Thursday, August 26, 2010

Amazing Japanese Summer Vacation: Shirahama Scuba Diving and More!

Sunday morning we got up bright and early and went on a bus tour of the Shirahama area. Our bus driver was really nice, and there were only a few other ladies on the tour. First we went to Shinjo-jiki, or “one thousand tatami mats,” a rock formation near the sea. It doesn`t sound very interesting, but it was beautiful. Here it is:



Next we rode to Sandanpeki, a really tall cliff. In this picture I`m on top of the cliff, looking out over the sea:



Here are the crashing waves. Pretty impressive!



There was also a nice shop there and a tein (tay-in; traditional Japanese garden). Here`s what that looks like:



And a cave that could be reached by high-speed elevator, but I wasn`t sure I would have enough money for that and scuba diving, and there were plenty of other things to see in the short forty minutes we were allotted. (As with all of the places we visited that day, Mom and I could have easily spent several hours there.) But I definitely want to go in the cave next time.

Next our bus stopped on top of a hill overlooking the entire Shirahama area. Very beautiful; here`s our group in front:



And last but best of all, we took a ride in a glass bottom boat! Mom had always wanted to, ever since she saw the movie Glass Bottom Boat.. It`s a dumb film, but the idea stuck. I got really sea sick until Mom beckoned me over to the much cooler side next o to the fan. We really couldn`t see a lot of fish, but there were ama women divers who jumped out of a dragon ship and performed tricks for us under water without any breathing apparatus. Here`s one of them:



We also got a good look at Full Moon Island. It looks like something from a movie. Here`s Mom and me standing in front of it:



They say it offers the most beautiful sunset in all Japan. Unfortunately, we didn`t get to see it, because we went to the Bon Odori Festival instead! But next time.

The final stop of the tour was shopping, and Mom got to see what a traditional Japanese market looks like. I love sea glass! I don`t know why, but it`s really pretty. Some of the free food samples were good, but Mom refused to try any. I have to admit, she wasn`t missing much by rejecting the pickled plums and salted salmon guts.

After the bus tour, I made a reservation for scuba diving. I was so nervous! I`ve always wanted to go, but I was afraid of going far underwater. My three biggest nightmares are getting stuck in a tiny space I can`t get out of, drowning, and being eaten alive by dinosaurs. No, I`m not kidding about that last one. That`s why I can`t watch dinosaur movies. If someone actually gave me the option of traveling back in time and there was any chance I might meet a dinosaur, I`d turn them down flat. So drowning isn`t quite as scary as that, but it`s a more practical fear, I suppose.

Anyway, I really lucked out. The shop had absolutely no customers and I had the guide (who was one hot dude, let me tell you), all to myself. Here`s him and me just before the dive:



And here's me alone in my wet suit. I look like a female cat burglar or that tomb raider chick or something:



First he instructed me on basic underwater hand signals, how to clear my ears as the pressure built up the further down we went, how to sink, how to float, all that stuff (we weren`t actually in the water; he was just telling me). Thankfully he spoke pretty good broken English, (that`s what I call the ability to use decent vocabulary in fragmented phrases), and anything he couldn`t explain that way I could discern from slow Japanese and lots of gestures. Then we went out. At first I was really scared and couldn`t figure out how to swim with those giant flippers. I practically clung to the guide, unable to keep myself from being flung every which way by the waves. It was hard not to breathe through my nose when I had what felt like a giant gag in my mouth (the oxygen tube), to keep biting on the tube really hard so it wouldn`t slip out of my mouth, and take slow, deep breaths. There was a lot of painful pressure in my eardrums and we had to keep pausing so I could equalize it by holding my nose and blowing. But after about ten minutes I got my scuba legs and was able to swim on my own wherever he guided me, without any discomfort. He had a little plastic etch-a-sketch thing he would write the names of the fish on, first in Japanese, then in English if he knew it. We saw octopus (I got to touch it), anemone (definitely didn`t touch that), urchins, clown fish, sand dollars, regal tang fish (think Dory from Finding Nemo), yellow tang, coral (kind of chalky like it was dead), crab, pencil fish, eels, sea stars, and lots of little blue neon tetras! It was so cool! After twenty minutes I was pointing at everything and dragging him around! He wrote on the etch-a-sketch that I was a real natural.

I was surprised when he said it was time to go up. I was expecting us just to take a little break and then go back down, but he said the tour was over. I had thought it was supposed to be for three hours; that was what the advertisement said. He laughed and said no one, not even experts, can stay down for three hours, adding that normal first dives usually last only thirty minutes, but he extended ours by an extra ten because I seemed to be doing well. The three hours covered everything; suit up, instruction, dive, suit down, and free shower after, but all that together still only took an hour and a half.

