Sharknado!!!


Okay, so it’s more like a shark circus.  Or at least that is what it’s called  aboard the MV Orion, a scuba live-aboard in the Emperor’s fleet that we were guests on this past September.  Jody and I booked this scuba vacation (her first live-aboard) coincident with our 5th anniversary, to a far away, exotic location that many Americans have never heard of:  The Maldives.  Go ahead, look it up on a map…I’ll wait.

There will be a lot more written about this particular vacation, but this video is all I wish to share at this point.  Oh, and listen with the music turned all the way up.  I have something in excess of 1,500 scuba dives from all over the world, but this dive easily tops the list.  The video was shot from sunset going on to full night, with a large domed wide-angle lens, so the action was really much closer than it often appears.

What else can I say, except what Jessica said upon surfacing from this dive:

BEST … DIVE … EVER!

 

River Rats: Trekking to Tadake Falls


I'm my own lifeguard at Tadake Falls!

I’m my own lifeguard at Tadake Falls!

Hiji Falls?  Yep, a grand meandering nature trail which follows a snaking river to a delightful waterfall.  But where the river cannot be enjoyed as it is roped off in most locations.  And where swimming is not allowed, supposedly made too dangerous due to rocks and freshwater parasites.  Ah, the intersection of both American and Japanese cultures of fear.  Want to get wet and trek up a river through the jungle and enjoy climbing behind, in, and even up to a high and pounding waterfall?  Then Tadake Falls must be your next off-road adventure on Okinawa.

Most of the riverbed looks like this.

Most of the riverbed looks like this.

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, trekking with our Japanese friendsTadake Falls, which I have also found on some maps written as “Tatake,” offers magnificent river trekking.  There’s not just an unprepared trail here, there is no trail.  No, the trail is the river running through the dense Okinawan rain forest.  And that means in various points there is deep water to wade across, rocky constrictions to scramble across, and even a rope swing or two along the way for the more daring to try!

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, happy in the Okinawan jungle

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, a river runs through itJody and I decided to try the trek on a summer weekday morning in August, the height of the Okinawa oppressive summer.  Thinking that the crowds would be smaller and that we would be beating the high heat and humidity of the afternoon, we set out early.  WRONG!  Although the falls has been historically a somewhat hidden treasure on Okinawa, the increased tourism to Okinawa, combined with a number of recent articles about the fall trek in the American periodicals on the Island has turned what surely was once a quiet, tranquil hike into a still enjoyable journey, just with a slew of Japanese and American like-minded visitors.  And one inherent with problems finding parking.

There are some really rocky stretches!

There are some really rocky stretches!

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, navigating the streamOh, did I mention that the trail here is the river?  Unlike at Hiji Falls, itself a worthwhile visit and hike, come prepared to get wet – that’s the whole point!  Water shows are a MUST since the path is totally improvised and quite rocky.  And although we lathered up with sunscreen before embarking on our latest adventure, it really wasn’t needed, at all.  The path is almost completely shaded by the jungle’s canopy, encroaching overhead from both sides of the river.  And although our visit was during the sweltering Okinawan summer, the shade combined with a forested breeze and the downright cold river water kept us calm, cool and content.

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, beginning our trek

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, fall colorsOkinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, dragonfly friendIt takes about 30 minutes or so to get from the trek’s starting point to the falls.  That is unless you stop to enjoy nature in all her wondrous ways.  Or perhaps you decide to try a rope swing into the river’s refreshing water (but be wary of the Tarzan-esque vines found everywhere!).  Or maybe you stop just to float for a break in one of the deeper pools fed by a mini-waterfall found along the way.  The hike is not hard, and often easier for unflinching, lower-center-of-gravity humanoids we call kids.  Just take your time and watch your footing.  Although you don’t have to be an athlete to journey to the falls and back, I would not suggest this particular adventure for anyone with back, knee or foot problems, or those who are unsure of themselves on their feet.

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, trekking through the river

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, managing the rocksOkinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, jungleMake sure you take your leisure along the way.  Make time to appreciate nature’s beauty that here folds around and over you like a thick, green umbrella.  While the walk is predominantly shaded, tantalizing glimpses of bright blue sky can be spied through the canopy’s gaps.  Colorful leaves in the water, brilliant and not bashful dragonflies, and thousands of gemstone-like rocks offer innumerable distractions along the way!  The riverbed is mostly firm, coarse sand and pebbles, but there are areas of soft sand, and still others that consist of jagged and sharp rocks.  Although there is a warning about the river and its potential hazards at the head of the trail, the river was quite low, with very little current.  Most of the river is no more than knee-deep, maybe waist at a couple of points, and the deepest parts can be completely bypassed on land if you do not wish to swim.

Mini waterfall and pond along the way.

Mini waterfall and pond along the way.

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, peaecful waterfall and cairnsOkinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, Kevin jumping for joyEverything changes, however, once you round a river bend to the right and arrive at Tadake Falls!  Water comes cascading down with force from a cliff sixty feet overhead.  The water turns into a showering spray at the base, pushing away a cushion of air that is surprisingly powerful.  In front of the waterfall is a large pond, perfect for swimming and lounging.  Its comfortably sandy bottom has a fairly steep slope, and quickly reaches a depth where wading is necessary.  In front of this pool across from the falls you will find some nice areas to set up camp or a picnic, in sandy patches or on rocky ledges of your choice.

