Kawaii Monster Café: Monstrously Adorable!


“Imagination is the only weapon in the war against reality.”  ~Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Masuda

Masuda

The Kawaii Monster Cafe Harajuku opened not too long ago, but apparently it’s already become a “must-see” stop for locals and visitors alike in Tokyo.  Created by well-known Japanese avant-garde artist Sebastian Masuda, the mastermind behind the famous “cuteness-fashion” store 6% DokiDoki (see the video below), the candy-colored, monstrously darling café has become a top competitor for the title of Japanese Queen of Cuteness.

For just a 500 yen cover charge (a little under $5) visitors can spend 1 ½ hours inside just gawking at the overboard, overwhelmingly cute designs and décor inside.  No purchase necessary.  But you’ll buy something if you go in – it’s all just so…enticing.

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I have to admit this establishment was Jody’s “find” online.  I think she searched for something like “uniquely obscure places to eat” and this café of cuteness topped the list, every list, although maybe just behind a vampire themed – and staffed – restaurant.  It was her birthday, I mean actually her birth day, so we had to have a party, right?  What better place than one with a larger-than-life birthday cake turned merry-go-round?  I’m not sure what’s coming out of those lips on the top, though.  And that’s just the start of the cute oddities that, like the Robot Restaurant (see Domo Arigato Mr. Roboto for more on our visit to that iconic Tokyo venue), can only truly be produced and experienced in Japan.

Entry with "Choppy"

Entry with “Choppy”

We went on a late afternoon, and were pleasantly surprised to only have one small group (of Americans) ahead of us waiting to get inside.  I have read reviews of people waiting well over an hour….  There is a waiting lobby, crazily decorated, but that’s just a hint, just a small taste (pun intended!!) of what’s to come.  The café’s monster mascot, “Mr. Ten Thousand Chopsticks,” or just “Choppy” for short, is first seen here.  The entrance to the café is through doors shaped like his tongue.  As the staff warned us, we were about to enter the belly of the beast!

Selecting Your Eating Area

Selecting Your Eating Area

The hostess will take your name and ask you what “area” of the café you’d like to sit in.  Not knowing much, and quickly reviewing a video screen with a named picture of each area, we picked the “Mushroom Disco,” an odd choice since we are both NOT fans of mushrooms…of any kind.  In a disco, however?  HELL YES!

Jody with the Sweets-Go-Round and Monster Girls

Jody with the Sweets-Go-Round and Monster Girls

tokyo-2016-kawaii-monster-cafe-monster-hostesses-to-our-seating-in-the-mushroom-foresttokyo-2016-kawaii-monster-cafe-kevin-selfie-with-a-monster-hostessWhen your table is ready, double doors open and you are greeted by one of the five resident “Monster Girls”!  All I can say is WOW.  This is where the weird journey down the rabbit hole really begins….  Keep in mind that this café is square in the middle of Tokyo’s Harajuku district, which is well-known as Japan’s mecca for zany fashion and alternative youthful culture.  Seriously, there is such a thing as “Harajuku Lifestyle,” and the “Monster Girls” are prime examples.  From the café’s own website, Harajuku is described as “a colorful and crazy town that has been creating its own original culture by engulfing the world’s most trendiest fashions and cultures.”  One of Japan’s most famous pop and fashion icons of the moment, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, was in fact a repeat customer of DokiDoki, and a close collaborator with Masuda.

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The shop is hosted by five of these so-called “Monster Girls” in all their hallucinatory glory —name Sweet Baby, Selfish Dolly, Happy Candy, Sexy Nasty, and Moody Crazy, names hopefully divorced from their ideas of customer service.  These young girls are carefully selected, embodying the eye-popping lavishness of the café’s very essence.  Their characters where developed by Masuda himself to reflect the different personalities of the café, and to help promote the idea of Japanese Harajuku “cute culture” abroad.  We only had three attending to the café during our visit; I would image all five are present during rush times.  It’s hard to tell if they role-play their character per their name; there is very little English spoken here, so we didn’t have much interaction other than various photo ops.  They do walk the floor and stop and chat with most everyone.  Oh, and it’s hard to figure out who’s who, unless you have the cheat photo from their website!

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There are four main seating areas splayed throughout the interior.  The “Mushroom Disco” includes larger-than-life, neon-colored shrooms of all types, surrounded by alien vegetation, which makes for quite a psychedelic-drug induced dining experience.  According to the shop’s website, this area is “a big forest with its ceiling covered with poisonous colorful mushrooms and space plants.  There is also a secret room for gossip ladies further inside!”  I’m not sure how “disco” fits the motif, but hey, it’s Japan, and it’s CUTE (kawaii!!!).  And gossip is always fun.  For ladies apparently.

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Milk Stand

Then there is the “Milk Stand,” a corner of the café where massive heads of giant rabbits, sheep, and unicorn adorned with large non-descript creepy unfeeling lights for eyes drink milk from tubes emanating from oversized baby bottles hanging from everywhere the ceiling.  I honestly am at a loss here; this is unlike any nursery I’ve ever seen.  The website describes it this way:  “It’s a crazy baby room where the animals drink their milk.”  Okay….

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“Bar Experiment” is another area, and reserved for adults (mostly).  The motif here is ocean, but maybe a darker side of the deep sea, including a somewhat sinister black lit flickering jellyfish engulfing the countertop bar.  It’s a bit more sophisticated and offers silly drinks that have a rather adult silly effect.  The café says this:  “The bar counter is surrounded by mysterious glowing jellyfish and is the experiment room for lurking adults in the deep sea….”

Mushroom Seating

Mushroom Seating

Finally, there is the “Mel-Tea Room,” a more open and spacious area of sweets-on-parade where “ants will lead the way through the sugar signs and will take you to a tea party with melting ice cream, chocolate and macarons.”  How can this level of Alice in Wonderful-esque bizarreness possibly be resisted?  Regardless of where you’re sat, walk around and experience all the other areas, each with a crazy twist of their own.

Sweets-Go-Round

Sweets-Go-Round

The café centers on an actual revolving merry-go-round in the shape of an extravagantly decorated cake, appropriately dubbed the “Sweets-Go-Round,” which serves symbolically to capture the very essence of any visit.  Obviously the perfect place for a photo, and Jody’s birthday cake for 2016!  “This cake shaped merry-go-round going round and round is the symbol of KAWAII MONSTER CAFE and also a photo spot.”

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Don’t expect your typical diner fare.  The food is certainly as cutesy and colorful as the eye-popping décor, and varied to an acceptable extent.  The menus themselves are absolutely adorable touch-screen cakes, easy to navigate and with screens provided in English.

Electronic Cake-Shaped Menus!

