A “JAW-some Valentine’s:” Diving with Hammerheads at Yonaguni


“We provoke a shark every time we enter the water where sharks happen to be, for we forget: The Ocean is not our territory – it’s theirs.” ~ Peter Benchley

“We should be afraid of sharks half as much as sharks should be afraid of us.” ~ Peter Benchley

Yonaguni Japan 2015, Jawsome Valentine

Life is Like a Box of Chocolates….

“Valentine, you’re JAW-SOME!”

So read the cover of the box of chocolates that Jody hauled all the way down to Yonaguni Island…. Deciding to spend the long lovers’ weekend to dive specifically with migrating hammerhead sharks in the waters around the extreme southwestern Japanese islands, this was indeed the perfect valentine gift. A picture was immediately posted on Facebook, and “JAW-SOME” became the catch-phrase of the trip to describe our dives with such wondrous apex predators of the mysterious deep.

Yonaguni - more Chinese than Japan!

Yonaguni – more Chinese than Japan!

Yonaguni Japan 2015, arriving in YonaguniYonaguni Japan 2015, Scuba Diving, unpacking at our hotel - test shot with the underwater cameraYonaguni (与那国島, sometimes Yunaguni) is one of the Yaeyama Islands, famous for being the westernmost inhabited island of Japan. Located only a mere 67 miles from Taiwan, that island-nation and general thorn in China’s side is visible from this part of Japan on a Chinese-pollution-free day (see Smoke Gets in Your Eyes for more on Japan’s smoggy skies). Yonaguni is exceedingly popular with divers exactly because of the large numbers of hammerhead sharks that school there during winter. February and March are said to offer the best times to swim with the sharks, often times schooling in numbers verging on the uncountable. Not only are the sharks present daily during this period, most of the shark dive sites are located just minutes from port, situated over steep cliff-like underwater drop-offs, allowing for great visibility, big pelagics, and strong currents in which to cruise.

This is what we all dreamed of!

This is what we all dreamed of!

Dives one and two (of eight total) during our 4 night stay were on the Yonaguni Monument – more on that is an upcoming blog. The next six dives over three consecutive days were all about stopping…because…(wait for it)…it was Hammer Time! Or they involved shark hunting. The kind where the only shots taken are with cameras and the only stuffing was of our large western bodies into Asian-sized souvenir t-shirts!

Our Dive Site, Affectionately nicknamed "Shark Point"

Our Dive Site, Affectionately nicknamed “Shark Point”

The weather was beautiful for diving, almost couldn’t have been better. A rainless weekend with temperatures actually reaching up into the 70s, we were all surprised that even the seas around Yonaguni were about five degrees warmer than the cold winter waters of Okinawa this time of year. Although the winds shifted and started to blow and its fetch raised a healthy sea, it was only bad enough to cause one case of sea-sickness in our group of eleven divers.

A Money-Shot from our Dives!

A Money-Shot from our Dives!

The hammerheads of Japan’s southern seas are of the “scalloped” variety Sphyrna lewini, part of the family Sphyrnidae. Not surprisingly, the Greek sphyrna translates as “hammer”. The most obvious feature of this shark, as in all the other kinds of hammerheads, is the “hammer” shape of their head. Although smaller than the Great and Smooth hammerhead species, scalloped hammers are fairly large at around 14 feet and well over 300 pounds, and is the most common of all hammerheads, consisting of nine species total.

Shark Hunting:  Drifting in the Strong Currents, Mid-Water at ~60'

Shark Hunting: Drifting in the Strong Currents, Mid-Water at ~60′

Me Chillin' in the Drift

Me Chillin’ in the Drift

Hammer Hunts dives 1 and 2 were almost identical disappointing repeats of each other. Taking a left out the port and heading southeast, we dropped in just about ½ mile offshore in water so deep that the bottom often couldn’t be seen even at 80’ but which ripped by at what we estimate as 8-10 knots. We all would corral into a loose group at 30’ with the Divemaster, then head down to 60’ to drift and wait. And wait and wait we did, for the next 30 minutes each time. At that point “time” was called by our Japanese divemaster, making a “T” with his hands. We slowly ascended up to our safety stops, and then surfaced together to await pickup by the dive boat, quickly backing down on our group bobbing in the 2-4 foot seas.

The Scramble for the Boat Begins

The Scramble for the Boat Begins

“Okay! Go to the boat. Go! GO! GOOOOO!” the divemaster pleaded with us as both we the divers and the boat captain fought the ripping current. Once aboard we all agreed: yes, there were shadowy sightings here and there by some members of the group, but no real confirmed sightings of anything concrete and in the numbers all of us expected.