Watch your skirts - there's a Marilyn Monroe like updraft from the falls!

Watch your skirts – there’s a Marilyn Monroe like updraft from the falls!

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, climbing around the fallsOkinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, Kevin jumping for joyThe fall’s water hole itself gets deep as you near the falls, but be careful – there are “hidden” rocks underneath in the areas to the falls’ left and right.  If you approach the falls from its sides, you can find a slippery rock ledge that will take you fully behind the falls.  And, as you look at the falls from across the pond, a rock pinnacle to the left allows for catapulting jumps into the falls’ pond!  The water is a cold spring-fed 70 degrees, and can be quite a shock, but one which quickly passes as you acclimate.  There is also a trail that leads up to fall’s source, but it is almost impossibly steep (and unprepared).  We did see a number of people take this excursion; Jody and I were happy enough to stay and enjoy the falls from down below.

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, victory at the falls

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, tall fallsOkinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, jumping for joyDo yourself a favor and pack a few things for the trip.  Wear a bathing suit and water shoes for the trek.  I do not recommended scuba booties unless they are the kind with rubber tread that offers some traction; the felt kind so common here would be very slippery on the slick rock found all along the river.  Snacks and drinks are really nice to have at the waterfall, but of course you’ll have to trek them in and out.  Sunscreen was not really necessary, and neither was bug spray – put both on if you are the paranoid type, they won’t hurt.  Taking any or all this will necessitate a waterproof bag or the need to bypass on land the deeper parts of the river.  But what you really want is a place to leave/lock your keys, towels for when you get back to the car, and a change of clothes makes the long trip back home much more comfortable.  To top off an adventuresome morning, stop by Café Captain Kangaroo for one of their unbeatable burgers.

Okinawa Aug 2015, Tataki Falls, Jody's attention signage at the falls

DIRECTIONS:  Do yourself a favor and take the Expressway all the way to the end, and then the Nago bypass tunnel, which will save you a TON of time and frustration avoiding 58.  It will still take you about an hour to get there.  Taking a right on 58 once out of the tunnel, and note then you hit the Family Mart (on the left) where the turnoff for Yagachi Island is found.  About 7 kilometers further down the road, you’ll reach the “Henan” bridge, which you’ll know from the colorful blue and red pillars covered in hearts on either end.  You can take either the road just before or just after this bridge – they meet up at the same place once inland, but there is a small sign for the falls just before crossing the bridge, one you’ll probably notice too late to make the turn!  Follow a curvy road for almost 3 kilometers, and stay on the “main” road.  You’ll think you are lost, but keep going; you’ll know when you have arrived at the falls.  A large “warning” sign serves as the head of the trail, and while there are a few parking spots there (4 or 5 cars at the most), you’ll most likely have to keep going straight and park along a long stretch of the road running along the river.  Parking options here are VERY limited, and some people had to walk quite a distance just to get to the river.  If you have any question about whether you are in the right place, look for Japanese wearing brightly colored full-size life vests.  Then simply follow them!

Map Tadake Falls

Where’s the Beef? At Maru’s in Ishigaki


If you’ve ever had true Japanese beef, just watching – or even listening to a few seconds of the video above will make your mouth water! Like Pavlov’s dogs, it simply can’t be helped. The beef is every bit that good. Sure Kobe beef is a household name known around the world, but what is it about Japanese beef that makes it so expensive…and so damn tasty?

Club Med Ishigaki 2015, Maru Anniversary Dinner, tabletop feast WM

We recently had the pleasure of stuffing ourselves silly with Ishigaki beef for our 4th wedding anniversary, celebrated during a stay at Club Med on that Ryukyuan island. Taking a long and expensive taxi ride into town to a restaurant we ate at during a previous visit in 2014, Maru is a place that you can smell long before you see. Walking through the front door, we were greeted loudly by an obnoxious “mooooooooooooooooo,” broadcast in concert to the closing of the door. Checking in for our reservation, we proceeded to order a full sampling of the moo-cow’s finer cuts, with vegetables, rice and a large salad to serve as sides.

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Wagyu, as Japanese beef cattle are called, is a compound word made up of wa (“Japan”) and gyu (“cow”). Although most Americans know Kobe in terms of beef, what you may not realize is that Kobe is only one type of wagyu found throughout Japan. And most of the others are every bit as tasty, some much less expensive.