Electronic Cake-Shaped Menus!

tokyo-2016-kawaii-monster-cafe-jodys-kawaii-pasta-lunchtokyo-2016-kawaii-monster-cafe-monster-burger-for-lunchJody opted for the totally fun pastel-colored pasta (“Rainbow Palette Pasta”) cleverly arranged on a painter’s palette and flanked with swishes of differently flavored sauces which appear as paint.  I selected the special that day, a monster burger of curry, chicken and pork with fries.  Literally, shaped and decorated as a monster!

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The food was okay; Jody like hers, and mine was not bad, but our meals came out at least 20 minutes apart, and mine was not very hot.  And I had to ask a couple of times about getting my meal.  There are other varied and whimsical selections, all of which are heavily dosed with food colors certainly not found in nature, but be prepared to pay for this level of cuteness.  Apparently being so cute is not cheap.  The fact is, I’m pretty sure people don’t come here for the food.

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tokyo-2016-kawaii-monster-cafe-kevin-with-one-an-experimental-cocktailWe ordered some adult beverages as well.  Alcoholic and non-alcoholic versions are offered of each drink, the booze served in mock test-tubes.  While we can’t recall Jody’s kawaii-cute fruit-based concoction, mine was listed as “Druggy Cocktail (Experiment).”  I poured and mixed my two test tubes with a measure of foreboding, not knowing exactly what to expect.  The drinks were fairly good, but failed to deliver drugs (and their effect) on any measureable scale.  Waiting for our food, we wandered wide-eyed and with mouths open around the café’s various zones.

Monster Girl Show

Monster Girl Show

There was a “show” after we finished our meal.  Theatrical lights came on, the music and bass started pounding (ah, finally the disco!), and we all knew something was in store.  Everyone gathered around the Sweet-go-Round, and the wait staff came out and started clapping.  After building a good measure of suspense, the Monster Girls paraded about, boarded the carousal and started some type of “cute” performance!

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After their couple of songs, there was an invitation to join the Monster Girls on the Sweets-Go-Round for pictures, but only after buying a 500 yen lollipop as your ticket.  I attempted to encourage Jody up for a birthday photo, but I was the one who ended up hanging with the girls!

Jody's Monster Cupcake

Jody’s Monster Cupcake

For dessert, I ordered a completely over-the-top ice cream sundae named nothing less than “Colorful Poison Parfait Extreme.”  It was killer kawaii and certainly a monster to eat!  I didn’t finish it.

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Jody ordered the special, a new addition to the dessert menu with a much more pedestrian name of “Monster Cupcake.”  It was less-than impressive, covered with what we thought was rather tasteless icing, but which turns out to be sweet potato paste.  Only in Japan.

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In the final analysis, if you are on the fence about what to do in Tokyo, GO TO THIS PLACE.  Weird, campy, but fun, and have I said “cute!” yet?  Hitting this and the Robot Restaurant in the same day is part of a Japanese Trifecta that probably can best be completed by unwinding in a cat café….  Remember, the Kawaii Monster Café not cheap, and the food and drinks are spectacular presented, but this is all about ambiance, and perhaps captures part of the very essence of what makes Japan…so Japanese!

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Oh, and for my birthday girl armed with an active imagination aimed at battling a more mundane reality of the common birthday?  Couldn’t have been better.  Happy Birthday Celebration and blog #2 Jody!  There’s still more to our celebration of Jody’s birthday in Tokyo.  Stay tuned.

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Choppy says “Happy Birthday Kawaii Jody!”

Kawaii Monster Cafe

Open Mondays to Saturdays for Lunch from 1130-1630 (LO 1600), and Dinner from 1800-2230 (LO 2200).  On Sundays and Holidays, the café is open 1100-2000 (LO 1930).  Reservations are NOT taken on weekends and holidays.

Cover:  500JPY / person

Address:  YM square building 4F, 4-31-10, Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo-to

Address (Japanese):  東京都渋谷区神宮前4丁目31‐10 YMスクエアビル4F

Phone:  +81-03-5413-6142

Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto:  Jody’s Birthday at the Robot Restaurant of Tokyo


“An ounce of performance is worth pounds of promises.”  ~Mae West

Jody takes leave every year for her birthday, and this year was no different.  Planning a trip to mainland Japan in celebration, I set our trip’s itinerary to be in Tokyo for her actual birthday after a short stay in Kobe.  I must admit, in hindsight, it’s hard to image a better way to rejoice in such a momentous occasion than a visit to Robot Restaurant, what Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown proclaimed as the “the greatest show on earth!”

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Well, no quite, but perhaps one of the greatest shows in all of Japan….

Street-Side Advertising

Street-Side Advertising

tokyo-2016-robot-rest-arriving-at-the-robot-showtokyo-2016-robot-rest-jody-robot-masterThe Robot Restaurant, or Robot Cafe, is a short walk from Shinjuku metro station.  It should be, however, more accurately branded as a “robot cabaret” because of the music, costumes and dance, although it is TAME by any standard.  While bento boxes can be ordered to eat during the show, I (and almost everyone else) recommend a pass and instead purchase a large popcorn and canned “Strong” alcoholic drinks to satiate you in the short-term.  In other words, eat dinner in any of the nearby plethora of real, non-robotically-staffed restaurants.  Believe it or not, this is one of the most visited entertainment venues in Tokyo – check it out on Trip Advisor to see for yourself!

Free Pictures Outside!

Free Pictures Outside!

tokyo-2016-robot-rest-jody-on-the-way-to-the-showIt’s almost impossible to even begin to describe the show which awaits hundreds of eager visitors and tourists every night in the Shinjuku Kabukicho entertainment district of urban Tokyo.  It’s been said that over 1 BILLION yen has gone into the establishment’s development and design.  And yes, that’s billion with a Capital “B,” equivalent to roughly $10 million USD, no small sum by any stretch of the imagination.  I spare no expense for Jody’s birthday.

Lounge View - I think there is where Liberace's soul resides.

Lounge View – I think there is where Liberace’s soul resides.

tokyo-2016-robot-rest-robot-bouncer-at-the-entranceWhile I may not “buy” the validity of this legendary sum (pun intended), there certainly has been a Liberace-inspired sum spent on floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall décor, the pre-show lounge, costumes for the various and multiple performers, and for, of course, the robots themselves.

Another view of the Lounge

Another view of the Lounge

tokyo-2016-robot-rest-american-military-mighttokyo-2016-robot-rest-costumed-paradeThe show starts in the very corridors of the labyrinth which leads up to the lounge, then down to the basement, then back up to the show’s exit.  Seriously, every square inch of each of the narrow passages is covered with paint, decals, and 3-D models of everything ranging from geckos to heavily armed American army women in patriotic bikinis to skulls pierced with what else but unicorn horns….  And what may not be covered with what only an interior decorator on acid would devise is plastered with LED lights and video screens of every type.  Being herded tightly through these narrow halls is not for the claustrophobic!