Find the Shark Shadow

Find the Shark Shadow

Yonaguni Japan 2015, Scuba Diving, Jody suiting up for our dives 2The scalloped hammerhead primarily lives in warm temperate and tropical coastal waters, down to a depths exceeding 1,500 feet. These sharks have a very high metabolic rate, which governs much of their behavior. Hammerheads feed on cephalopods, such as squid and octopus, and fish such as sardines, mackerel and herring. Larger sharks also feed on smaller sharks, such as smaller reef sharks. During the day they are more often found close to shore, but at night they become solitary hunters moving further offshore and into deeper waters.

On Yet Another Shark Hunt

On Yet Another Shark Hunt

For shark hunts 3 and 4 we all were getting more eager (and maybe less patient) to see sharks. Some of our group met some Japanese ladies who, the previous day, had dropped into a huge group of schooling hammerheads! And this very morning another group with our dive charter spotted 5 swimming together. Our chances had improved. Or so we thought.

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Our Selfie, Underwater!

Our Selfie, Underwater!

While these sharks can pose a danger to humans (Scallops are one of three hammers that have bitten humans), they are not normally considered aggressive. But that’s not what we’ll tell all our friends! Nor is that what most people will think regardless of any bizarre statistic illuminating the chances of a shark attack that you may choose to quote. Like my personal favorite: a person stands more of a chance of dying from falling coconuts than he or she does of a shark bite…. It’s true; check it out! Hammerheads, if confronted or provoked, respond by dropping their pectoral fins and swimming with stiff, jerking motions – a clear warning that a diver should retreat or seek shelter.

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“OHHHH-kay, ev-re one! Red-EEE?” our Japanese guide inquired while standing on the top of the boarding ladder at the stern of the boat. “OHHHH-kay, let’s GO!” he finally responds to our impatient replies, then counted quickly in Japanese, “Ichi-nei-san!” And with his “one-two-three” he disappeared into the foamy white waters churned by the boat’s screw and stern dive ladders. We all followed in quick succession, dive-bombing the ocean much like skydivers exiting an aircraft as quickly as they could. And believe me, we certainly were no more graceful!

This Shadow Came Back Around for Another Pass!!

With whitish bellies and greenish-grey dorsal coloring, hammerheads quickly blend into the reduced visibility ever-present in the murky ocean depths. I’m convinced this type of melding with the environment is exactly why combat aircraft are painted the same greenish-grey coloring: to blend in with the haze always at the horizon. These sharks have an uncanny ability to simply disappear with a sweep or two of their tails. No wonder we saw so many creepily teasing shadows!

That's Me Framed in the Extreme Lower Right of the Photo

That’s Me Framed in the Extreme Lower Right of the Photo

stop-hammerhead-timeHammerheads have better vision than most and can actually see 360 degrees; by looking up or down, they can monitor the complete seaspace all around them. Like all sharks, hammerheads have electroreceptory sensory pores and nostrils on their snouts. But in hammerheads these sensors are spread out over a much wider area, allowing these sharks to hunt more effectively. This special arrangement of sensors allows for the detection of as little as a billionth of a volt, and when combined with excellent smell, the sharks can quickly classify and hone in on distressed, diseased, or decaying organics and other bodily fluids. And yes, to answer your question, those fluids primarily include blood.

Shark Hunting from our Rock Stand

Shark Hunting from our Rock Stand

Drifting quickly with the fast-moving currents, we drop again deep to about 70’. And then THERE. There was one. In the murky distance. And as quickly as all of us could grab a tenuous handhold on a massive nearby stone block, the shark was gone. There wasn’t ever enough contrast for any of our cameras to focus. And you know what divers say about underwater claims: didn’t happen it there isn’t photographic proof! We released our grips and were immediately flying again with the swift currents, and surfaced once again with only a couple of sporadic sightings and lots of talk about shadows darting here and there.

Back Aboard for Yet Another Try

Back Aboard for Yet Another Try

On the Hunt

On the Hunt

But these nebulous sightings weren’t what any of us had come so far for. Personally, I’ve had the pleasure of diving with many sharks along the southeastern coast of the United States, where sharks (grey reefs, nurse, and bulls mostly) are seen routinely. I’ve also had the opportunity to partake in no less than three “shark feeds,” a rare chance to see a shark feeding-frenzy, live, up close and personal. No, we all were in Yonaguni to see schools of hammerheads, not just their fuzzy ghosted shadows at the edge of our perception.

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Unfortunately, hammerhead sharks are massively overfished, slaughtered simply for just their fins. These sharks are captured, “finned” where their dorsal, pectoral and tail fins are all sliced off, and then the shark’s body – still alive – is thrown back into the sea to die a slow, painful death. Because of this savagely wasteful practice, the scalloped hammerhead is on the “globally endangered” species list, with population declines of up to 95% over the past 30 years. Hammerheads are among the most commonly caught sharks for finning. But they are also used in food products (“flake,” fish fingers, fish & chips), and commonly killed as by-catch due to indiscriminate fishing practices.