But what makes Japanese beef so dang delicious? It’s due in large part to the white marbled fat in the meat known as sashi in Japanese, the beef’s most prized aspect. In fact, cattle farmers spare no expense to help create intense patterns of fat that make the meat literally melt in your mouth. In Japan, wagyu beef is graded based almost entirely on the dispersion and amount of sashi present.

maru steak

As a point of comparison, what sets Japanese beef apart from that found in American is the amount of fat found in the meat. For example, prime beef in the United States only needs 6-8% fat to qualify for the highest USDA grade possible. In Japan, however, in order to be graded the highest quality ranking for wagyu (which is “A5”), the meat must have at least 25% marbled fat! And guess what? The sashi found in Japanese beef is primarily the monounsaturated kind, a “good” kind of fat which can actually lower “bad” levels of cholesterol in human blood. So eating Japanese beef is not just delectable, it can actually be…healthy (wink). The marbled fat results in a tenderness that, when cooked, is much like butter, resulting in an amazing flavor and mouthfeel like no other form of beef. The fat literally melts in the heat of the mouth and doesn’t linger. And even though it’s the most tender form of beef on the planet, wagyu retains a rich, meaty mouth feel.

Club Med Ishigaki 2015, Maru Anniversary Dinner, happy couple WM

We got lucky this time at Maru, at least after politely rejecting our initial waiter who was rather curt and spoke little English. Fortunately, there was another man who both spoke good English and was entirely personable, two qualities needed for an enjoyable anniversary dinner. Although the restaurant was sold out of a number of cuts and menu items, on our waiter’s recommendation, the food and beer started flowing.

Club Med Ishigaki 2015, Maru Anniversary Dinner, signage WM

Japanese cattle farmers take great care of their animals. Their cows are fed only the highest quality grains, mixed and blended with additives that each farmer holds as a close trade secret. The animals usually only drink local mineral water, all to help ensure the best quality meat results. Farmers are known to feed their cattle beer and sometimes sake to help fatten them up, and also brush and rub sake on their cows by hand in order to better distribute marbling and keep lice and ticks away.

Mura, a corner restaurant hidden away in a residential neighborhood

Mura, a corner restaurant hidden away in a residential neighborhood

Kobe beef comes from cows raised, fed, and slaughtered in Japan’s Hyogo Prefecture, where Kobe City is located. In America we now have “Kobe-style” beef, meat which comes from wagyu cattle transplanted and raised in the US. While much more inexpensive than that found in Japan, it is much higher in quality than say, American Angus beef, but it doesn’t even begin to compare with the real Far East thang. Why? Shortcuts are taken in American to help contain cost. As you might imagine, the cattle feed in America is of much lower quality, and the personalized attention for individual cows just doesn’t happen under corporate farming in America.

But some of the Kobe beef actually comes from Okinawa Prefecture, at least indirectly. In the southern stretches of the Ryukyu Islands lies Ishigaki Island, where Ishigaki gyu (“beef”) originates. On the island at any one time are about 35,000 head of Japanese “Black Cattle.” Ishigaki, with a year-round warm climate, provides an expansive and always lush grassland perfect for breeding and raising wagyu. Calves born and raised there are often exported throughout Japan, where they mature and become each area’s prized beef, such as that found in Kobe. In fact, only a limited amount of calves (~20%) are kept on Ishigaki to be matured, making Ishigaki beef somewhat rare and high-priced.

Club Med Ishigaki 2015, Maru Anniversary Dinner, contemporary interior WM

Maru is, from just about what everyone says, one of the best places to find Ishigaki gyu. The popular and locally famous eatery serves up delectable beef that you cook at your table yakiniku (“grilled meat”) style, with a little help from their friendly staff. Using a mini gas-fired barbeque grill in the center of the table, fresh cuts of meat and crispy vegetables are all cooked exactly to order, by you! One problem with East meets West at Maru is that the menu is not available in English, and very few of the waiters speak English.

Today's Specials!

Today’s Specials!

The prime cuts of Ishigaki beef take center stage at Maru, but there many other choices available. Since the servings are generally small, multiple items can be ordered and shared tapas style. Fillets, rib and sirloin cuts of meat top the menu in price, but diners can also sample beef tongue, beef shoulder, offal, beef sashimi, and yukke – raw beef topped with egg yolk. Maru also has a popular nabe (Japanese hotpot), a soup-like mixture of vegetables, tofu, beef broth and some meat.

Club Med Ishigaki 2015, Maru Anniversary Dinner, peaceful couple WM

Maru’s interior is eclectic, to say the least. Brightly colored art, featuring deep reds and dark blacks adorns the walls, giving the place a very contemporary feel. One of the best parts of any visit is the “Mooooooooo” cow call which greets each diner as they open the front door! Located only about a five-minute walk from downtown makes it a popular place for a meal, even if it can be hard to find. Maru is so fashionable, though, that any taxi driver will know its location.

Capture

Maru is ever bit worth a visit. Hard on your wallet but easy on your taste buds, Japanese beef must be sampled to be truly appreciated. A map to the restaurant can come in handy, and their website is available, if only in Japanese. Likewise, they have an active presence on Facebook, in Japanese as well. Find them at 26-4 Tonoshiro, Ishigaki 907-0004, Okinawa Prefecture, and ring them at +81 980-82-0030.

Maru Map

Japan Time: If You’re Early, You’re Late!


“What time is it? Four thirty. It’s not late, naw, naw; just early, early, EARLY!” ~What Time is it, the Spin Doctors

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The Micro Japanese Sense of Time

We have taken a number of tours during our Far East Fling, some of them with Japanese companies, many American-run ones here on Okinawa, and a few during our trip to Cambodia. And from these experiences I can distill the primary difference between them to just one word: TIME.

