Learning Japanese to scuba dive in Japan

If you are wondering why in the world someone would do that? I hear you. I can honestly say that over the 10 years of my scuba diving “career” this is by far the most insane project I have ever pursued. The truth is when you have the opportunity to fulfill a childhood dream, you just run for it, even if it doesn’t make total sense at first. From 2018 to 2019, I have lived and been diving in Japan for a total period of 8 months. I lived in Tokyo for 4 months and in Okinawa for 3. In addition to this, I spent about a month travelling around the prefectures of Shizuoka, Kanagawa, Chiba, Yamanishi, and Nagano.

So, I wanted to write a feedback post from this experience. Was it difficult? Expensive? Useful? I tell you everything from my first month where I could barely say more than a few words to my last month where I could follow a dive briefing in Japanese.

June 2018 – From Tokyo to New Caledonia via Okinawa

Arari Harbour Koganezaki - Izu Peninsula Japan

On my way to New Caledonia, I decided to spend one month in Japan to start my sabbatical. I had two objectives in mind: experience slow travel fully to unwind from the stress of the life I left behind and check if the Japanese lessons I took before were of any use.

As I started off the beaten path in rural areas of the Izu Peninsula, there was literally no one who spoke English. It was the ideal setting for a reality check. Except reading a few of the “katakana” (Japanese characters used for foreign words, mostly English) on menus and using 90% of the time the word “Daijobu” (it is/is it ok), I hardly understood anything of what people told me and vice versa.

The two last weeks I spent diving in Okinawa brought a bit of relief from a communication point of view since due to its history, the number of English speakers is dramatically higher there.

What were the takeaways from this first month in Japan?

1 – It was a great idea to start scuba diving in mainland Japan with an expat diving club in Tokyo. I could begin to scuba dive and learn the etiquette of dive centres while having people translate for me whenever needed.

2 – I’m not good at studying by myself so investing money in a language school was everything but a waste of money if I wanted to go anywhere with my Japanese conversation skills.

3 – The glimpse of rural Japan gave me the confidence that the day I would be able to speak some Japanese, it would turn into a fantastic experience as people have way more time to talk to you than in big cities like Tokyo.

Can you still explore Japan on your own without speaking Japanese?

Yes, of course. I have plenty of sweet memories of people being patient with me while looking to my Japanese dictionary app on my smartphone (be aware of the lack of wifi and network in rural areas so you can’t always rely on Google Translate).

Can you scuba dive in Japan without speaking Japanese?

In Okinawa, several scuba diving centres cater to foreign tourists, usually managed by Japanese instructors who previously worked abroad. However, in mainland Japan, it’s a different story. To make it simple, it will almost be impossible since they don’t have English speaking staff, and the minimum requirement is to understand the dive briefing in Japanese. Note: An exception would be IOP (Izu Ocean Park) where they sometimes have an English speaking foreign instructor, but it has been irregular in recent years.

In addition to this, there is also a matter of etiquette and trust. Dive centres want to be sure you will behave, abide by the rules and cause no trouble with no question asked. This is why going through an expat club from Tokyo was the ideal solution to start at the beginning. However, it is mostly a solution for people who live there as they only go on weekends and holidays. They built a network of trusted dive shops they regularly visit, making it easier to be accepted.

As a newbie “gaijin” (foreigner) diver, I made many mistakes at the beginning even by trying my best. But don’t overstress, whatever the efforts you make (not only for scuba diving), you will make mistakes because of the number of unspoken rules. The consequences may be invisible for the untrained eye, but a silent unpleasant look can lead to a banning warning to the person in charge behind your back (never ever ask anything directly in a local dive centre if you are not the person “in charge”).

Still, I was there to learn so ever mistake I made just went to the long list of things to never do again in Japan. I guess even before mastering the language, mastering the etiquette is a whole process in itself.

October/December 2018 – Living as a language school student in Tokyo

Momiji Koishikawa Garden Tokyo Japan

With a fully refreshed mind from 3 months of adventures in New Caledonia, I was back to Tokyo. I was officially moving temporarily to my own place, no matter how small it was, to be a student all over again at 34 years old.

I was sure I would be the oldest in class, which wasn’t true in the end. I didn’t care, I was here to fulfil a childhood dream while taking the opportunity to scuba dive as many spots as possible around Tokyo.

On the very day at SNG (Shinjuku Nihongo Gakko – Japanese School of Shinjuku), I had an assessment to evaluate my level as I wasn’t a total beginner. After my first month of travel in Japan, it didn’t come as a shock when I was told to start from the very beginning again.

I thought at least I’m going to rebuild stronger foundations and it may go faster as I went through a lot of grammar rules before. I won’t have the surprise this time to discover that in Japanese, depending on what you count, you don’t use the same words (!).