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d011345920070228091707Yonaguni Japan 2015, Scuba Diving, peaceful scuba diver Jody WMOur last day on the island had arrived, and we only had two dives left. This was it. The weather was moving in, winds were up and the seas had started to kick. Some boats were not going out to the area where the sharks congregate, but our diving service was still gaming for the hunt. We were pleading to be taken to another dive site, as the last four dives at the same location yielded just about squat. The staff at YDS – Yonaguni Diving Service – agreed and our boat’s captain decided on a different locale. Making the quick trip from port, we got ready once again. The boat was a-rockin’ as we scrambled off the stern, but on dive five, again only a single hammer was sighted, one much deeper and more shy who fled no doubt upon sensing not our presence but our desperation!

Tim Shooting a Scalloped Hammerhead

Tim Shooting a Scalloped Hammerhead

Killing millions of sharks every year just for their fins is an immoral waste and non-sustainable practice. Shark fin soup is merely a status symbol in Asia, one reserved for only royalty. The fins don’t even add flavor, but instead are dried and used as only a texture. While shark fin soup is an expensive delicacy at up to $100 a serving, more and more people, groups, and even restaurants are giving up the dish and calling for a ban on the practice of finning.

Jody is Ready for Some Shark Schooling!

Jody is Ready for Some Shark Schooling!

Hammerhead Sign!

Hammerhead Sign!

Divers Happy about the Sharks!

Divers Happy about the Sharks!

And then the last dive was upon us. This was it. A $1,400 per person five-day trip with three days of rather exhaustive diving had all come down to this one final sub-30 minute dive. The pressure was on for YDS; their and our divemaster’s reputation for amazing shark dives was on the line. We returned to this new location in even rougher seas and dropped in once again. And very soon after reaching our drift depth…. One. Then two more. No wait, there are FIVE! Yes, we had found them – there they were, schooling together!! Our divemaster tapped on his tank with his simple noise maker – a long steel bolt tied to his buoyancy compensator. I only glanced his way having already spotted the sharks, enough to see him make the hammerhead sign he had briefed. I was lucky enough to be on the side of the group where the sharks were schooling, and immediately but slowly starting making way in their direction as I descended deeper and deeper to match their depths. Snapping photos and admiring their sleek and powerful beauty, I checked my computer as I was passing 110’, plenty deep enough with our time and air constraints. We were warned the sharks would drag us deeper and deeper, and as these sharks continued downward there was still no bottom in sight as I leveled out at 116’.

A Small School, but Still a School!

A Small School, but Still a School!

Ed Chills Vertically

Ed Chills Vertically

The Divemaster Saves Face!!

The Divemaster Saves Face!!

This school of scalloped hammerheads, although small by Yonaguni standards, was an amazingly invigorating sight. While an accurate count is hard to come by, we agreed that there were at least ten in our immediate vicinity. A few even hung around to make another pass, seemingly as interested in us as we were in them, an event I decided to video with my ten-year, non-HD small point-and-shoot underwater (see my underwater photos of Japan at Dive The Blues Scuba). To divers, this experience is akin to those seeing a lion up-close-and-personal on safari in the Serengeti plains of Africa. It is hard to describe the surge of emotions one feels when faced with an uncaged, untamed wild apex predator on their own turf (as it were) and terms. And in numbers that could not be defended against. It may be difficult for some people to grasp, but stepping foot in the ocean at the beach in just a bathing suit is really no different from walking into the jungles of Southeast Asia wearing just the same. And who would do that, right? The sea is not our domain nor do we belong there, and when we tread into the jungles, terrestrial or aquatic, we must be ever wary and always respectful.

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We rely on the earths’ oceans, every bit as much as the hammerheads do. The earth’s weather, our fresh water, much of the world’s food supply, and even the very air we breathe are all sourced from the seas. Sharks play a critically irreplaceable role in the ocean’s massive aquatic ecosystems, and have every bit a right to be here as you and I. They deserve our respect as much as they get our admiration.

Yonaguni Japan 2015, Scuba Diving, Jody and I enjoying our time with the hammerheads

Shark fin soup? No thanks.

I’ll take an inexpensive box of “JAW-SOME” chocolates any day….

Yonaguni Japan 2015, group shot at YDS at the end of our adventure

Our Dive Group with our Japanese Guide!

 

Live and Let Die: The Yaru and Tabira in Okinawa


“Long after the bomb falls and you and your good deeds are gone, cockroaches will still be here, prowling the streets like armored cars.” ~Tama Janowitz

No.  No, there is no "cute" roach.  EVER.