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tokyo-2016-robot-rest-waiting-area-3tokyo-2016-robot-rest-pre-show-drinks-and-gaudy-seatingThe lounge is, well, one of the gaudiest places I have ever seen.  Two levels down from the street, it is equivalent to perhaps the absolutely worst cruise ship bar from the 1980s….combined with transformer-inspired overboard robotic lighting and displays from some dystopic future.  The place is decked out with gold swivel chairs shaped like gigantic underwater shells, over-the-top crystal chandeliers, wall-to-wall mirrors with Asian animal motifs of every kind, neon sparkle in every overhead recess, and huge seamless video screens playing snippets of the most ludicrous Japanese video montages that one can conjure.

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In a Word: Creepy

tokyo-2016-robot-rest-crazy-interior-decorationstokyo-2016-robot-rest-evil-chic-and-her-heavily-armed-robotHanging out in the pre-show of the lounge is akin, I would think, to a mild trip on hallucinogenic mescaline.  No doubt it’s even more sensory overload when jet-lagged or new to Japan.  It’s really hard to believe or describe.  I imagine the owners providing a small army of 8-year old girls with unlimited crayons, glue sticks, glitter, bedazzles and all the chocolate and caffeine they could consume and let them loose to go absolutely crazy for 48 hours without sleep!  The overall theme seems to be “metallic & mirrored,” and the palette is from a migraine-inducing neon rainbow, if there was such a thing!  There’s live music played by costumed creatures, while two metallic bikini-clad vocalists were doing their best to sing soft ballads to spectators that should have been decked out in polyester leisure suits….  A drink – one cheap one – comes with your ticket.  It’s a dive-bar, longue-lizard vibe that probably can be created most anywhere…but sustain only in Japan.

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By the way, according to some accounts, one of the largest collections of Westerners in Tokyo can be found nightly at the Robot Show.  Be ready for many more gaijin than locals, but of many different tongues.  The place seems to be MUCH more popular with tourists rather than locals, or even visiting Japanese.

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tokyo-2016-robot-rest-costumed-dancerstokyo-2016-robot-rest-armed-robot-and-evil-princessOnce the show floor is ready for seating, it seems like you go up three or four levels.  Entering a very long and narrow show floor that is much smaller than you expect, visitors are directed to squeeze into assigned but well-designed seating, complete with tabletop and cup holders to safely hold drinks and snacks to enjoy during the show.  Popcorn, booze and other munchies are sold prior to the performance’s start and during interludes in the action.  Oh, and take advantage of the complimentary coat check and lockers at the reception counter located across the street from the show-building itself.  The seating is TIGHT, as is most everything else in Tokyo.

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There is Barley Enough Clearance, Clarence!

The program opens with a huge robot-driven float, topped with bikini-clad troupes of taiko drummers alongside monster-masked characters beating on those iconic traditional Japanese drums.  The robot floats are so large and translate so close to floor-side seating that at times we had to duck to allow various robotic appendages to swing safely over our heads.  The rhythmic music, costumed characters and robotics result in loud, fun-filled, AWESOME sensory overload!

Gigantic Snake Robot Defeating Evil? The Symbology may be Reversed....

Gigantic Snake Robot Defeating Evil? The Symbology may be Reversed….

tokyo-2016-robot-rest-dancer-likes-big-buttstokyo-2016-robot-rest-transformer-inspired-robot-in-the-showAnd then the robots come out to play.  Robots of every kind.  Some shaped like huge curvaceous women.  Others akin to something out of the Transformer movies.  Then there are robotic sharks and snakes that battle robotic dinosaurs and futuristic tanks.  Some are commanded by fearsome masked male creatures, while others are ridden by Japanese women adorned in risqué fishnets and showgirl glitter, all flashing brightly colored LEDs and lasers.  Tron-inspired characters dash about in glowing Tron-like single-wheeled motorized bikes, between robots which seem to groove to the constantly beating drums, while Amazonian war princesses from the future vie for power and control.

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In other words, the show descends quickly into utter insanity of a kind to which only pictures can really testify in any believable fashion.  There is no linear story-line; don’t waste your limited time trying to understand, and instead just shake your head in amazement.

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They Really Should Invest in a Godzilla!

While the wildly-costumed performers scream and dance and pound on drums mere feet away, you become overwhelmed and confused.  Really, there is so much going on, seemingly deconstructed and without continuity that you have to ask yourself:  “what the hell is happening here?!”  It all seems ridiculously hilarious in true Japanese style, but also impressively pointless.  It’s what I would simply call “Tokyo Madness,” and it is deliciously enticing.

Birthday Girl!!

Birthday Girl!!

tokyo-2016-robot-show-jody-birthday-presents-from-the-robot-resturanttokyo-2016-robot-show-jody-birthday-robot-resturant-chips-presentAt one point a nameplate was brought out to mark “special guests,” and one was put directly in front of Jody.  She looked at me and went panicked and pale, I’m sure after instantaneously considering the measurable probability of having to do something “robotic” for her birthday in front of the gathered crowd.  But instead, a call-out was made to the birthdays in the crowd, and robot presents were delivered in a metallically colored gift bag.  Not wanting to miss a beat of the show, and being somewhat suspect (and even scared) of what we would find inside, we saved opening the bag for later.

Mr. Roboto, Tron called and they want their Ideas Back!

Mr. Roboto, Tron called and they want their Ideas Back!

Part sci-fi movie and part campy Saturday matinée creature feature, it is one of the wildest but weirdest live shows I have seen.  Baffling yet entertaining, this onslaught of stimulation overkill can be one of the more outlandish Far East experiences to have while visiting Japan.

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tokyo-2016-robot-rest-jodys-frontrow-seats-for-the-showNear the end of the show, colored flashlights are handed out to turn the already confused, drug-induced performance into something resembling an ecstasy-infused rave.  While you might be a little dazed at first to know what to do, by the end of the cabaret you’ll be waving your colored stick in encouragement for more!

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tokyo-2016-robot-rest-swingin-guitaristIn the end, the show not so much “works” as it is just “awesome,” in a way that just has to been seen to be truly understood.  This sounds like a cop-out, but it is the truth.  The interaction of the show with the audience, the performing robots, the epic battles of good versus evil (still not sure who won), combined with the background fantasy fairyland videos and graphics and how good the popcorn actually is makes this comprehensively awesome.  Even the over-top-top bathrooms lend to the entirety of the show.

