Diving the Izu Islands, or Learning Japanese the Hard Way

Deep seas and scares break language barriers for the only English-speaker in a Japanese diving group.

“Men really do need sea monsters in their personal oceans.” —John Steinbeck

Scolopendra subspinipes is a species of large centipede found throughout the subtropical regions of the world, from Asia to the Caribbean. Particularly aggressive, it can grow up to eight inches long and has been known to overpower mice and small birds, killing them with its venomous bite. It also has a particular fondness for dark, damp places like basements or bathtub drains. Or neoprene dive booties.


Screaming is a universal language. Despite my not having shared a word with my Japanese dive buddies since I arrived on Kozushima, they knew exactly what I was communicating when I tore off my bootie and flung it across the floor of the dive shop, howling in abject terror. The divemaster sprinted across the room, pursuing the 42-legged creature with a broom, dispatching it with a swift swat. As I sat trembling in relief, he proudly walked over with his quarry laid out on a flyswatter for all to admire. “Mukade,” he said with a smile, referring to the monster that had tickled my foot a moment before but mercifully didn’t bite. It was my Japanese lesson for the day.

The night before, I had boarded the Salvia Maru at Tokyo’s Takeshiba Pier. It was the start of a long holiday weekend in Japan and the queue to board the ferry was long and full of vacationers toting surfboards, fishing poles and dive gear. Onboard, I settled into my reclining seat belowdecks, hoping to catch some sleep during the overnight voyage to the Izu Islands south of Tokyo. But sleep came in 20-minute intervals, interrupted by my snoring seatmate and the occasional bump of the ship at the docks of the islands along its course to drop off or collect passengers. As day broke gray and misty, I wandered up on deck, breakfasting on a styrofoam cup of ramen as I watched the slate Pacific roll past. By 10:00, we approached the final island on the itinerary, Kozushima, and I collected my heavy bag of gear and disembarked onto the concrete pier.

Visiting the Izu Islands

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The Izu Islands are a popular weekend getaway for Tokyo residents looking to escape the big city, but the trip does present challenges. Here are a few tips.

Getting There
Ferries run several times a week from Tokyo’s Takeshiba Pier. Book your tickets in advance. The “slow boat” is a 12-hour one-way trip to Kozushima but stops at six other islands along the way. The jet ferry only takes five hours but costs more. Online reservations are in Japanese only so it’s best to call.

Among the seven Izu Islands, the diving is best on Kozushima and there are a few diving operators on the island who can take you or arrange diving right off the beach. I dove with Aqua Mate, but they’re Japanese only, so it’s best to have Dive Zone Tokyo help out with your arrangements. They can book ferry tickets and line up your diving and sleeping accommodations on the island for you. Be aware that lodging on the islands is largely “Japanese-style,” which means tatami mat floors, futon-pad beds and floor seating for meals.

Kozushima is a tiny island with steep roads and little to do that’s not on or near the water. The dive shops will handle your transportation or you can take taxis. If you do any walking, remember that cars drive on the left side of the road, so look both ways before crossing.

If you catch the slow ferry, there’s plenty of room for larger bags but on the jet ferry, space is limited so pack accordingly. For diving, if you bring your own gear, water temps run in the low 70s during the fall so plan on at least a 5mm wetsuit. Summer’s water warms close to 80.

Kozushima is part of Tokyo prefecture but it is a 12-hour ferry journey and truly a world away from the Japanese metropolis. At a mere seven square miles, its population is less than 10,000 people, most of whom rely on fishing and tourism for a living. Like the rest of the Izu archipelago, Kozushima is a volcanic island, rising dramatically from the Philippine Sea, its 1,800 foot peak shrouded in clouds and its steep hillsides draped in green forest. Though it was late October, the air felt moist and despite the breeze and cloud cover it was warm enough to shed layers.

At the end of the pier, a small Nissan van was waiting, and a smiling Japanese man approached me with a clipboard. I was easy to spot, the only white person to get off the ferry. “Jason-san?” he said, pointing to my name on his list. I nodded and he helped me load my bags into the back of the van. I piled in alongside a handful of other divers who’d arrived and exchanged greetings using my limited Japanese vocabulary as the van bumped along up the steep roads to the dive shop. None of them spoke English and the ride set the tone for the whole weekend — communication limited to gestures, nods and smiles.

Diving is a global sport with certain protocols and customs that transcend culture and language. At the shop, we unpacked our gear and pulled on wetsuits. I scribbled my life away on a liability release form written entirely in Japanese and we were off to the boat, careening back down the rain-slicked road to the harbor. The dive boat was a low-slung, long-bow traditional Japanese fishing vessel, its deck festooned with ropes, tackle and crates. I assembled my equipment on the pier while observing the pre-dive briefing, again done entirely in Japanese complete with wild hand gestures that I guessed were illustrating the dropoffs and swim-throughs we would encounter. I decided I would stick close to the dive guide and hope there was nothing of vital importance I missed. The briefing finished with a deep bow from the divers towards the guide, and we humped our heavy gear onto the boat.

