an American military base. However, what if you are planning a trip to Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka and want to dive on the way as a dedicated world adventure diver?
It might be the first time I am writing about Japan, but it is not my first trip. Having done research for years about where was the best diving in Japan, diving there was high on my bucket list for many reasons. Japan and I, it is a long story. As you know my passion for making my scuba diving trips a cultural experience, let me give you a bit of the background story. For 25 years, whether through my readings of shojo mangas as a little girl, my judo training as a teenager, starting to learn Japanese as student and finally starting my engineer career in a Japanese company, I have been passionate about Japan even longer than about scuba diving. The two had to come together one day. That was why for my third trip to Japan, I had to go on a scuba diving mission, whatever it took.
About 2 years ago I found the blog of Bonnie: Rising Bubbles. Half British, half Japanese, she has lived in Tokyo for 11 years and did an amazing job at documenting scuba diving in Japan. Through our shared interests, we introduced ourselves to each other online. When she learnt I was coming to Japan, she kindly put me in touch with Ben of Dive Zone Tokyo, a Belgian national who has lived in Tokyo for 5 years and organises English-speaking scuba diving tours all around Japan. This is how I found myself heading directly to Izu Peninsula directly after my arrival at Haneda Airport end of February and how we finally met in Tokyo after my dive trip!
Tokyo: an unexpected base to go scuba diving
The Capital of Japan is famous for being a neon city that never sleeps and where fashion trends are as crazy as the working hours. It’s a unmissable stop for any first-time traveller to Japan. There are so many things to do that you can plan an entire holiday in Tokyo 東京 metropolitan area. Who would expect to find amazing scuba diving sites just 1h30 away by train from Tokyo? Thanks to its high-speed trains “Shinkansen 新幹線”, a quick transfer through via Atami 熱海 to the local train line of Izu 伊豆 is possible on a day trip. However, I recommend to spend the night in Atami or Ito before your diving day for a more relaxed pace.
I could write an entire blog post about the best things to do in Tokyo. It was my second trip to the capital of Japan but I still need to explore a few more districts to declare I know all the best places to go. So far, here are my favourite places and things to do in Tokyo:
- Tsukiji 築地 Market with an early bird sushi breakfast at 6.30am
- Akihabara 秋葉原 “Electric Town” for manga shopping and a matcha latte at a maid cafe (and not so much for electronic, computers and camera shopping since you get much better deals on the Internet nowadays)
- Harajuku 原宿 for its Sunday cosplayers and fashion shops for teenagers following the latest crazy trend in Japan, but it is more for its Meiji-jingu Shinto shrine in a beautiful park that I love it!
- Ginza 銀座 for its department stores and especially their food section. Want to make a sakura mochi and green tea tasting session? Head to the basement floor of Mitsukoshi 三越 department store.
Where to stay in Tokyo?
The range of hotels in Tokyo is vast, for almost affordable luxury with a view in the middle of classy Ginza 銀座, the Millennium Mitsui Garden is an excellent option The rooms are not huge but modern and smartly designed while having a Japanese touch. The large bay window looking at the skyscrapers is opening up the space of the room. If you are looking at budget options, why not trying the capsule hotel experience? You can even find some like the Centurion Cabin & Spa Hotel that as a hot spring bath! Another option for a more local experience is to rent a room on Airbnb in a residential area of Tokyo such as Ueno 上野 as there are many available are for a reasonable cost. Here is a link to get £30/35€ of credit for Airbnb on your first stay.
Kamakura: Japanese cultural stop on the way to Izu
Depending on how much time you have available, Kamakura 鎌倉市 is a perfect cultural stop on your way to or back from Izu. If you have only a long weekend, it might be difficult time wise. If you have a week ahead of you, this is worth to spend a day there to visit the three most beautiful of the many temples of the ancient Shogun Capital from the 13th Century:
- Daibutsu 大仏 (Great Buddha): This Buddhist temple hosts the second biggest Buddha statue in Japan. The temple is small, but the surroundings of the statue inspire a very peaceful feeling. Take the bus at stop #1 at Kamakura train station (200¥) and stop at Daibutsu. Entrance is 200¥.
- Hasedera 長谷寺: This Buddhist temple was the most beautiful of all thanks to its garden going up the hill. I was lucky to see blooming plum trees as we were at the end of February. Photographers will have a blast there as there are so many opportunities to capture the beauty of Japanese Zen gardens. The temple is only 5 min away from the Daibutsu. Entrance is 200¥.
- Hokokuji 報国寺: This temple is famous for its bamboo forest which is not as big as the famous one near Kyoto, Arashiyama, but still gives an excellent opportunity to visit one near Tokyo. This place also offers to relax with a bowl of matcha tea while looking at the waterfall in the bamboo forest. Entrance with the tea is 700¥. The quickest way to reach this temple after Hasedera Temple is by taxi (1,700¥) but if you want to save some yens, take the local train at the Hase station just behind the temple.