“Our tours run on ‘Japan time’. This means that we leave promptly at the published departure time. If you are late, the tour will leave without you and your reservation will be forfeited without refund. Please make your greatest effort to show up on time.” ~From Fuji Mount Guides tour description

Tours around the world usually request that you show up early in an effort to avoid leaving late. The tours here on Okinawa run by the Air Force or Marine Corps recreation teams do just that – “showtime” is 15 minutes prior to the scheduled departure. And yes, Jody and I arrive at the appointed time, but every time I end up asking myself, “Why?!?” Because almost every time someone is late – and I don’t mean like only, say, six minutes early instead of 15. No, they are past the published departure time, yet the American tours wait…. Frustrating.

Mass Transit run by Stop Watches

Mass Transit run by Stop Watches

This doesn’t happen in Japan. We were taking a bus from Hiroshima station to the airport, and of course we arrived a few minutes early. Sitting on the bus I noticed the bus driver closing the exterior luggage doors at about five minutes prior to his scheduled departure time. At one minute prior he released the air brakes and closed the cabin door. As the bus’s clock clicked over, the bus was already moving, leaving the station exactly on time. So, here in Japan, if you are late, you lose. An astounding concept if you ask me. Now, I can just hear all you time-shifting westerners complain that sometimes “shtick happens.” Well, yes it does. And that’s why you are supposed to be early. Really, seriously, and without doubt, there are very few valid reasons for tardiness, particularly when others are relying or depending on your prompt arrival.

Timing by Conductor

Timing by Conductor

In the (American) military there’s an axiom that goes something like, “if you’re on time, you’re late.” Because in the military, some times the essence of life and death itself relies on precise timing. But besides that, I personally hate being tardy. I will almost always choose to be overly early than just a little bit overdue. I, along with a whole slew of others, consider it insulting when someone else doesn’t show due regard and respect for my or a group’s time.

Kure 2015, Japanese Mass Transit, rails 2 WM

In American, especially given the digitally connected generation(s) that makes plans on the fly, punctuality is not sacrosanct. In America’s defense, however, we as a nation are not nearly as bad as some places in the world, but being 10-15 minutes late is often accepted as par for the course. It seems that even in the capitalistically-driven United States that the age-old adage of “time is money” doesn’t always apply, unless, perhaps, tardiness actually costs money, e.g., you miss a tour, you miss the tour.

Even These Guys Run Around on the Clock

Even These Guys Run Around on the Clock

Everyone has those friends, and most have had a girlfriend (or perhaps even a boyfriend) who have wantonly taken advantage of this generally accepted lax attitude toward punctuality. Me? I decided long ago to take a stand and not be such a conformist pushover for such sluggishness. There is nothing wrong with expecting others to respect you as you respect them, and there’s nothing neurotic or compulsive with expecting others to have at least a similar sense of timing. There were and are people in my various circles of family and friends that I openly refuse to make plans with, and there were and are times where I literally would leave…but then only after 10-15 minutes have elapsed since the mutually agreed upon time.

Ferries Also Run to the Minute

Ferries Also Run to the Minute

But when you come to Japan you realize that it’s not just you or most of your military coworkers that are the only ones who care about being on time. Almost the entire country of Japan (less the foreign tourists) is amazingly punctual; it is claimed that Japan is the most punctual nation in the world! And it really is one of the top ten Things Done Right in Japan.

Matters of Time

Matters of Time

The trains here are the stuff of legend, so punctual that one can set a watch by their arrival and departure times. They are (almost) never late. But even the very concept of “late” takes a whole different spin in Japan. If a train is running late by as little as two minutes, the staff will make public apologies. Over five minutes and the staff will issue “delay certificates” (遅延証明書) that will offer an excuse for tardiness at school or work. Why do the Japanese go to such great lengths? Because even such minor delays are quite unthinkable and intolerable.

Capture

A train may run every nine minutes, but it still will have a precise, published timetable, one that would never claim something as ambiguous as “runs every nine minutes.” One reason why the timing of trains is so crucial is the very tight timelines in switching lines to which a strict timetable is indispensable. Some connections are only two minutes, but when timing is downs to seconds, that’s plenty of time to jump from one track to another. Train conductors here literally use stopwatches, and the famed Japanese bullet trains are timed to arrive and depart within 15 seconds of their published time. Not one or two minutes either side mind you; fifteen seconds. The average delay on these trains during FY2012 was only 0.6 minutes – that’s 36 seconds. Only trains with less than a minute’s delay are considered to be “on time” in Japan.

img_26662_air_train_comparison

But it’s just not their mass transit. Make an appointment for your car, or to have something repaired in your home, or for a delivery, and it will, 95% of the time, go down exactly at the appointed time. In the 20+ transactions I’ve had with our building’s handyman, he has only once been late, and that was less than probably 7-8 minutes. I swear that most of the time he arrives early but stays outside the door, only to ring the bell at exactly the appointed time. Really, it’s uncanny.