No. No, there is no “cute” roach. EVER.

Live and let live. One of the many messages the holiday should convey. Both which always remind me of a most welcomed houseguest we hosted back on Okinawa in 1999.

She ended up staying for the next 20 months. She didn’t take up a lot of room, was seldom if ever seen, and didn’t cost us a dime to keep around. I’m not even sure “it” was a female; I respected her privacy too much to really check, and my guess is based only on “her” reclusive Goth-like teenager behavior….

Who we welcomed into our home back then was the more beneficial of two perennial icons and adversaries of Okinawa. Sorry to disappoint, but I’m not talking about the mongoose-snake pairing famous in the Ryukyus. What I’m talking about is the yaru. And she became our home’s guardian from the rather disgusting creature in the pairing, the tabira. Unfortunately she couldn’t protect me from the Land of Misfit Toys I found myself shipwrecked upon….

I bet Ace feels the same way about roaches.  I mean with their fangs and all….

rodanus1tAG_46603The tabira is a much nicer-sounding name for something most of us detest – the large almost indestructible cockroach that seems so ubiquitous at tropical and sub-tropical latitudes all across the globe. I grew up sharing South Florida with these creatures, some approaching the size of Rodan, and who can fly every bit as well. Hell, Godzilla would even have issues warring with these underworld sleuths. Urban legend within my own family states that one can never, ever make eye-contact with a roach: they sense fear and will leverage that advantage by flying directly into your face! Personally, as a hardened veteran of decades of war with these invaders, I conclude that there is not much that can be done to defeat and declare victory over such a robust warrior. Only a pyrrhic win is in the realm of possibility.

Our savior, guardian and protector!

Our savior, guardian and protector!

Humans have a hard time with roaches.

Humans have a hard time with roaches.

Far more agreeable of this classic pairing is the yaru, Japanese for what we in the west are familiar with as the gecko (“wall lizard”). Like most Japanese characters, it’s an idea more than just a simple word, which best translates as “protector” or “guardian of the home.” This moniker is easily sourced to this particular lizard’s inherent ability to do what we humans can’t: organically control and even defeat roach infestations at every turn.

Our 5 bedroom, two story home back in 1999.  A veritable roach-ryokan if you will....

Our 5 bedroom, two-story home back in 1999. A veritable roach-ryokan if you will….

Our immediate neighborhood.

Our immediate neighborhood.

Back in 1999 we lived in a very large house, which actually had a yard complete with brushes and shrubs. The surrounding neighborhoods were dotted with sugarcane fields, they themselves riddled with roaches. Which, sooner or later, found their way into our home. Contractual pest control is not something the Okinawans do, and as Americans we are largely left to defend ourselves out on the local economy. While our cat Tora did kill and finally eat a roach or two, it was only when she found one, and then only after about 68 minutes of torturous play. That is if the insect didn’t escape during a lapse in the cat’s attention…. For an interesting tale of how we named our Okinawan-adopted cat, see Tora Tora Tora!

Our Cat Tora, while a killer of shrews, thought roaches to playthings.

Our Cat Tora, while a killer of shrews, thought roaches to playthings.

Okinawa is hot, humid, and often wet, and still in many places covered with dense foliage that you might expect from a subtropical island located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Still being quite rural in places and without extensive use of pesticides or other more formalized pest control measures, there is a high probably of personal interaction with all sorts of creatures, great and small. The gecko foremost among them.

Moving into our office/computer room.  Our four-legged assassin live in the far corner above the room's AC....

Moving into our office/computer room. Our four-legged assassin live in the far corner above the room’s AC….

So one night came the call from the direction and vicinity of our computer room office. That distinctive chirp that announces a gecko’s presence. At first we didn’t know what it was, and unless one is used to sharing their abode with a reptile or two, it can be quite disconcerting. I tracked our guest’s presence down to one corner of the office, but since her call was so random and short-lived, nailing down the location of her home became an entertaining game of sorts. The kids and I would run to the office door and screech to a stop, me motioning for them to stay quiet and enter the room with stealth in order not to spook our little friend. And then we would tip-toe into the room, looking here and there, motioning to each other in precise coordination using military-like signals.

Which would you rather have:  the lizard or that other really creepy thing!

Which would you rather have: the lizard or that other really creepy thing!

This four-legged friend is unique in appearance with almost transparent skin, and usually announces its presence not visually, but using its very distinctive call, a song usually heard in the evenings, intermittently throughout the night. And what many Americans might consider an uninvited guest, the Japanese welcome into their homes. Okinawans – a very superstitious people – believe that Gecko brings good fortune when found in their homes, so geckos here are not killed or removed from the home, but are left in residence, both as living good luck charms and the guards against insects which they are. From a pragmatic standpoint, this creature – cute to some – really does protect the home from a whole plethora of undesirables, devouring life forms like mosquitos, flies and cockroaches.