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tokyo-2016-robot-rest-drums-and-robotsWhile the tickets weren’t cheap at 6800 yen per person (roughly $65pp), the laughter than Jody and I shared on her birthday due to this show was and will remain priceless.  We will be talking about this incredibly fun evening for quite some time to come.  Remember, however, to correctly enjoy this bizarrely corny show, one has to be relatively lighthearted.  Don’t expect a cohesive story, or story at all.  Just expect the unexpected, accept the premise, and engage your sense of humor!

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It certainly made for an unforgettable birthday celebration for Jody, one of many we had during our latest Far East Fling (stay tuned for more!).

Robot Birthday Presents, Oh My!

Robot Birthday Presents, Oh My!

Happy birthday Jody!  I’m already looking for an Amazonian bikini and taiko drum for you for Christmas for use in the production of my very own birthday cabaret in January!  You can use Roomba as your robot….

Show Closing....I Think....

Show Closing….I Think….

Shukubo: Sacred Stay atop Mt. Koyasan


“The temple bell stops but I still hear the sound coming out of the flowers.”  ~Matsuo Basho, 17th century Japanese philosopher and poet

Entering Through Our Temple's Gate

Entering Through Our Temple’s Gate

“Here is our drink menu,” our apprentice monk says as he prepares one of our suite’s tatami rooms for our first vegetarian shojin ryori (vegetarian) dinner.  Picking out a nice white Riesling, Jody and I are quite surprised since we are sitting in the middle of a practicing Buddhist temple atop Mount Koyasan, one of Buddhism’s most sacred sites in all of Japan.  In fact, it is the very place where Buddhism took hold many centuries ago in this island nation.  The monks here, in progressive and pragmatic fashion, simply don’s take offense at the idea of alcohol.  After all, as they say, they are not the ones partaking!  And like I say, “what would Jesus drink,” right?  Many sects of Buddhism in Japan are not anything like your Mamma’s Southern Baptist Church, Catholic Cathedral, or Jewish Synagogue.  And that’s exactly why this temple will serve as our luxury hotel accommodations for the next three nights.

Quiet and Peaceful Accommodations

Quiet and Peaceful Accommodations

28253113885_da4d5c10c8_bShukubo is a type of accommodation in Japan that is actually part of a working Japanese temple or shrine.  But it’s really so much more than that.  Shukubo is about capturing the tranquility and the beauty of Japan, which in large part emanates from that country’s legendary spiritual culture and zen-like harmony.  A temple stay can help calm your body and mind, where Japanese rock garden can be peacefully and privately contemplated, and where healthy yet extravagant vegetarian dishes are served privately in your room by resident monks.

Corner Suite, Sun-lit Passages, Garden View

Corner Suite, Sun-lit Passages, Garden View

28149079872_44610a4d08_bHistorically, this type of lodging was offered only for worshippers, especially those on pilgrimage.  Today however the clientele have expanded and the temples and shrines have become well-accustomed to foreigners of all flavors.  Koyasan is perhaps one of the best places in Japan to experience a night at a temple, with something in excess of 50 of the 117 temples found there serving as shukubo.  But be careful though; the accommodations run the gamut from in expensive hostel-like digs to high-end ryokan (see Live Fishbowl Prime:  Gourmet Food at a Japanese Ryokan for more), and the staff there may not be proficient in your language, or even English.  Reservations can be made online if you are careful; the typical cost for a stay starts at around $100, although there are cheaper and MUCH more expensive rates.  Those with private bathroom facilities, which only a few offer, can climb up in excess of $300 a night, with luxury accommodations costing even more.  Note that like for the rest of Japan, these rates are quoted “per person, per night.”  Most stays include dinner and breakfast, some served privately while others serving family style in a common area.  Many accept credit card, although be sure to check as some still operate on a cash-only basis, although this is becoming more and more rare in Japan.

Warm and Comfy Private Facilities

Warm and Comfy Private Facilities

The wooden temple structures, sparse décor, and tatami covered rooms all promote a warmth of form and function which focuses your energy not on things, but on the moment.  The courtyard gardens of sand, rock and foliage, viewed from the rooms’ long, narrow corridors, dictate the essence of a deep spiritual harmony with nature.  And the floor-centric culture found throughout Japan literally grounds one with Mother Earth, resulting in a renewed perspective and one of the most fabulous nights of sleep, EVER.

Futons on Tatami are Incredibly Comfortable!

Futons on Tatami are Incredibly Comfortable!

28253136925_eacb41890e_bTemple lodgings typically offer private, traditional Japanese style rooms with tatami floors, paper-covered sliding doors (fusuma) and shared or communal toilets and sinks.  There actually are very few temple stays in Koyasan that offer en suite washrooms.  Thick futons and rice or pellet-filled pillows are spread on the tatami floor in the evening after dinner, repurposing the room’s dining and living room into your bedroom for the night.  There is sparse furniture, if any.  Some shukubo have typical Japanese air conditioning and heat provided in each room by remote control; other more basic accommodations utilize gas heaters in cooler weather and offer no cooling other than a portable dehumidifier during other seasons.

Living and Dining Area

Living and Dining Area

28253131585_92b4003563_bThe temple we selected (“Sojiin,” booked through Booking.com) went far beyond these average standards, and instead offered facilities more aligned with nicer ryokans, complete with private a private washroom, soaking tub, and lavishly prepared and presented meals in our suite that probably approached the size of smaller houses in Japan.  The Japanese measure rooms by the number of tatami mats, and our living/dining room was 12, and our bedroom area was 8.  Since we had a corner suite with long corridors on two sides overlooking the gardens, add another 16.  Then there was our closet/kitchenette area, separate toilet, sink basin, and washroom (waterproof room with shower and soaking tub), say another 4 mats.  Converting 34 mats into square feet returns a value of roughly 700!

Jody Enjoying our Temple's Zen Garden from our Suite

Jody Enjoying our Temple’s Zen Garden from our Suite

28253133865_57d70b9bc8_bJapanese Buddhist temples serve a kind of vegetarian cuisine called shojin ryori.  This is a cuisine completely free of fish, meat, and many of the stronger spices, like garlic or certain onions.  Our monk explained it all this way:  true Buddhists do not eat any animal or animal product from life that is sentient – the ability to feel or perceive and respond to sensations of any kind.  Monks, however, can eat meats and fish if offered to them.  At shukubo, many small delicately prepared and visually stunning dishes served over a number of courses that span sometimes well over an hour, and are thought to be the very origin of Japanese food which has become so popular.  Prepared by the right chef, the meals can be quite delicious, but certainly are different for most Westerners.

Meals Served Privately over 90 Minutes and Many Courses!

Meals Served Privately over 90 Minutes and Many Courses!