Ferries are not just Punctual, they are Happy and Fun!

Ferries are not just Punctual, they are Happy and Fun!

I’ve watched the Japanese build, outfit, finish, furnish, stock and open stores in as little as eight weeks. We had to have two walls in our bedroom replaced due to water intrusion. Originally the work was slated, not for the 2 weeks which would be quoted back home, but for two days. At the appointed hour, a team of four workers was waiting outside, gear, tools, and materials in hand and ready to go. Starting at 0830, and taking an hour lunch break, they finished before 5 pm. Initially we thought they were done just for the day. But no, they finished. What they did in less than eight hours – remove an air conditioner, tear out old drywall, apply water sealant and thermal insulation to the inside external wall, remount and finish new drywall, move a duplex electrical outlet, move and remount the air conditioner, paste-up new wall paper, replace baseboard and crown molding, put furniture back, and remove all the debris – never would happen in America. We were astounded; we had counted on multiple days camping out in our living room, or possibly even moving our bed, because of our American-skewed sense of time. But here in Japan, we hardly missed an afternoon.

Trains are On Time and...Nice!

Trains are On Time and…Nice!

Meeting Japanese friends? They will be early…and expect you to be on time. In the off-chance the Japanese do run late, they will call/text right away and offer their explanations and apologies, and you will often see them running the last few meters to try and make up for lost time. Sure between friends or equals there is some leeway, but here being habitually late is regarded as a serious character flaw. The Japanese consider tardiness as an inconvenience to others. To those of higher rank at work or in social status, being late is unthinkable, and at times, unforgivable. Station and hierarchy is central to individual identity in Japan, and time serves as one way to establish and preserve one’s position.

Almost Time to Go

Almost Time to Go

The Japanese essence of time is much more complex, however, than just strict punctuality. The intent of precision timing here is not expected within a linear, Western approach, where speed and accuracy are treasured and tasks broken done in sequential order. Rather, the Japanese divide time into generalized blocks to sustain and respect courtesy and tradition over say, even efficiency. And having a society which is highly homogenous and carefully regulated, very strong pressures are exerted for one to conform in time.

Waiting on Time

Waiting on Time

Whatever you think about time and punctuality, I am in no rush to return back home only to endure house call arrival times being given as 4, 6, or even 8 hour blocks of time. Everyone knows the frustration of waiting an entire morning (“between 0800 and noon”) to get internet or cable TV in America, yet nothing changes because we choose to have no other expectation of timing. Just know that there is a different, better way of honoring time, and it is right here in our Far East Fling.

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Read More about the Japanese Sense of Time:

http://www.businessinsider.com/how-different-cultures-understand-time-2014-5#ixzz3jQUVqJFP

http://english.jr-central.co.jp/about/punctuality.html

Whale of a Time! Diving with Okinawan Whale Sharks


Dive the Blues 2015, Whale Shark Dive, head to head 2 WM

The animal passed closed abeam to me, close enough that I could stretch out an arm and allow my hand to brush against the length of its flesh as it swam by. I was breathing slowly, trying to take in as much sensory perception as I could, this being my first time swimming with such massive creatures. But just as the gentle giant was halfway past, it decided on a rather abrupt change of course. In doing so, its tail started a full swing in my direction with speed and force. Seeing it coming and knowing I was no more than a rubber ducky in bathtub, I turned to take the impact on my back. “UGH” I went as the tail struck solidly, and then smoothly shoved me aside. Spinning back around, I was able to see the tail, as tall as I, complete its strong follow-through. Truly a massive and powerful creature!

The whale shark is a slow-moving filter feeding shark and the largest known living fish, the largest confirmed had a length of 41½ feet, weighing in at about 47,000 pounds. Unconfirmed reports of considerably larger whale sharks abound (and manatees are thought to have provided the basis for mermaids – riiiigggghhhhht). They are, by far, the largest living non-mammalian vertebrate, and are thought to have originated about 60 million years ago.

Dive the Blues 2015, Whale Shark Dive, watching from the net WM

They are found in open waters of the tropical oceans where water is warmer than 71°F. With lifespans believed to approach 70 years, sexual maturity is not reached until they are about 30. Whale sharks have very large mouths which they use to filter-feed mainly on plankton. Despite its size, the whale shark does not pose significant danger to humans. Whale sharks are docile fish; younger whale sharks are gentle and often play with scuba divers. They are considered harmless to humans.

Dive the Blues 2015, Whale Shark Dive, Tori with the Shark WM

Okinawa has one of the most fabulous aquariums in the world, one of the few which display multiple whale sharks in captivity. The Ocean Expo Park Churaumi Aquarium (沖縄美ら海水族館) welcomed its 20 millionth visitor already in March of 2010, and was for a time the largest aquarium in the world until the Georgia Aquarium opened in 2005. Chura means “beautiful” or “graceful” in the Okinawan dialect, and umi means “ocean.”