I prefer to think of Okinawan Yaru more like this....

I prefer to think of Okinawan Yaru more like this….

Unfortunately, like most other aspects of life, there is no free lunch. Well, there is for the gecko, but of course there is a price to pay. All living things excrete, and the yaru is no exception. Thus, small amounts of processed bug may be found around the home, looking like those chocolate sprinkles so popular on cupcakes. These we found often, mostly located below the room’s AC unit, on window sills, and in corners of other rooms in our home. I made this too a detective game to play with the kids, using these finds to track our vigilante’s movements through the home.

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Our gecko’s home was never officially located, or at least I made sure “we” never found her. While I knew exactly where she was living – atop and/or in our room’s air conditioner unit, I wanted the mystery to remain for the kids. I had no intention of ruining our good thing; since the gecko’s arrival, our roach problem had…ceased to exist. But this also highlights a related source of well-known trouble in Okinawa regarding the yaru: air conditioners. In fact, one of the leading causes of AC trouble here is this little innocuous lizard. Air conditioners are nice and warm inside, and offer an inviting place for the lady yarus to nest and start a family (lay eggs). Problem is that often times this results in an electrical short, resulting in not just costly repairs, but the untimely demise of a valued protector. To counter, it’s very easy to find a special attachment for ACs called “Gecko guards” in the home-improvement stores here on Okinawa. In an ironic twist sometimes we have to guard against the guard.

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Revell%20H450%20GekkoThe nocturnal hunter-killer aspects of the gecko are often confused with a similarly named Japanese aircraft from WWII: The Nakajima J1N1 Gekko (or Gekkou). Developed to meet the Japanese navy’s requirements for a long-range escort fighter, the J1N1 instead entered service as a reconnaissance platform instead. The need to counter the largely unopposed American night bombing raids of 1943 in the Southwest Pacific led to its conversion into a night fighter, a role served so well by the carbon-based version. Starting In May 1943, the J1N1-S meet with success by downing two B-17 Flying Fortresses, and was quickly nicknamed the “Gekko” (or “Gekkou“), meaning “moonlight” or “moonbeam.” Like most other elements of Japanese aviation in 1945, Gekkos were further modified as kamikaze suicide platforms, something its reptile namesake would never consider.

Live and let live after all.

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I mean, except for those terrible tabira….

Okinawa: A Year in Review


  “Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Well, when I wrote this we had just celebrated our one-year anniversary of relocating our domicile to Okinawa, and although it’s now over two months past due, I still thought it would be a good idea to do a “year in review” blog. So, here’s an eclectic summary of the King’s Flirtations with the Far East to date (as of this past August), along with a personally favorite blog selected for each month.

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July 2013.  Preparations for our overseas move.

See Sayonara Amerika to read and see our Asian-inspired going-away blowout

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August 2013.  Moved!  Rented our Florida home and moved overseas with our cat!

See Jody Drives Naked about used-car shopping in Okinawa.

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September 2013.  Divine winds!  Experienced something like 8 typhoons in two months.

See Surf Nazis Must Die to read about a scuba diver’s angst with the powers that be on Okinawa.

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October 2013.  Scuba Diving!  Kevin becomes a PADI scuba-diving instructor!

See Are You Breaking Up with Me on Mount Fuji for perhaps my favorite breakup story of all time!

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November 2013.  Jody’s birthday!  Celebrated by exploring the northern reaches of Okinawa.

See Shipwrecked on the Island of Misfit Toys about my first foray to Okinawa in 1999.

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December 2013.  Household goods!  Our forgotten “stuff” finally arrives on-island.

See Oh Christmas-Half-a-Tree to read about Christmas in Okinawa.

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January 2014.  Kevin’s birthday!  Celebrated by our first off-island trip to Kyoto, Japan.

See Okinawa Kijimuna for Okinawa’s version of “Red Power!”

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February 2014.  Contracted!  Dive the Blues Scuba gets well underway.

See Surprising Swastikas about an unlikely and unfortunate connection between East and West.

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March 2014.  Earthquake!  Friends breaking bad on Okinawa.

See Cat Cafes in Japan to read about the special bond between the Japanese and their feline friends.

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April 2014.  White Day and Zip-Lining on Okinawa.

See Timeless Townhouse for our rustically historical stay in Kyoto, Japan.

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May 2014.  Iriomote!  Off-island weekend getaway to this remote nature preserve.

See Tainted by Tats to read about the stigma of body art in this corner of the Far East.

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June 2014.  My daughter gets married!  A whirlwind trip home to the states and detour because of an unexpected hospital stay.