Since Shukubo accommodations are an integral part of working temples and shrines, guests are usually required to follow a certain decorum, or even some house rules.  While some have curfew hours (usually around 0600-2200), others do not.  But they all will have quiet hours, and respect is required at all times throughout the complex.  However, since ancient times, Buddhist Temples and to a lesser extent Shinto Shrines have been accepting of many peoples while offering little or no judgment.  Regardless of your country of origin or religion of choice, as long as you can respect the religion of others, you remain welcomed at shukubo.

Kevin and an Early Dinner

Kevin and an Early Dinner

27972082880_40392c3e9f_bGuests are also invited to participate in morning prayers, which typically begin promptly at 6:00am.  Go at least once to soak in the timeless traditions of esoteric Buddhism of harmonic chanting, rhythmic gongs, and the thick fragrance of incense permeating the air.  The ceremonies last about 30-45 minutes and are followed by breakfast around thirty minutes later.  During your stay, ask for a formal tour of the temple grounds:  each temple has its own unique cultural treasures, painted screens and Zen garden that the staff will happily share with you.

Suite's Sitting Area

Suite’s Sitting Area

28149071702_f7d029f616_bThen there is zazen.  Not every shukubo offers a zazen experience, but it’s worthwhile to find one which does (see Temple Transcendence:  Zen Meditation in Kyoto for our experience).  Sitting still, eyes closed, attempting to empty your mind in phase with the mesmerizing chants, you can begin to feel that the very essence of time slows and moves around you rather than through you as it so harshly does in our normally overly hectic lives.  Zazen provides much-needed escape, a way to break from the inertia of everyday life, stilling forces which normally compel frenzied thought and chaotic motion throughout the day.  In fact, after just fifteen or thirty minutes of focused, controlled breathing, a measure of tranquility can be felt.  It is said that the more demanding a person’s life is or the more cluttered someone’s mind may be, the more relief which may be realized.  Take this opportunity to refresh and revitalize yourself!

Vegetarian Meals

Vegetarian Meals

But why so many shukubo here in Koyasan?  The mountain top serves sometimes as the beginning, but almost always the end of an important pilgrimage for spiritual Japanese (see Mt. Koya:  A Pilgrimage of “Eat, Pray, Bathe” for more).  And all those pilgrims need places to stay and eat during their spiritual quests.  Further, more and more tourists flock to this area of Japan just a short train ride outside of Osaka since it has been added to the UNESCO World Heritage List, in large part due to the important and expansive temples and famous cemetery located here, along with ancient cedar forests, historic gates, local restaurants, quaint cafes and of course discount souvenir shops.

Gates Closed at 2200

Gates Closed at 2200

With a town population of only about 3,000, Koyasan stands at the very genesis of Shingon Buddhism, a Chinese-influenced esoteric philosophical interpretation of Buddha introduced to Japan in the year 805 by a man named Kobo Daishi, one of Japan’s most revered religious figures, who’s mausoleum is also found here.  Kongobuji Temple in the town serves as the headquarters for this sect, which has more than 4,000 temples and missions throughout the world.

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The foot of Mt. Koyasan can easily be reached by train from Osaka station or Kansai airport with one switch.  Your fare will include a final funicular ride up the steep mountainside (the Japanese refer to this mode of travel as “cable car”), where a bus can be taken to the stop nearest your shukubo.

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And be sure to clink together a couple of glasses of wine during your stay; the monks will happily oblige, and besides, what would Jesus drink, right?

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Mt. Koya:  A Pilgrimage of “Eat, Pray, Bathe”


“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” ~Lao Tzu, ancient Chinese philosopher

Pilgrim on their Journey

Pilgrim on their Journey

Jody and I have only just arrived at Koyasan atop Mount Koya and we already feel like we’ve cheated on the pilgrimage…that we knew so little about.  It’s not long before we spot Japanese pilgrims dressed in mostly white, sporting walking sticks and topped with conical hats….  Although it’s much more common for a non-believing tourist to make the journey to this mountain retreat temple complex, the truly faithful pilgrims are still a source of great inspiration.  And 2016, the 1,200th anniversary of monastic settlement in the area, has increased numbers of both tourists and pilgrims alike.

First settled in 816 by the monk Kukai as a retreat far away from the more less faithful courtly intrigues of Kyoto (then Japan’s capital and center of power), Mt. Koya is located some 2,500 feet up in the mountains amid eight surrounding peaks.  The original quaint monastery complex has grown over the last millennial into the modern but still old-world religious town of Koya, featuring a university dedicated to religious studies and over 100 temples, many of which offer lodging to pilgrims and visitors alike.  In 2004, Mt. Koya and the surrounding area was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Scenic Temples

Scenic Temples

The revered monk and scholar Kukai, now better known by his posthumous formal title Kobo Daishi, brought the tantric teachings of Esoteric Buddhism from China and developing it into the uniquely Japanese Shingon sect, and in the process founded the sect’s headquarters on Mount Koya.

While most modern-day pilgrims, upwards of some 100,000 annually, travel by tour-bus, a small minority still set out the old-fashioned way on foot.  This journey of ~725 miles linking 88 temples is a favorite of pilgrims, known as o-henro-san (formally).  Henro can be spotted in the temples and along roadsides and throughout the trails of the pilgrimage clad in a white jacket emblazoned with the characters Dogyo Ninin, meaning “two traveling together,” as all pilgrims travel with the spirit of Kobo Daishi.

Contemplation

Contemplation

While I refuse to associate with any given religion (I can’t speak for Jody), I find that Buddhism is, by in large, one of the most accepting, open, and non-judgmental of the major organized religions of the world.  However, quite irrespective of a specific faith or denomination, I find the idea of a cleansing journey of catharsis very intriguing.  And apparently so do many others, all around the world.

The “88 Temple Pilgrimage” (hachijuhakkasho-meguri) is Japan’s most famous pilgrimage, one that loops around the island of Shikoku.  Completing the course traditionally on foot is a serious undertaking that demands several weeks up to many months of rather strenuous travel.  Good physical fitness and stamina – and more than a little faith – are required to endure the stress of constant walking over the uneven terrain of Shikoku, in every type of weather.

Larger-than-Life Staffs

Larger-than-Life Kongozue!

Many pilgrims choose to dress in traditional attire, which can include a byakue (pilgrims’ white coat), wagesa (scarf-like accoutrement worn around the neck, usually purple, indicating a religious pilgrimage), sugegasa (iconic Asian conical straw hat), and kongotsue (uniquely pilgrimage-specific walking stick, also spelled as kongo-zue).  In addition, most pilgrims carry a book called nokyocho or shuincho where red ink stamps called shu-in are collected as each temple is visited.  All of these items can be purchased at Mount Koya or at Ryozenji, traditionally the first temples of the trek.