Izu Peninsula: onsen, sakura & scuba diving
At the beginning of my research about Izu 伊豆 Peninsula I realised that it was not a place much visited by foreigners but hugely popular for people from Tokyo and Shizuoka area for onsen (hot springs) tourism. Just for this reason I already loved it. It was the promise of an authentic experience even if, to be honest, you do not run into foreigners all the time in Japan. From north to south, Atami 熱海, Ito 伊東 and Shimoda下田 are a popular destination for a relaxing hot spring weekend away from the city. Thanks to its micro climate, it is also a great place where you can see sakura 桜 (cheery) and ume 梅 (plum) trees blooming as early as the end of February just before the high peak touristic season hits with high prices all across Japan.
I could have done the trip in only a day from Tokyo, but first, directly after my arrival at Haneda Airport, I thought my body would thank me for a more relaxed pace. Secondly, I had always dreamed to spend the night in a traditional Japanese Inn, a ryokan 旅館. In Izu Peninsula, almost all ryokan come with their own onsen 温泉 “hot spring” bath. Here I had two issues: trees started to bloom early this year creating a huge demand on ryokans just before I arrived, and I have tattoos on my back. Even if things are getting a bit relaxed with foreigners having tattoos in the major cities, tattoos are still a big taboo in Japan as it is associated with the the Yakuza, the Japanese Mafia. Fancy ryokans can offer private onsen but it usually comes with a higher price. This is usually the best solution if you have tattoos like me. The one we initially spotted cost was about 17,000¥ (140€) but was fully booked for the weekend. Ben from Dive Zone Tokyo was of a great help and finally found an old ryokan, Shimoda Ryokan, for a low price and very few people booked in so I could have the onsen bath just for myself. He almost apologised for booking an old place with cracks in the walls, but I loved it!
The room was quite big compared to Japanese standards; I would say 4 tatamis (this is how you measure the surface of rooms in Japan). I had a futon bed, a big square table with 2 red cushions where I could find hot water, green tea and a small welcome cake, the cupboard contained a choice of yukata 浴衣(the relax version of kimono you are supposed to wear from the moment you arrive in the ryokan to make you feel home). My dinner (bangohan 晩ごはん) was served in one of the tatami dining rooms where I was on my own. A real feast was waiting for me on the table: seabream (tai 鯛), crab (kaniカニ) and shrimp (ebi エビ) dish including sashimi, miso soup, fish cakes, and a hot-pot. Every plate looks very small but I was full at the end!
I came back to my room to relax a while, watching some Japanese shows on TV to train my listening skills while I was digesting; it is indeed recommended not to go to the hot spring bath right after eating. I was also waiting to go later to make sure to have the onsen just for myself. As I am not someone comfortable to be naked around strangers (even if I had to in a sauna in Finland or hammam in Turkey in the past), I was happy to be able to lock the main door of the onsen bath which was in the basement of the ryokan. The first room had baskets to put clothes and towels. Then I entered the bathroom which was very steamy (making pictures impossible to take). First, you need to wash on the stool with a bucket. There was everything available soap, shampoo and conditioner. Only when you have properly washed and rinsed yourself, you can enter the onsen. It is hot so take it easy. Then it was just pure relaxation. I loved it so much that I went back for a quick dip the next morning before my diving day. Here is the complete explanation of the onsen etiquette.
The next morning, I had asked my breakfast (asagohan 朝ごはん) at 7 am. Surprisingly, it was similar to my dinner with fish and rice, but I did not mind. Nevertheless, I should say my favourite were the omelette (tamago 卵) on rice (gohan ごはん) with green tea to start the day.
Can you believe all this amazing experience was only 7,500¥ (63€) for the night in the ryokan, the almost private access to the onsen, dinner and breakfast? Japan is not necessarily an expensive place!
Izu Ocean Park: dream spot for underwater photographers
The next morning, I met Ben from Dive Zone Tokyo at 8.30am at Ito Station. Another 15/20min ride later, we arrived at Jogasaki-Kaigan 城ヶ崎海岸 train station. A 700¥ taxi ride took us in 5 min to the IOP dive centre (Izu Ocean Park or Izu Kaiyo Koen 伊豆海洋公園). From our arrival, I marvelled at the perfection of the dive centre. Everything was so well organised: wooden tables for groups below two big shelters, enormous shower and spotless toilets facility, a cute dive shop with everything you could need, gear or food, and a big rinsing area with a particular tray for underwater cameras. There is even an onsen bath where people go to relax wearing their suit to rinse it at the same time!