See Placenta: Prescription or Placebo to read about some strange herbal remedies popular in Japan.

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July 2014.  Ishigaki!  Off-island weekend getaway to dive with manta rays.

See The Cat-Dogs of Okinawa to read about the special guardians of the Ryukyu Islands.

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August 2014.  Okinawan World and Hospital Caves.

See Okinawan Hillsides & Hornets to read about my past explorations in the Okinawan jungles searching for traces of WWII.

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Okinawa’s Valley of Gangala: A Walk to Remember


“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”  ~William Shakespeare

Welcoming Shisa Dogs at Okinawa World

Welcoming Shisa Dogs at Okinawa World

“I think you understand what I say,” started our favorite part of our tour blanketed in the dank darkness of a tunnel as our guide spoke to us in very broken English.  While she spoke for the following few minutes in overly-dramatized Japanese whispers, it soon became apparent that she was telling a ghost story.

And in a voice quite mousy, she started slowly in a whisper, “(gan…………gala).”  Then, with a fastening crescendo, she forcefully muttered, “Gan……Gala.”  And finally, in a full booming declarative spectacle (taking advantage of the tunnel’s acoustics, mind you), she exclaimed, “GAN…GALA!!!”  And like kids anywhere in the world, they both listen to scary stories and don’t…at the same time.

The classic and worldwide reaction to a scary story!

The classic and worldwide reaction to a scary story!

The Valley of Gangala is an ancient and ornate forest that is probably better served as the backdrop for perhaps yet another movie in the Harry Potter series – Harry Potter and the Soki Soba Sorcerer, for instance.  But we only discovered it when we visited the area for our spelunking adventures into Gyokusendo cave.

Okinawa 2014, Valley of Gangala, dramatic cave entrance

It is literally across the street from its more famous and popular parent attraction, Okinawa World, but it’s every bit as enjoyable…and dispenses with the cave-themed amusement park and commercial shopping arcade that the former offers.  Being more hidden and garnering much less attention, the Valley of Gangala is much more natural in experience and personably rustic.  A pleasant surprise, it also seems to be the center of the ancient history of mankind on Okinawa.

Okinawa's famed "Banana" Spiders

Okinawa’s famed “Banana” Spiders

Be forewarned:  there are a lot of spiders!

The disappointing Cave Café in the background.

The disappointing Cave Café in the background.

Okinawa 2014, Valley of Gangala, Kevin cave explorer with oil lanternYou reach the starting point by descending into a cave that’s been transformed into a café.  Although you can still find menus online which offer lunch-type fare, only coffees, teas, juices and snacks/desserts are offered now.  It is an amazing setting, and it’s unfortunate that more can’t be done with such a fabulous ambiance.  This sore point isn’t to detract from tea-time under the stalactites, though, before or after your tour.

Okinawa 2014, Valley of Gangala, cave approach along a stream

300 year-old burial vault

300 year-old burial vault

While the only way to explore the Valley is through a Japanese guide, the Japanese know how to do tours RIGHT.  The seating area where our visit started conveniently had bug repellent available for every two people, and insulted metal bottles of cold jasmine tea were handed out for us to sip as we sauntered through the flora and fauna of the excursion.  Although it was the middle of summer and the middle of a hot summer day when we toured, I don’t really think the bug lotion was actually needed.  The cold and refreshing tea, however, was!

The oil lanterns are such a lovely touch!

The oil lanterns are such a lovely touch!

Okinawa 2014, Valley of Gangala, early humans on OkinawaThe tour was entirely in Japanese, but our Japanese host offered us iPod-like receivers and ear buds that provided us with some English explanations along the way.  It was an unexpected and further nice touch.  It turns out that the Valley has been inhabited for over 10,000 years, and may have served as home for what is considered the forerunners of all the Japanese peoples (migrating from the south to the north through the Ryukyu chain), although there are competing theories and the vote is still out.

Early man lived here

Early man lived here

Get your mind out of the gutter.

Get your mind out of the gutter.

It appears size DOES matter.

It appears size DOES matter.

There are two sacred areas in the Valley, both in caves, one large and one small.  Both center on anatomical-like configurations of rock, male and female (use your imagination).  Women would attend to the female parts to pray for family and good childbirth, while males would enter the large dark cave to pray for things more male-centered.  It’s amazing how many ladies in the group seemed like they needed to go up and touch the rather phallic symbol!  The Japanese are not as conservative as they appear.