Pilgrims' Staffs

Pilgrims’ Staffs

The Brocade Cover We Selected

The Brocade Cover We Selected

Jody and I wanted a meaningful souvenir of our spiritual visit to and temple stay within Koya, and the wooden staffs pilgrims were spied walking with caught our eye, and imagination.  The kongo-zue or kongo-jo is the wooden staff carried by henro (“pilgrim,” informal) on the Shikoku Pilgrimage in Japan, and is full of symbolism.  It is said to represent the body of Kukai/Kobo Daishi, who metaphorically and physically supports the henro along the way.  In this sense, it is to be treated with great reverence and respect, having its “foot” washed at the end of the day’s journey, and brought inside to rest for the night.  They are inscribed with the chant Namu-Daishi-Henjo-Kongo and Dogyo-Ninin:  “We Two Pilgrims Together.”  The staff is also traditionally carried aloft when crossing a bridge; Kobo Daishi was known to sleep under bridges, and pilgrims should take care to not disturb his sleeping spirit found in such locales even today.  A bell is usually affixed, which jingles during the journey to warn and avoid accidental harm of other sentient living beings, a critical element of the more orthodox Buddhists.  Further, the bell also acts as an o-mamori, or protective amulet, to help safeguard the pilgrim while on their path.  Many pilgrims use a colorfully designer brocade cover to protect the top of the staff, but this doesn’t seem to be obligatory.

Jody on a Pilgrim's Trail

Jody on a Pilgrim’s Trail

Our Rosary / Prayer Beads

Our Rosary / Prayer Beads

Nenju, also called juzu, are the Buddhist version of prayer beads (rosaries), found in so many religions.  A standard nenju has 108 beads, one for each of the “afflicting passions” that Buddhists recognize.  The number is determined based on our six senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch and mind/conceptualization), our six reactions (desirable, undesirable, neither, painful, pleasurable, neither), and the temporal aspect of those reactions (past, present or future).  In other words, 6 x 6 x 3 = 108.  These “afflictions” are what bind humans to Samsara, the world of suffering.  Other larger beads may be present (“parent beads), but this are not counted as above, and beads are also used to assist in counting recitations of various mantras.  Many different styles of nenju can be found, from round to flat beads, some topped with metal rings and others without, while still others are adorned with decorative tassels.  When traveling, the nenju should always be held in one’s left hand, which symbolizes Samsara, while the right hand represents Nirvana.  It is only through handling the nenju that these two worlds come together into “Oneness.”

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Prayers near a Daishi Hall

Jody and I had made up our minds.  Being adamantly rebuked after trying to get pilgrimage stamps affixed in our own booklets, we started to look to put together our own kongo-zue.

Wooden Grave Tablets

Wooden Grave Tablets

Stupa Top with Elemental Divisions

Our Staff’s Stupa Top with Elemental Divisions

Sometimes extensive calligraphy can found on the staff.  The top usually has four sets of notches, dividing it into five sections. Each section has a character, and from the top to bottom, they represent Ka or khah (space), Ra or Rah (air), Ha or Hah (fire), Va or Vah (water), and A or Ah (earth).  In this way the kongotsue symbolizes a Buddhist stupa, originally a reliquary for housing a relic of the Buddha or other revered monk/teacher.  These stupas form the basis of the Japanese pagoda.  Pagodas in Japan have taken the form of five-storied structures, each story representing the same elements as scribed on the walking staffs.  There are the elements to which the body returns upon death.  Considering the staff as a representative pagoda, combined with its pyramidal top, also represents a sotoba, or wooden grave tablet.  In this function, the kongo-zue was historically used as a gravestone if a pilgrim were to die upon the trail.  In fact, some pilgrims still write their kaimyo, their posthumous name by which they will be known in the next realm after death, just as it would be on an actual gravestone.

Cemetery Path Leading to the Daishi Hall

Cemetery Path Leading to the Daishi Hall

We found a shop in Koyasan, not far from Okunoin, the famous cemetery found there.  The staffs themselves were all very similar, but there was a huge array of accessories that made choosing very difficult.  Prayer beads of every sort, brocade covers, and decorative tassels.  In another store we found just the perfect bell to adorn our walking staff.

Our Staff

Our Staff

Written in the middle area of the staff are passages from the Gohogo Mantra, whos central message is roughly, “Homage to the Savior Daishi, the Illuminating and Imperishable One.”  This Mantra is chanted by pilgrims three times in front of the Daishi Halls found at each temple visited during their journey.

Jody at Koya's Main Gate, a landmark for Pilgrimage Beginning or End

Jody at Koya’s Main Gate, a landmark for Pilgrimage Beginning or End

Most pilgrims leave their kongo-zue at Okubo-ji, the 88th and final temple of the pilgrimage.  Interestingly, a funerary practice can still be found in Shikoku and some other parts of Japan whereby the decedent is dressed as a pilgrim (unlike the West, in Asian white is the color of death), complete with a staff and pilgrim’s stamp book, preparing them for their final journey.  Finally, there are two different colored staffs.  Novice pilgrims use bare wooden ones, while those experienced who serve as leaders or guides utilize scarlet-colored staffs denoting their elevated status.

Buddhist Texts on the Staff

Buddhist Texts on the Staff

And even when you reach the 88th temple, you’re still not technically finished!  The formal trek requires a return back to your 1st temple starting point.  Many select Mount Koya, the site of Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum, for the end and beginning, where thanks can be given directly to the monk for his spiritual companionship along the way.  The journey is a rather lengthy and difficult ordeal for those who attempt it, but then again, that’s rather the point.

The mountain is accessible primarily by the Nankai Electric Railway from Namba Station in Osaka, which connects to Gokurakubashi at the base of the mountain, with journey times of 80-90 minutes.  The final half of the trip is a slow twisting train climb up into the heavily wooded mountains and can be beautifully scenic in the right weather.  The train fare includes the final and steep 10 minute funicular train ascent from Gokurakubashi to the town of Koyasan.  Once off the funicular you’ll have to take a short bus or taxi ride into town.  Like elsewhere throughout Japan, the train, funicular and bus schedules are all synchronized like clockwork, with very little time to spare.  We barely had even five minutes between train, cable car, and bus.

Funicular Connection Train Service to Koyasan's Bus Terminal

Funicular Connection Train Service to Koyasan’s Bus Terminal

A good value if planning a visit is to purchase the Koyasan World Heritage Ticket available from any Nankai ticket counter.  This ticket includes roundtrip train, funicular, and an all-day Koyasan bus pass, for either a day-trip, or overnight stay, and also includes coupons and discounts to the area’s most popular destinations.