IOP being a shore diving area, you just register on your arrival and then you are free to use the entire facility as you wish. You only need to respect the hours: first entry is at 9 am, last entry is at 3 pm. I could not expect less from a Japanese dive centre, but still, I was impressed by so much perfection. The cost for 2 shore dives with tank and weights was 7,000¥ (57€).
The entry in the water at IOP can be a bit tricky because of the waves coming back and forth and slippery rocks. You need to wait in line fully equipped then grab the rope that will safely help you to go into the water without falling. Near the water, Ben and I put our fins on and started to go backwards in the water carefully. Once we had water to our waist, we just pushed the rock and fin kicked to swim away from it. I cleaned my mask then I was ready for my first dive ever in Japan!
When Ben mentioned IOP was a good dive for underwater photographers I pictured a shallow dive site, similar to some famous muck dive sites, where you look for tiny critters in the sand. I was wrong: there is a bit of everything in IOP. You can stay shallow and spend time with your macro lens photographing the beautiful anemones guarded by a black and white damselfish couple, or playing with the sakura shrimp jumping everywhere from rock to rock. However, you can also follow a wall covered in yellow gorgonians and white and purple soft coral that will take you down to 25m. In that area, in only 2 dives I saw 2 curious Napoleon wrasse, a big flounder and a gracious stingray. However, the two highlights of my dives where the dragon moray eel which has two little horns on the head, beautiful red and yellow spots and glass-like teeth, and colourful large urchins which were nothing like I saw before. Make sure you fully charged your camera batteries before your diving day because you are going to need it!
As you can see on the pictures, I was diving with my Aqua Lung Fusion drysuit as the water was 15°C, but at the same time, this is the coldest it gets in February/March. From June, you can start diving with a wetsuit again, and water can get as warm as 27°C in the summer.
Available tanks were 10L or 15L, I did a 50min dive with a max depth of 24m on a 10L tank on the first dive, and because I want to add a bit more weight on my second dive, I took a 15L and did a 66min dive with a max depth of 20m. We did our first dive at 11 am, and our second at 1 pm after eating the delicious bento box we pre-booked on arrival at the dive shop. Important: for DIN regulator users like me, do not forget your adaptor like for North America and the Caribbean.
How to go to Izu Peninsula from Tokyo?
“Konnichiwa! Densha no kippu Itou ni kudasai. Atami ni Shinkansen de kudasai.”
That moment I ordered my train ticket in Japanese at Tokyo Station made my day. I felt so proud of that little victory after a year and a half of studying Japanese. I think it is for these moments I keep learning foreign languages. When you start to be understood, and you can understand what people are saying it is so empowering. I almost forgot this feeling now I have been fluent in English and Spanish for more than 10 years. However, I think I will stick with this feeling for a while as it will be a big challenge to get any fluency in Japanese.
Of course, if you do not speak Japanese, showing the direction on a map with a big smile and the two magic words of Japanese, Sumimasenすみません -excuse me- and Onegaishimasu おねがします -please- will work too! Generally speaking, compared to my first visit to Tokyo 7 years ago, I was impressed how things have changed. The city is getting ready for the Olympic Games of 2020. All displays and signs are bilingual Japanese/English. Hard to get lost!
There are two options to go to Izu Peninsula. The most expensive and the fastest is by using the bullet train (Shinkansen 新幹線) from Tokyo東京 to Atami 熱海 and then change to the JR line going to Shimoda. This is the option I took after my arrival at Haneda Airport at 3 pm to make sure to make it for dinner time at my ryokan (max 7 pm). The price was 4,520¥ (about 37€), and it took me 1h30 to get there. I left Tokyo Station at 4.26pm and was ready for dinner at my ryokan at 6.30pm (I was starving). On the way back to Tokyo, Ben and I took the JR line all the way to Tokyo. It was much cheaper, only 2,800¥ (about 23€), but the train was stopping at every station, even in Tokyo, so it took me 3 hours to go back. After an early start, I slept most of the time. Hopefully Ben had taken the extra tickets to get reclining seats of the green car (a kind of 1st class), otherwise, it could have been more than 2 hours standing! The additional cost for the green car was about 800¥. So if you are on a budget, you can make the return trip for as little as 4,000¥ (32€).
Good to know: there are elevators in every train station and on every platform, so travelling with a scuba diving bag was nice and easy!
Diving in IOP was surprisingly good, it felt like diving with tropical fish in cold water, a bit strange but fabulous in the end. Now, I am curious about discovering all the other dive sites of Izu Peninsula such as Atami 熱海 for wreck diving or Mikimoto 神子元 to get a chance to dive with hammerhead sharks! There are also the Izu Islands you can reach with a night ferry directly from Tokyo such as Oshima 大島 nicknamed “Fish TV” and Miyakejima 三宅島 for an opportunity to freedive with dolphins. However, this will be for another longer trip to Japan. I can’t wait!
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