Okinawa 2014, Valley of Gangala, cave explorer Jody 2

Okinawa 2014, Valley of Gangala, gigantic banyan treeOkinawa 2014, Valley of Gangala, Kevin and Jody portrait with the valley's banyan

One of the other highlights of the tour is the huge banyan tree “Ufushu Gajumaru” which grows up and inside a huge natural arch of rock, just down the path from a family burial vault over 300 years old.  But for those of you still wandering about the ghostly story that so enthralled our young and somewhat frightened explorer, the Valley is named for the spooky sound that stones would make when thrown down into the deepest, most haunted caves.  Apparently, no matter the nature of kinship, no one – not even spirits – likes rocks thrown at them!

The Valley of Gangala

Zip:  901-0616

Address:  Japan Okinawa Nanjo City Tamagusuku Maegawa; parking and the valley is located directly opposite of Okinawa world.

Phone (for required reservations):  098-948-4192

Times:  9:00-18:00, but tours are conducted only 4 times a day @ 10:00, 12:00, 14:00 and 16:00; tour time is approximately 80 minutes

Website:  http://www.gangala.com/

To get to Okinawa World and the Valley of Gangala, drive south on the expressway to Haebana Miniami 1C, Take 507 South, turn left on 331 and another left on the 17.  Follow the signs to Okinawa World Cave Park. You’ll see Okinawa World on the right side and the Valley of Gangala on the left; park in the free Okinawa World parking lot.

Okinawa 2014, Okinawa World, Kevin and Jody at the park's entrance

Spetacular Spelunking: Okinawa’s Gyokusendo Cave


“The frame of the cave leads to the frame of man.”  ~Stephen Gardiner

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, Kevin in chest-deep water

So, while I’m still med-down from most things I love to do that involve summer-time crystalline waters, swaying palms, sauna-like sun and sea creatures most can only imagine, I’ve had to reinvent how to explore Okinawan waters in different and unexpected ways.  Okinawa offers much more, of course, than the ocean to escape the oppressive heat of summer.

Okinawa 2014, Okinawa World, shisa lion-dogs at the park's entrance

Okinawa World 2014, Gyokusendo Cave, Kevin dropping down into the cavesThe Gyokusendo cave is the second-largest cave system found in Japan and largest on Okinawa, and is open to the public…for a fee (of course).  Water streaming through the rock and down various waterfalls has helped form the stalactites, stalagmites and “flow-stone” over the past 300,000 years.  Hand-railed metal stairs and catwalks make strolling the cave a memorable and easy experience.  Motion detector-operated lights offer dramatic backdrops and psychedelic shows of colors.  The soothing sounds of rushing and falling waters are heard trickling throughout the cavern.

Okinawa World 2014, Gyokusendo Cave, dramatically lit pooling waters

Although the journey can be peaceful, relaxing and quiet (if you let the loud school-children pass you by), the landscape of the cave is foreign at best.  And it’s imposing enough to imagine it a place of other-worldly monsters, so much so that the 1974 Godzilla vs. Mecha Godzilla movie was in part filmed here.

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Okinawa World 2014, Gyokusendo Cave, fantastic pathways through the cavernsAlthough the cave system totals over 5 kilometers of maze-like tunnels and caverns, those accessible by walkway runs for just about 900 meters (about ½ mile).  If you take your time to thoroughly enjoy the journey and take a plethora of photos (like we do), you’ll be in the cave for at least an hour.  And during that 60 minutes or more, if you are like me and find yourself needing facilities in the most inaccessible of places, urinating from the walkway elevated about 3 or 4 feet above the underground stream produces a loud and echoing splash.

Okinawa World 2014, Gyokusendo Cave, soothing path through the cave

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, this way to adventureHowever, that’s not where the adventure ends; rather, it can just begin there.

 

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, Kevin coming under a low passageDuring summer months (July and August), Okinawa World offers a special spelunking cave tour that lasts about 90 minutes and takes you to places not normally seen from the walkway.  It requires some uneven trekking and a good deal of energy, so you adventuresome types will find it tons-o-fun.  While not really “spelunking” as I have always imagined it, it’s probably as close as I can get here in Okinawa.

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, Jody smiling in the underground caves

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, navigating through the caveOkinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, peaceful Jody excited about exploring the cave!It is more of an off-trail guided tour, but it does meander through the more mystical paths of the Gyokusendo caves.  It does traverse over hidden obstacles along an underground river and some parts of the path are narrow and require a healthy measure of dexterity to navigate.  While the water is not deep, often times you have to duck under obstructions, putting you in the 60 degree water up to your waist.  That certainly makes for a cool-cool summertime activity.

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, Kevin in chest-deep water

The stalagmites and stalactites are hard not to touch, but when they take up to three years to grow just one millimeter, the slightest touch can destroy hundreds of years of nature’s finest work.  Some of the growths are measured in many meters inside the cave!

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, Jody navigates a very tight passage

There are some critters in the cave, although we didn’t see any of them other than the small bats that silently fly overhead.  While they often stay at the caverns’ ceilings, there were some surprising near-misses as these winged creatures flew up and down the passages.