Dive the Blues 2015, Whale Shark Dive, diver dwarfed WM

And while the whale shark can be experienced in the wild in various places around the globe, in all my travels and 1,000 dives, I’ve encountered only one off Pensacola diving the USS Oriskany. But Jody got to see a migrating pod of 10 or so in the Red Sea while deployed to Africa a few years ago. Yes, there are snorkel and scuba charters that claim to guarantee wild sightings. Admittedly, I’ve never taken one of these “focused” trips, but a close encounter with these gentle giants has always been on my list of “to do” underwater adventures. It just has never risen to the “must do” status. Until recently.

A divemaster I trained, Ms. Tori (what a cool name to have in the Far East!) was leaving Okinawa to go back to the states, and the week prior she decided to book a whale shark dive and asked me to come along. Sure! It’s summer, the water is warm under sunny blue skies, and the whale shark pen is just down the road and slightly offshore from where I live. Most Americans book the experience through the “Torii Scuba Locker,” one of the military-run dive shops (this one affiliated with the Army) on the island. But there are many Japanese tours that are more than happy to host westerners with English-speaking staff. Even when you book through Torii Station, a local Japanese boat is used, although you are escorted and guided by an American Divemaster for the trip.

Dive the Blues 2015, Whale Shark Dive, hectic feeding time 2 wM

But where do these sharks come from, and why are they kept in a net off Okinawa? To some, it just seems cruelly unnecessary. But many whale sharks are caught accidentally by Okinawan fishing nets. Before they are released, they are held in an open ocean net enclosure, where the claim is that they are fed and cared for to ensure their safety. Some are rotated into the Churaumi Aquarium to give animals held there a break, or sent to Osaka’s aquarium, but the vast majority are released. While they are held, dive and snorkel trips are offered to those who wish to pay.

Dive the Blues 2015, Whale Shark Dive, head to head 4 WM

The dive trip starts at Torii Scuba Locker, where anything you may need can be easily and cheaply rented. After filling out the standard dive industry paperwork, a group briefing is provided which clearly lays out the flow of the dive. The only real concern of this particular dive that diving will occur in an overhead environment with no direct access to the surface. Further, with some chance of temporary entanglement with the net can occur. Both concerns are easily addressed by the Divemaster – part of why you’ll be well escorted for your trip. Caravanning to the nearby Yomitan Fishing Port, you’ll park in proximity to the dive boat and setup your kit. The actual boat ride to the site is measured in single digit minutes, so it’s important to be ready to go! And, although it’s a short boat ride, it can be rough: take your Dramamine at least an hour before boarding.

Dive the Blues 2015, Whale Shark Dive, head to head WM

I won’t lie here or paint a pretty picture: Japanese dive boats can be chaotically crowded. There is usually more than one boat going at a time, although the divers will be loaded on the vessel nearest the dock. Japanese dive boats have no seats and have a completely open deck plan. Loading last, we put our gear wherever we could, taking a seat on the boat’s gunwale for the short jaunt to the whale shark enclosure. A low backroll will get you quickly into the water, and after the Divemaster joins you, a quick descent and check of the group is completed en route to the underwater opening at the top of the cylinder-shaped netted pen.

The top of the pen is about 15 feet below the surface, where the first distant, hazy glimpses of the giants can be had! The whale sharks kept here, while not anywhere near record size, still dwarf the divers as they enter the cage. We swam with two individuals, one smaller I would estimate at about 18’, and the other quite larger, at least 25-28’ in length! The actual enclosure is much larger than you might think; it’s impossible to see completely across the 330 feet from side to side, while the floor of the net bottoms out at 65-70’.

Dive the Blues 2015, Whale Shark Dive, waiting to get in

We waited at the net while the lead Japanese Divemaster opened the entry and cleared the way. Passing head down through a small hole in the top edge of the net, our group gathered inside, where we observed feeding for about 10 minutes. Unfortunately, the small bite-sized nature of the krill intended for the whale sharks (remember, they are filter feeders), also serves as the perfect meal for many other species of fish. An abundance of other fish, all hangers-on, continually clouded our view in their hopes of bagging some spillover.

Dive the Blues 2015, Whale Shark Dive, head to head 3 WM

When the feeding concludes, a loud rattle is heard underwater, the signal that the pen was now open for free-swim. The whale sharks were not shy; if they thought you had food, they would approach rather straightforwardly, sometimes with their mouths wide-open. But neither were they aggressive; when they realized you had no food, off they went.

Dive the Blues 2015, Whale Shark Dive, hectic feeding time WM

As the larger shark tended to stay shallow, I descended to near the bottom of the pen, where I was almost alone. There was only one other Japanese diver, a female, and we enjoyed the smaller animal that swam this lower depth’s perimeter. Having the animal brush right by and interact with them eye-to-eye was astonishing.

Free-swim lasts about 20 minutes, and sure enough around a half hour into the dive we heard another series of rattles from the Japanese. Sadly, time to leave our new aquatic friends. Of course I worked it out so that I was the last visitor to depart, leaving only a single Japanese staffer behind me to tidy up the exit. We completed our three-minute safety stop; although you can spend the majority of your time at 20’ on this dive, excursions to 65’ can easily be made.