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Most pilgrims ending their journey at Mount Koya would claim they do so in order to give thanks for a successful pilgrimage.  While Jody and I visited for very different reasons and with knowing very little of the sacredness of the area, I think we ended our own little journey still as a culmination of something much bigger.  Koyasan spoke to our souls, and we to this day proudly and respectfully display our kongo-zue in our home.

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“Faith is not the clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart.”  ~Abraham Joshua Heschel, Polish-born American Rabbi

Water Safety Stand-Down, or Punitive Stand Around??


“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation.  We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly.  We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”  ~Aristotle

Okinawa, as well as the wider Pacific basin (Korea, Japan and Hawaii, in terms of the Marine Corps at least), is going through a temporary ban/prohibition on recreational water activities.  Due in part to the drowning deaths of two Marines this past weekend, but certainly exacerbated by other deaths and numerous serious permanent injuries from earlier in the year.  The Commanding General here in Okinawa says it isn’t punitive – but it is.  And the stand-down is supposed to be about “resetting” the force to help improve water safety so that we all can better and more safely enjoy the water sports for which Okinawa is famous…which it doesn’t.

Don’t get me wrong:  these deaths are tragic, and tragically preventable.  I am not belittling any person’s life, nor calling into question that something needs to be done to help keep similar mishaps like these from happening in the future.  But hey Navy-Marine Corps Team:  you’re doing it wrong.

Here’s what happens when the military powers-that-be on Okinawa ban or prohibit some activity because there is an issue.  First, the literally tens of thousands of people that enjoy the waters around Okinawa on a weekly, and for some, almost daily basis, are marginalized, ignored, and otherwise lumped en mass with the few who are cause for concern.  There is NO DOUBT that preventable deaths are a sad, unnecessary and tragic occurrence.  But for the common Marine, Airman, Soldier or Airman, to take away their access to the water though no fault of their own is, well, punitive.  All it takes is a scan of the Facebook comments to see evidence of this conclusion firsthand.  In fact, the people that actually are doing everything RIGHT – the vast number of people affected by this order I argue -are lumped into the masses, and made to suffer some attempt at remediation.  We will get to how badly that remediation is being implemented in this case down below.

Second, subordinate commands can jerk the chain even further.  For instance, for MCCS Scuba Programs, even pool events/training were placed off-limits during this stand-down, with the explicit threat of immediate termination if a student was allowed to enter the water, any water, for any reason.  Are pools really the issue?  Are people getting hurt in the pools?  Are we worried about the safety of pools or the events that take place there?  Some people on this island have to make special arrangements to take a scuba diving class.  Some take leave.  Others have to clear duty schedules.  Still others have to coordinate work releases and/or baby-sitting.  Canceling the ability to train, specifically in a setting where a real difference can/could be made considering the subject and intent of the stand-down, is, well, punitive to some and counterproductive to most.

Further, MCCS Scuba was required to do an immediate 100% accountability recall of rental gear, a requirement expressed to staff and contractors with some sense of urgency.  The fact was made very clear that the shops were required to account for every single regulator and buoyancy control device.  Was this the Commander’s intent?  Whose “good idea” was this?  I’ve read the Commander’s intent, and nowhere is this type of reaction warranted, or required by any sort of evidence-based practice.  Are we really that worried about people sneaking off to go scuba diving?  If so, what about all those people with their own tanks and gear….

Then there’s the stand-down “training.”  It is, of course, a PowerPoint.  And of course it was created in mere hours, based on existing (and lame) water safety products already readily available.  If you haven’t reviewed this training brief, please do so now.  Actually, although I have the brief, it is classified “For Official Use Only,” and while not a “real” classification, it would be in very bad form to place it in this public domain.  So, my apologies, but you won’t be able to see what all of Okinawa will be forced to view.  This particular briefing is one which is being promulgated on the “Green Side” (US Marine Corps), and it simply and completely misses the mark.  In retrospect, I’m actually happy you the reader won’t view the training – saves me the embarrassment.

So, let’s cut to the chase…and get right to the point.

Preventing these fatalities and other water-related mishaps are NOT a matter of sitting through yet another poorly conceived and even more poorly constructed PowerPoint briefing, delivered poorly by someone lacking the requisite knowledge and expertise to speak intelligently about the very real and very serious issues at hand.  IT IS A MATTER OF CHANGING THE CULTURE OF WATER RECREATION SAFETY ON OKINAWA.

I’m not saying that a safety stand-down is unwarranted or inappropriate.  Quite the opposite; we used them effectively in Naval Aviation when I was a flier.  What I am saying is that in the modern age of intrusive military leadership, documented training in a CYA-mode along with additional layers of micromanagement and oversight, such unfocused and irrelevant “training” is counterproductive.  Judgment is an exceedingly hard thing to just “train” into people.  Paradigm and cultural shifts take a level of effort orders of magnitude beyond more GMT (general military training).

The training provided, from an examination of its content, focuses primarily on THREE things:  Okinawa “Sea Conditions,” dangerous marine life, and rip currents.  That’s right – little about experience, almost nothing about wearing of personal flotation, no push for training and certification (not just for divers, but snorkelers as well), and finally, almost nothing on how to mitigate and handle growing anxiety and near-panic in the water….

Having been a diver on Okinawa now for over seven years, and being a PADI Professional for about six of those years (and a diver for 25), I can tell you that I have only heard of (but cannot confirm) one American fatality from dangerous marine life, and that was due to anaphylactic shock from a sea wasp sting, and not from drowning (I believed this occurred on/about 1999).  This brief would have you believe that Moray eels and even Barracuda are out for blood.  Fully seven of the brief’s 30 slides – ¼ of the brief when you take out the intro and ending slides – are dedicated to marine life, which to my knowledge, have absolutely nothing to do with serious water-related injuries or fatalities this year…or in the last three.  Talk about detractors???  Again, what is causing the water-related deaths and injuries on Okinawa?  What are the chains in these mishaps that we can keep from being broken??  MOST CERTAINLY NOT DANGEROUS MARINE LIFE.  Oh, and marine life is only potentially  dangerous, mind you….

Second, there seems to be a concentration of content on rip currents (8 of 30 slides).  I’m not sure the genesis of this focus.  If there was/were rip currents involved in recent fatalities, THEN SAY SO.  I, for one, find this hard to believe, although it cannot be ruled out.  Again, being an experienced diver on Okinawa, with something like 1,000 dives throughout the island, I have found VERY FEW true rip currents here.  And even those, like ones at the “old” Onna Point, Sunny’s Sunabe, Water Treatment, and Hedo Point are dependent on tide phase and change, along with various aspects of sea state (wave height, direction and period).  Training people on what to do if caught in a rip current is not a bad thing, and in Southern California or parts of Florida, a necessary thing.  However, are the photos of the purported rips in the brief even from Okinawa???  Remember, undertow and surge are NORMAL aspects of increased surf, and should not be confused with rip currents….