The drizzle turned into a horizontal rain as we motored out of the harbor. “Wet is wet,” goes the divers’ adage, but it’s still no fun getting soaked before you get soaked. The captain aimed for a series of rock seamounts that jutted out of the water off the eastern tip of the island. As we neared them, I could make out bright shapes on the jagged rocks — fishermen in raincoats, braving the weather and precipitous perches to angle for snapper and jacks that cruised the depths here. The captain cut the motor and we all scrambled to shoulder our tanks. My fellow divers were a mixed lot, some who looked like fresh-faced college students, a pair of women who looked like suburban housewives, and a rotund older woman with an ancient hooded diving suit. Our two dive guides were lean and muscled with lined faces that told of a life spent outdoors. All were wearing thick hooded wetsuits and air-insulated drysuits. I, on the other hand, had a mere 3mm wetsuit more fit for the Caribbean than the Pacific in October.


One by one we splashed into the sea and descended the steep wall of the sea mount. The sides of the rock held a riot of soft and hard corals that teemed with fish while farther out, silhouetted against the deep blue, were huge schools of pelagics — amberjack, snapper and trevally. For someone used to diving in the balmy Caribbean, the Pacific is always a wonder to behold. The colder water is richer in nutrients, bringing different species in large numbers. The psychedelic lionfish, an invasive scourge in the Caribbean, is a welcome denizen here, as are the Nemo-esque clownfish that lurk in the waving anemone.

But more dangerous are the creatures that lurk in the damp corners of the dive shop, waiting to creep into your wet gear.

Our group swam in formation, our language differences left topside as we pointed, waved, smiled and gave the universal “OK” sign to each other. The overcast day made for dark diving, lending an ominous pall to the scene. After 40 minutes, we ascended, popping up in churning seas and a pelting rain. The dive boat maneuvered towards us and I grabbed the trailing line the captain had thrown in the water to wait my turn to climb the ladder. Once onboard, we motored back to the harbor and then back to the dive shop.

Surface intervals are done differently on Kozushima. Elsewhere, the time between dives is typically done on the bobbing boat, eating dry cookies and overripe fruit, biding the 45 minutes necessary to off-gas before the next underwater excursion. But here, the time is spent at the shop with a cup of green tea and a bento box lunch sourced from the supermarket down the street and noshed at the communal table at the dive shop. I ate in silence to the bemused looks of my dive buddies, who watched as I struggled with chopsticks.

Neutral Buoyancy


It was on a cave diving trip to Japan that Lamar Hines, the founder of Dive Rite, came up with the idea for the TransPac XT buoyancy compensation harness. Humping heavy tanks over the dry sumps deep inside caves would be a lot easier if the harness was built more like a mountaineering backpack, so Hines went home and created one that was. The Transpac XT has become a favorite of technical divers thanks to its highly adjustable strap system, plethora of well-placed metal D-rings and modular design that can adapt for multi-tank setups — even side-mounted ones. Swappable air wings mean you can add lift quickly and easily. Its light weight makes it ideal for travel.

After lunch and a warming cuppa, everyone slowly prepared for the next dive, easing into sopping, cold dive suits. That’s when I felt the tickling in my bootie. I knew immediately what it was. I’d heard horror stories of people bitten by scorpions, spiders and these same centipedes elsewhere in the world. Some people fear diving for what lurks in the depths — barracuda, toothy eels and sharks. But more dangerous are the creatures that lurk in the damp corners of the dive shop, waiting to creep into your wet gear.

After our second dive, the weather worsened and with the shorter days of fall, it was nearly dark by the time we returned to the harbor. I gleaned from our guide, via hand signals and broken English, that tradition on Kozushima was to visit the onsen, the traditional Japanese hot bath, after diving. Nothing could be more appealing; I was chilled and soaked through and desperately needed to warm up.

The onsen was perched on a dramatic rock outcrop overlooking the harbor far below. Its waters come from deep in the Earth, spewing out of the rock walls and bubbling up in the pools. Wooden walkways and carved stone steps connected the outdoor pools to the indoor locker rooms and private spas for men and women. After a quick dip in the spa, I donned my trunks and headed outside. A light rain was falling as I settled into the corner of a far pool. The rain kept most people inside and I had the pool to myself. The waves crashed on the rocks far below and lights twinkled on boats bobbing behind the breakwater. A warm meal and a night in a family-owned inn awaited me, and then another day of diving before I caught the ferry back to Tokyo.

I slid down into the hot water and closed my eyes, feeling the cooling breeze and raindrops merge with the steam rising around me. There I was, naked and alone, the sole English-speaker on a tiny Japanese island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, yet I felt at peace and entirely in the moment. Then I thought of the centipede and wondered if I’d remembered to hang up my booties.

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