Dive the Blues 2015, Whale Shark Dive, hectic feeding time 3 WM

Of course there is controversy about keeping these animals in captivity, like there is surrounding the treatment of any animal, from the declawing of cats to cattle raised for slaughter, to mammals in zoos, to these giants penned in the wild. For instance, a study of 16 whale sharks kept at the Okinawa Aquarium from 1980 to 1998 found they survived, on average, only 502 days in captivity. In this regard, Okinawa is clearly a world-class leader, holding the record for whale shark long-term exhibition at over 10 years!

Dive the Blues 2015, Whale Shark Dive, Divemaster Brenden leading the dive

Some conservationists feel that it is unnecessary and even cruel to take animals from the wild and showcase them. Some say that it’s more about the benjamins, not conservation or education. The truth is, as I like to say, somewhere in the middle. I believe that those who have a chance to swim with whale sharks will never forget the magical encounter. For me personally, I held off from diving with these sharks for many years, in part because of this controversy. However, after my own captivating experience, I intend to become much more of an ambassador of and more ardent supporter for the protection of these majestic animals. And hopefully it is true that most of the animals kept off Okinawa are generally kept only a short time and released. Hopefully.

Dive the Blues 2015, Whale Shark Dive, hectic feeding time 2 wM

Reservations to dive (sorry, no snorkeling option) with the whale sharks must be mad 24 hours in advance. The Torii Scuba Locker is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The trip is $135 per person and includes tanks, and the shop requires an Advanced certification OR more than 20 dives experience. The To dive with the whale sharks, contact Torii’s Scuba Locker at 644-4263 and ask for Ashley – she’ll take good care of you!

Dive the Blues 2015, Whale Shark Dive, diving with Torii Station and the Hypes

Read More:

http://marinesciencetoday.com/2013/02/18/swimming-with-whale-sharks-beneficial-or-cruel/#ixzz3jcDEccX0

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/29/us/29shark.html?_r=2&oref=slogin&

The Fiery Passion of Mounting Mount Misen


“Our love is written in the stars and burns bright on Mount Misen.”  ~Our Ema left in the Lover’s Sanctuary, the Hall of the Eternal Flame

Miyajima 2015, Mount Misen, Kiezu-no-Reikado, writing our Ema WM

The interior of the diminutive Buddhist hall was dark and uninviting. The top half of the open entry was filled with thick, sooty smoke attempting to escape confinement within the enclosure. The imposing yet mysterious chamber was too much to pass up, and like a curious cat, I ducked below most of the effuse and entered, all senses alert….

Mount Misen Attractions

Miyajima 2015, Mount Misen, mountain creek and waterfall WMMiyajima 2015, Mount Misen, stone steps WMAt more than 535 meters (~1,800’) above sea level, Mount Misen (弥山) is the highest peak on Miyajima. It is considered a holy site situated within the World Heritage area of Itsukushima Shrine (the subject of a soon-to-be published blog). On clear days, it affords spectacular views of the dramatic Shikoku Mountains in the distance and the beautifully island-studded, oyster-farming waters of the Seto Inland Sea. A number of Buddhist structures, most of them near the summit, are found here, including the gloomy Reikado Kiezu-no-hi (“Hall of the Eternal Flame”), described above.

Reikado Kiezu-no-hi, The Hall of the Eternal Flame

Reikado Kiezu-no-hi, The Hall of the Eternal Flame

Miyajima 2015, Mount Misen, Kiezu-no-Reikado, leaving our lovers' ema in the shrine WMMy eyes quickly adjusted to the gloom, but not to the smoke of the smoldering fire. The effuse continued to sting my eyes, and the acidic vapor irritated my nostrils. But the scene that assaulted my very consciousness was something out of Tomb Raider meets Indiana Jones (see Tomb-Raiding Angkor for more adventuresome explorations). The ceiling of the space was covered in soot so thick that stalactites were forming, as if to reach down to the Eternal Flame from wince it came.

The Eternal Flame and Cauldron of Curative Waters

The Eternal Flame and Cauldron of Curative Waters

Floating Shrine

Floating Shrine

Buddhism was first practiced here by Kobo Daishi, founder of its Shingon sect and one of Japan’s holiest religious persons. The “Eternal Flame” is a holy fire said to be lit by he himself in 806 and continues to burn here, uninterrupted, even now. The temple structures near the summit all are satellites of the fabulously intriguing Daisho-in Temple found at the mountain’s base on the outskirts of town.

There's more smoke in there than this picture does justice. TRUST ME.

There’s more smoke in there than this picture does justice. TRUST ME.

Miyajima 2015, Mount Misen, sacred ground during our climb WMThere was no flame visible, only the red-hot embers of a number of logs meant to feed the fire for quite some time. Smoke filled the cavity, tainted the walls black and stained dark brown all the recently hung wooden ema (see Shinto Shrines and Snake Oil Sales for more on this intriguing way of praying). The far recesses of the chamber were home to a whole wall of various statues and figurines, whose meaning was lost on me. We were the only visitors, the silence broken only by the crackling of the fire pit. The full frontal blitz of sight, sound, touch, taste and smell created an ambiance that was transformative.

The candles seem oddly redundant....