Finally, the long, verbatim discussion on Sea Conditions (4 of 30 slides, extremely wordy) begs people to yawn and check Facebook on their cell phones.  Let’s be honest:  there is a rampant lack of respect for Okinawa’s Sea Condition, the people who set it, and the criteria that it’s based on.  I cannot even begin to numerate how many times the meteorologists have jumped the shark when it comes to actual water conditions versus published condition.  It is a common joke across the island.  Sometimes they under-report how bad things really are; other and maybe more often, they over-restrict access to the water when completely unwarranted.  I feel so strongly about how ineffectual Sea Condition is that it has its own dedicated blog; see Surf Nazis Must Die!  Keep in mind that most mishaps happen when in “all clear” or “caution,” sea conditions that do not preclude any in-water activity.

Where is this discussion in this training on the absolute necessity of personal flotation, not just when scuba diving, but when snorkeling, especially in water too deep to stand, REGARDLESS OF SEA CONDITION?  Where is the emphasis on gaining proper experience?  But that in and of itself still isn’t enough:  where is the much needed discussion on MAINTAINING PROFICIENCY??  Having insider information on recent events on Okinawa, I can tell you with a high degree of certainty that lack of PFDs combined with inexperience and lack of proficiency were direct contributors to very unfavorable outcomes….

Where is the discussion in this training on whether the mishap persons in question inflated their flotation or not (if they were even wearing any)?  Was gear in place – mask and snorkel?  Where regulators used during questionable surf entries/exits?  Did the mishap scuba diver inflate their BCDs?  Did the mishap scuba diver drop weights?  Did those attempting a rescue ensure positive buoyancy for the victim and themselves?  Did rescuers drop the mishap scuba-diver’s weights?  Was emergency oxygen available and utilized?  These are all critical elements which could (but not necessarily so), improve the chances for a more favorable outcome.

Where is the discussion in this training that it’s not enough to have the appropriate gear, but to wear and use that gear?  When encountering any questionable surf on entry or exit, mask must be on and reserve air in the scuba cylinder should be utilized by using the kit’s regulator.  Further, how many divers really understand that in moderate-to-heavy surf on scuba that at times it is much better to DEFLATE completely to keep surge from throwing divers about?

Where is the discussion in this training on how important it is to calm yourself the moment you begin to feel anxiety in the water?  About being familiar and experienced enough with your gear (assuming you are wearing it) to utilize it when it is absolutely necessary?  Panic is a killer in the water, even at the surface, and as far as I can tell, these last three fatalities all happened at the surface, and were almost certainly preceded by full-blown panic.

Then there are the training’s misguided “Takeaways.”  From the brief one would assume that rip currents and dangerous marine life would be highlighted.  But they aren’t.  Instead, one takeaway incorrectly says to “go with your instincts”!  Instinctively people will go into water which they are not prepared for!!!  Only training and experience can overcome “instinct.”  Another points out that alcohol and water activities don’t mix:  IS THERE SOMETHING WE SHOULD KNOW HERE??  Or, is this just yet another plug to “not drink and [fill in the blank]….”  Yet another take-away is adherence to the buddy rule, always a great idea, but did a loose interpretation of the buddy team concept result in or contribute to one of these mishaps???  These are the things that we all need to know.  In the brief’s defense, it does on the final slide talk about training and equipment, but only in summary.

What are my takeaways, and what would I tell people if I had an audience, or were even invited to have input in water-safety training?  I would say this:

  • There is absolutely no substitute for comprehensive, quality training, for boating, personal watercraft, snorkel, scuba, and swim.
  • Training & Experience win over instinct every time.
  • There is absolutely no reason to disregard required equipment.
  • There is absolutely a need to build personal first-hand experience, both in numbers (repeated exposure) and over time (exposure to a wide variety of environments/conditions).
  • There is absolutely a need to maintain proficiency; swim, snorkel and scuba skills are perishable, especially for novices experiencing a long lay-off.
  • Emergency Procedures must be practiced in order for them to be effective, especially with new and/or unfamiliar dive buddies.
  • The “10 Second Rule” is not enough: waves come in trains, and ten second is not long enough to properly assess a situation.  A decision NOT TO DIVE can be concluded within 10 seconds.  However, if after 10 seconds the conditions seem okay, continue to monitor the site for a FULL MINUTE.  Only then can wave trains be properly accounted for, along with wave period and extent of surge.
  • Utilize all gear when in moderate-to-high surf, which includes keeping masks on, and having a mouthpiece in mouths (preferably a regulator/air source).
  • The moment increased anxiety is felt, STOP & BREATH; focus and get control of your breathing before thinking about necessary actions. Loss of breath control contributes quickly to panic and water aspiration, a combination that is deadly.
  • There is absolutely a need to change the culture of assumed personal invincibility over the oceans to one of exercised personal responsibility for your own safety – your safety is your responsibility, yours and yours alone.

Finally, in order to change the culture of water safety in Okinawa, it’s going to take engagement with all those that have the most impact and the most visibility:  swim coaches and instructors, snorkel and scuba instructors and store staffs, and even boat/watercraft renters and operators.  From my standpoint, and here I believe I may speak for many, there is almost zero engagement with the wider community of professionals, who all stand willing, able and ready to help make a change.  Outside of a few select individuals from a couple of the military dive shops, the community of professional divers is largely unleveraged in this regard.

What can be systemically done?  Push for additional training.  One way would be subsidies to bring the cost of relevant training down, training which could/may include snorkel/skin diver certifications through the dive shops, Advanced Open Water dive training, and even Rescue dive training.  Another business model could use additional revenue generated from a price increase for entry-level dive programs that would be used to offset these other courses.  Currently, only 7% of my annual certifications are for Rescue.

For me, personally, the best I can do at this point is through each and every class that I instruct, and each and every dive that I lead or attend.  I have, in the last year, added buoyancy and mask skills to every single class, and in the last months, have added an increased emphasis on sea state/ dive site evaluation and entry & exit safety.  Because, based on my own root cause analysis of mishaps (albeit based on very little and all unofficial information since little is shared with the wider community), these elements are exactly that critical.

Until there is a more reasonable, grounded and holistic approach to improving water safety, by engaging all stakeholders and customers alike, we will seldom make progress given the status quo of punitive restrictions and yet another ineffectual PowerPoint briefing.  “Are we done yet,” I hear you say as you yawn and put down your cell.  Yes, yes we are.  Now hopefully you can be done standing around and finally go back in the water.