As the class was part-time from 1.30 pm to 5 pm, Monday to Friday, I initially thought I would have plenty of time to explore Tokyo, start my freelance activities and scuba dive in the Izu Peninsula. Unfortunately, the homework load was massive and took me at least 3 additional hours every day.

After two months, I finally became a confident writer of “hiragana” and “katakana” (Japanese uses 4 systems of writing: hiragana, katakana, kanji and our Latin alphabet sometimes). I also built a massive daily life vocabulary and learnt how to ask politely “without – meat, straw, plastic bag, etc. – please” / “Nashi de – niku /suturo/fukuro – kudasai”.

However, I was still not able to hold a simple conversation or understand the friendly waiter at the café of my share house. Things started to change when we began to manipulate the short form for verbs in Japanese.

I knew already there was polite Japanese and normal Japanese. Somehow I may have wrongly associated it with “tu” and “vous” (normal and polite forms of “you” in French) but what I didn’t get until the end of my 2nd month was how much it transformed the way people speak. In addition to this, there is another level of polite Japanese “Keigo” for specific situations. From that moment, I started to understand the friendly waiter. No matter how friendly she was and how casual the place, as a waiter, she had to speak in Keigo to customers.

It was only during the third month that the “listening spark” came out. It happened with my English and Spanish, so I was desperately waiting for it in Japanese. It is so funny how you wake up one morning, and suddenly your brain makes sense of what is happening around you. It just took more time (about three times more). Fair enough, learning Japanese is not just like learning another European language.

That month ended the 3rd week of December with an exam, after enjoying the Momiji season in Tokyo and its surroundings. There was no significant stake for me as I wasn’t there to look for a job or to pass to the following class. But still, my classmates and I were working hard every day after class in a nearby café. When the results came, I was hoping for good results but not a score of 95%! On the one hand, I felt proud, but at the same time, I was far from a simple fluent conversation. How frustrating!

How much did the language school?

For a 3-month intensive class, including all the bank fees and additional books I had to pay on arrival, the total cost was about 1800€, so 600€ per month. I had benchmarked other language schools and SNG wasn’t the cheapest but definitely not the most expensive (I met students at different language schools who paid 10,000€ for the same period!).

How much was my accommodation at the share house?

While my own room was only 9m², I had everything I needed with a comfy 90 cm bed, a desk, closet, a sink and a fridge plus a small 1m² balcony (which turned out incredibly convenient to dry out my scuba diving gear at the end of the weekend.) Everything else was shared. I had unlimited access to a high-end fully equipped kitchen, a large living room with TV, a bar for parties, a coworking space, a yoga studio and a café for which I had a card with 15,000 ¥ (about 125€) to spend every month. Including the cost of buying my bedsheets, cover, pillow and towels, plus the final fees, it cost me 900€ per month with no additional bills for utilities. This share house was conveniently located in central Tokyo near Ikebukuro, 20 minutes away by subway from my school.

January/February 2019 – One last month in Tokyo

Florine Shibuya Crossing Tokyo

Due to the fact I booked my accommodation in Tokyo a bit late during my last month in New Caledonia, my room was only available a week after my arrival. It meant I couldn’t have the minimum 3-month lease. So, because I liked the place, I agreed for a 4-month contract, allowing me to return to France for Christmas as anyway my visa was expiring and still have some time in Tokyo at my return.

What could have been a hassle turned into a game-changer opportunity. To make the most of these additional weeks in Tokyo, I booked an extension at my language school with a 10-hour private lesson package (about 500€). With a one-hour lesson every two days, it gave me way more time to enjoy my life in Tokyo and start working on my first freelance missions.

Having a teacher all for myself with the benefits of the foundations built during my 3-month class just gave me the confidence and conversation practice I was lacking.

On the first lesson, I brought a list of goals I wanted to achieve. There were mostly about organising scuba diving trips autonomously across Japan. It amused my teacher so much, who knew nothing about scuba diving but grew great interest through our lessons, that she would give me an additional 30 minutes for free most of the time!

My first surprise was most diving related vocabulary in Japanese is 90% based on English: “masku”, “finzu”, “uetsuitsu”, “tanku”, “legyuleta” (you got it?). It wasn’t so easy with marine species; it took me a while to remember “isoginchyaku” (sea anemone). Then came the concepts of “suido” (depth) and “nagare” (currents).

I also learnt that expressing what you must or mustn’t do (as part of a dive briefing) works in a whole different way in Japanese. A few role-playing scripts later to book a restaurant, a hotel and a dive centre over the phone, I was ready to go back to Okinawa!