The candles seem oddly redundant….

Fire God

Fire God

Water boiled in a large iron cauldron over this fire is believed to provide curative powers over various ailments, and although we didn’t know it at the time, the water is always available for anyone to drink. The flame here also served as the source of the Flame of Peace in Hiroshima’s Peace Park (see Atomic Footprints in the Sands of Time for a blog about that moving place), a pilot light transferred in 1964.

The Rear Wall of the Hall.

The Rear Wall of the Hall.

Miyajima 2015, Mount Misen, Kiezu-no-Reikado, eternal flame under a temple cauldron WMThis holy fire, burning continuously for over the last 1,200 years, is designated a Lover’s Sanctuary by no less than Japan’s First Lady of Brides, Yumi Katsura. Seems a logical connection has been made of an eternal flame being akin to the burning passion of eternal love. Yumi, Born in Tokyo, spent time as a young woman studying haute couture while living in Paris. Returning to Japan in the 1960s, she realized there was no bridal industry of which to speak. Seeing an opportunity, Kumi opened her first bridal salon in 1964, and soon after presented the first bridal collection show ever held in Japan and published The bridal Book, the first Japanese book specializing in bridal fashion. Now one of the world’s most prolific wedding dress designers, she has expanded globally, her collections now found in some of the most exclusive stores, such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman, Henri Bendel and Neiman Marcus.

Ema Prayers and Wishes Hanging in the Hall.

Ema Prayers and Wishes Hanging in the Hall.

A Desperate Prayer

A Desperate Prayer

The Hall itself, however, is a relatively small building. Although the interior is completely unlit and filled with murky smoke, the lure of the eternal flame proves irresistible to most. If you enter, be forewarned: you will smell like delectable beef jerky for the rest of the day, until your clothes are changed and hair thoroughly washed! Of course those leaving locally purchased ema inside are said to be granted their loving wish(es). I, more cynically, believe it’s yet another way religion has found to keep itself – like the eternal flame, self-sustaining.

Miyajima 2015, Mount Misen, Kiezu-no-Reikado, Jody with our Ema in the darkened temple WM

A Sad Prayer

A Sad Prayer

Jody and I, of course, left our own personal ema within the hall. While more of a declarative statement than a prayer or wish, surely we would not tempt the gods without paying our respects. To them and to our shared Love, both of which hopefully remain eternal.

Miyajima 2015, Mount Misen, Kiezu-no-Reikado, Jody playing our couple's ema in the temple WM

Miyajima 2015, Mount Misen, approaching the Kuguri-iwa (Duck-under-rock) WMMiyajima 2015, Mount Misen, heading down the mountain WMWhile the hiking courses to the top advertise a 1½ to 2 hours climb, a more realistic number is probably actually closer to three. That is, if you stop to admire the scenery, check out the temples you might pass along the way, take a few photos, and rest to enjoy a swing of water every now and then. Even taking the ropeway roundtrip, we were still gone for easily 4 hours. Hiking the mountain up and down is clearly at least a full half day’s endeavor. But the true beauty of the area’s national forest, replete with rugged landscapes and giant rock formations, along with the dotted islands floating on the Seto Inland Sea below, are all probably at their most enchanting on foot. Thankfully, for those lacking the time or the willpower, a ropeway (cable car) leads up most of the mountain.

Miyajima 2015, Mount Misen, Miyajima Ropeway

Miyajima 2015, Mount Misen, Jody climbing the mountainMiyajima 2015, Mount Misen, Kiezu-no-Reikado, Lovers and their eternal flame 2But when the ropeway ends, don’t believe that you’re close to your goal! Getting to the summit and seeing the main attractions that the mountain has to offer will require a consider amount of further walking. The ropeway station near the summit sits more than 100 meters (~330’) lower than the peak, and situated across a small valley. The path climbs and drops and then climbs again. Besides the energy-draining up and down serpentine design of the course, the summit is about 1 km (~0.6 miles) in horizontal travel away.

Red Oriental Bridge Along the Way

Red Oriental Bridge Along the Way

When you’re in Miyajima, take the time to journey up Mount Misen, if not to the summit, than at least to enjoy Reikado Kiezu-no-hi, either with that special travel partner you might have in tow, or in the hopes of gaining one in the very near future.

Selfie at the Summit on a Hazy Day

Selfie at the Summit on a Hazy Day

Getting Around Mount Misen

The ropeway station is about a 15 minute uphill walk inland from Itsukushima Shrine or a 25 minute walk from the Miyajima ferry pier. The ropeway ride up the mountain takes about 20-40 minutes, the exact time depending on any delay in ropeway transfer that is required along the way. From the ropeway’s upper station at Shishi-iwa Observatory, it is still at least a 30 minute fairly strenuous walk to the summit. The Misen Hondo (main hall) and Reikado buildings are located along the trail, about five minutes before the summit.

Miyajima 2015, Mount Misen, temples and shrines along the way

Miyajima Ropeway

Hours: Daily 9:00 to 17:00 (hours of operation vary slightly by season)

Fees: 1000 yen (one way), 1800 yen (round trip)