I just looked it up, and it isn`t uncommon for shallow dives to last two hours with just a single tank of oxygen. Oh, well, I really can`t complain. After all, usually he takes more than one person at a time, so he was getting less than his usual pay for this one. Just be forewarned: scuba diving is REALLY expensive, about one hundred dollars for that short dive, and even if the place advertises longer, it might not be as long as you would think. I still believe it was worth it, though. Afterward the guide sat with Mom and me and talked quite a while, all of us drinking tea and relaxing in the shop. And when we were ready to go back to our hotel, he gave us a free ride, even recommending a cheaper one for next time.

But before we headed back, we hung out at the beach. I climbed all over the cliffs and rocks, finding little sea creatures and barnacles. Oddly enough, one thing Japanese beaches lack is sea gulls. Can`t say I really miss them. One time my aunt was at Lake Michigan eating an ice cream cone, and one swooped down and snatched it right out of her hand! They`re noisy and always fighting and they spread disease. Annoying trash cans with wings. Not rats with wings. That`s pigeons. Japan, on the other hand, has cranes. They`re much more beautiful and majestic. And quiet.

Finally, Mom and I left that beach to go to the Bon Odori dance. This is a traditional style of Japanese dance performed around the Obon Festival to welcome the deceased sprits of ancestors and dead relatives home. At first it wasn`t much; they played the same annoying traditional Japanese song over the loud speakers again and again, you know, the kind with the singing cat women, yelps, and atonal instruments. Mom asked me if the words meant anything special. From what I could tell, they were only saying, “This is the special Shirahama dance we do every year at summer time. Listen to the pretty music. Dance the steps. Aren`t we having fun?”

But then the dancers came, all dressed in the same, uniform, traditional yukata summer robes, and beckoned me to join them. I couldn`t help it. If there`s a dance, I have to be in it, even though I have two left feet and the coordination of a drunk monkey on speed.

Anyway, here are the dancers, before I ruined their dance:



It wasn`t that bad, actually. The steps were easy, repetitive, and I caught on fast with the help of a very enthusiastic lady beside me. We danced down the street until we came to a sort of village green. There we danced around the center of the green several different dances with our complimentary fans, then had a raffle based on the numbers on the fans. Mom and I didn`t win anything, but we met the hotel managers there, and they walked us home so we wouldn`t get lost in the dark. On the way the lady stopped by the store, to pick up some ice cream, she said.

“Should we buy some too?” Mom asked.

“She told us very sternly to wait here,” I replied. “Besides, she`s going to bring us some.”

“Oh, really? Did she say that?”

“No.”

“Then how do you know?”

“Because she`s Japanese.”

Mom just stared at me. “What does that have to do with anything?”

I shrugged. “I know the Japanese people. They think it`s rude to buy something for yourself without offering some to others.”

Mom shook her head. “They haven`t exactly been nice to us. This morning when I tried to get some more bread for breakfast they glared at me, crossed their arms, and wouldn`t give me any, even though it`s included in the cost. You really shouldn`t expect her to bring us anything. You`ll be disappointed.”

“No, I won`t.”

Sure enough, the lady appeared two minutes latter with ice cream for all three of us. I winked at Mom. She still looked shocked. “Should we pay her for it?”

“No, that would be rude. It`s a gift. Just say “oishi” (delicious) over and over and thank her profusely while bowing several times. That`s the Japanese way.”

The next morning they were nicer to us and gave us all the rolls we wanted instead of limiting us to two each. We took them as our lunch. I had tried unsuccessfully to decipher the complicated train and bus schedules that were outdated and only partially correct. We were going to head for the cave at Sandanpeki we had to skip earlier, but we decided just to chill on the beach. I`m really glad we did. I love just swimming and sun bathing in the clear blue ocean. And plum ice cream. Soon I`m going to buy myself some snorkeling gear so I can do that whenever I want. It`s a lot cheaper than scuba diving.

That evening after a five hour journey home, Mom really wanted to go to my school`s band concert, even though it was in another city. We took and train and a taxi and ended up being about thirty minutes late. Of course, Japanese concerts lasts about three hours, so that wasn`t a problem. But there were two hours of just solos, most of them miserably ill-prepared, but it was amazing to hear the disparity of levels (everything from “Lightly Row” to Bach— I think Partita in Minor for flute, something most flutists can`t play until college). Mostly disappointing, except for the three band pieces at the end. That made it worth it.

I was worried about how we would get hope, but luckily I ran into one of my former students who used to live in America, and she took us to Kentucky fried chicken, then back to my apartment. I`m telling you, that`s how I live my life in Japan. If I want to do something but can`t figure out the logistics, I still do it, knowing that somehow, someway, it`ll all work out. And it always does.

Guess what we did Tuesday? After all that, we went to Toba to play island hop and play with the dolphins! More about that tomorrow!

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