Before I left cold (and even snowy sometimes) Tokyo in February for tropical Ishigaki, I took a last short trip to Nagago Prefecture to visit the snow monkeys (“onsenzaru”, the hot spring monkeys in Japanese). I had the opportunity to handle my very first phone call with the owner of the “ryokan” (Japanese inn) I booked: Victory!

February/April 2019  – Exploring Ishigaki & Yonaguni

Florine Kabira Bay Ishigaki Okinawa Japan

In a matter of hours, while staying in Japan, I went from 0°C to 26°C.

Before landing in Ishigaki, people warned me “But this is winter and low season, why going to Okinawa at that time”?

Well, 26°C didn’t seem bad to me, and it was even warmer in Yonaguni. Anyway, the idea was to combine another trip with my diving club from Tokyo on a mission to scuba dive with hammerhead sharks. Having learnt how much in advance local divers would book this trip to Yonaguni, I thought it was wiser to do it with my club.

I had one week in Ishigaki before boarding the 4-hour ferry to Yonaguni, so I chose the most straightforward option by booking the cabin hotel by the harbour near a scuba diving centre to test the waters of Ishigaki lifestyle. Ishigaki is almost as touristy as the island of Okinawa. It is not hard to find there a scuba diving centre catering to foreign tourists.

I soon understood the initial warning I had about going to Okinawa at that time of the year. Sure, the temperature was pleasant but it was raining most days and beaches wouldn’t open before the 1st of April, the official beginning of the touristic season. While rain when scuba diving is obviously not an issue, all the other days it mainly meant staying indoor as Ishigaki outdoors is not the kind of place you enjoy in the rain.

So, I started to explore all the small cafés and “izakayas” (pubs) of the main town. Daring to sit at the counter, I tried to speak with the staff. The other customers hearing I could speak some Japanese generally became intensely curious. This is at that moment I knew I reached what I came for when I started studying Japanese: having these informal conversations with locals, without obviously being super philosophical, and get to know their life on the island. The experience repeated several times, especially at the new guesthouse I moved to when I came back from Yonaguni, where I met many Japanese solo travellers.

When I flew back to Europe after my first “hanami” in Tokyo, I knew I had to come back to achieve my final target: booking entirely by myself accommodation and scuba diving with local shops.

October/November 2019  – From Polynesia to Florida via Japan

Imgya Marine Garden Miyakojima

The thing by being in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is that you are both near and far from many places, “just” a 10-hour direct flight away. After my 3 weeks in French Polynesia and before going to the US to attend my first DEMA show in Florida, I took the opportunity of the weekly direct flight between Tahiti and Tokyo to spend another month in Japan.

I decided to first rest in Ito, in the Izu Peninsula, off the action of the Rugby Worldcup. I had all the time to relax in a fabulous century-old “ryokan” with its “onsen” (hot spring) but as Hagibi typhoon was approaching I eventually had to leave for Tokyo a day earlier before the guesthouse and all the trains closed.

After 6 months in France, I was afraid I would have lost most of my Japanese. But actually, I guess it’s like riding a bicycle. By being in total immersion again, it all came back in 48 hours. I enjoyed a similar atmosphere with the other guests to what I had experienced in Ishigaki.

During my time in Ito and Tokyo, I booked by email and phone guesthouses and scuba diving centres as my private teacher taught me. Many local places can’t be found on Google or Booking.com with a search in English (Japan has its own local websites). Not relying on these for places like Miyakojima and the Kerama Islands proved to be invaluable in terms of what was still available and price-wise.

2 days after the Hagibi lockdown in Tokyo, I was back to the Okinawa Prefecture for the 3rd time for a full Japanese scuba diving experience. Well, I have to say it had some highs and lows to only book local dive shops. Some people were patient and kind with me, some would clearly show signs I was bothering them.

My best experience was in Tokashiki, in the heart of the Kerama National Park. Both the guesthouse and the dive centre were friendly and helpful. Not to mention that I believe now, Tokashiki has the best dives sites I have seen in all Japan, with colourful coral reefs and turtles everywhere.

The divemaster of SeaFriends look at me amused to see I could follow the dive briefing, and it wasn’t long before everyone on board wanted to speak with me. Another day, another small victory. It may have taken 8 months, but I couldn’t be happier.

I wanted to return this year again to Japan to write a comprehensive guide of diving in the Kerama National Park as this last trip really blew my mind, and it is so easily accessible from Naha by ferry. However, due to the current situation, I know it won’t happen at least this year.

I am grateful anyway for all these experiences I lived in Japan. Beyond language skills, I learnt to appreciate Japan for what it is. I know now it isn’t a place where I wish to live but a place I want to keep visiting regularly. My wish would be to have the same kind of experience in Indonesia. But I guess it won’t be soon either as I am still stuck in France, and the deadline of my visa for Australia approaches as the months pass by.

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Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park Nagano Prefecture Japan

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