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, soda straws on the cave's ceiling

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, crawling through low ceilingsOkinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, Jody navigates a very tight passageYou’ll need yen for on-site locker rentals, and if you are bringing a camera, it needs to be completely waterproof (housed or amphibious).  Pants and a long-sleeved shirt are required, and for good reason – it will save you from more than a few potential scrapes and contusions.  Footwear choice, perhaps, is the most important decision; I wore waterproof, closed-toed sandals, but almost rolled my ankles any number of times.  Gloves are also a nice touch, since some of the rocks you may grab for footing are sharp and/or slippery.  We wore parts of our scuba wetsuits, but that was overkill; of course since you’ll be wet to your waist or chest, you’ll need a change of clothes and a towel.  There are hot-water showers (with soap and shampoo) offered as part of the admission fee, and parking is free.

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, Jody pauses in the cave's passage

If you’re looking for an unusual and unusually-cool (figuratively and literally) adventure on Okinawa, be sure to not to miss this one.  For me, it was good to be back in the water.

Okinawa Cave Spelunking 2014, Kevin and Jody couples cave exploration

 

Okinawa World

Phone:  098-949-7421

E-mail:  info@gyokusendo.co.jp

Times:  9:00-18:30 (April-October), 1700 closing in Winter.  Last admission 30 minutes prior to closing.

Website:  http://www.gyokusendo.co.jp

The spelunking tour is NOT recommended for people with knee or back problems and pregnant women.  Child must be at least six to participate.  Although we were under the impression that this was only available through MCCS+, you can reserve directly through the caves.

Typhoons Take Two: Super Start with Typhoon Neoguri!


“The wise man in the storm prays to God, not for safety from danger, but deliverance from fear.”  ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson quotes

“The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore.”  ~ Vincent van Gogh quotes

“雨降って地固まる; After the rain, earth hardens.”  ~ Asian Proverb

Super Typhoon Neoguri 5

Fear-300x219The headlines back home are laughable from the perspective of being squarely in the “strike zone” of what is known as “Typhoon Alley” in the Pacific Ocean.  The way we Americans like to anthropomorphize weather is a product of the media creating overly melodramatic headlines for which they then can provide the information and/or solutions, and the generalized population’s passive acceptance of the peril that they are told is lurking just around every corner….

Massive...and massively beautiful from the ISS.

Massive…and massively beautiful from the ISS.

the-culture-of-fear-9781572703544-e1383792768880Featured headlines such as “Super Typhoon Neoguri Takes Aim at the Ryukyus,” or “Typhoon Neoguri Lashes Out at Okinawa,” and even “Typhoon Targets Japan!” and characterized as “Breaking News!” do nothing to help diminish what I call America’s “culture of fear.”  Storms are storms, a force of nature (call them acts of god if you will), and they neither direct at us (mankind) nor intend us any premeditated harm.  Rather, it is in our own fairly fool-hardy ways that we open ourselves to – and fail to protect ourselves sufficiently from these particular insults of Mother Nature.  Perhaps the most inane banner yet so far:  “Super Typhoon Neoguri Strongest of 2014!”

It’s only the strongest…because…it’s the FIRST of 2014.  Dumbasses.

Yes, it’s the strongest.  Duh.  It also happens to be the first for Japan in 2014.  It could have been a really ridiculously bad thunderstorm and that headline would’ve still run….

The eye passing close to Okinawa, outlined just beyond the dark blue band

The eye passing close to Okinawa, outlined just beyond the dark blue band

Three typhoons at once!

Three typhoons at once!

Last year I wrote a blog about how typhoons are regarded in Okinawa after something like our 8th or 9th typhoon of the season.  In that treatise, I tried to capture the very basic differences in the Far East versus American West cultural perspectives and their resulting diverse approach(es) to weathering such tempests.  You can read that blog here:  Typhoons, a Divinely Okinawan Experience.

"Typhoon Alley"

“Typhoon Alley”

The satellite photos are dramatic, the surf is kicking, and the winds are literally rocking our seismically-isolated building-on-rollers.  The surfers have all exited the water, and there are no remaining visitors to our seawall.  Our balconies have been cleared, and remaining items are secured.  We have water, foodstuffs, and plenty of candles.  Although we do prepare, it is with a refreshing lack of panic that is largely absent in Japan…but happens to be the hallmark of enduring hurricanes in the States.

It'll be worse AFTER the storm passes....

It’ll be worse AFTER the storm passes….

We’re okay, and we’ll be fine.  This is the safest place we will ever live…especially when it involves withstanding a Super Typhoon!

Cheers,

Kevin & Jody, Okinawa, Japan