By Ada Smith
Last summer I had the opportunity to be invited to an all-expenses-paid trip to the coast of Ainan to test a promotion by their tourist board. The trip promised a boat ride out to a nearby island, some underwater sightseeing, and a class held by a local artisan. All I needed to bring was a swimsuit, ¥1,000 for lunch, and a willingness to smile in the group photos.
I honestly did not think that the trip would happen. It had already been postponed once, due to it being ‘a little windy,’ and the weekend of the postponement date was approaching in lock step with not one, but two typhoons. Luckily, I did not schedule anything for that day except a Netflix marathon, so when the call came through that it was time to pack my bags and head down to Ehime’s southernmost town, I was eager to do so.
The morning was calm and bright, with picturesque clouds and only a hint of a breeze. It seemed like perfect weather to go out to sea. I met the rest of the group, about two dozen or so people, at the town hall where we boarded a bus and headed down to the coast. The first stop was the dock that would serve as our adventure launching point for two of the promised activities; a glass bottom boat ride and ‘sea walking’. After a quick assembly and some information distribution, phase one of the tourism extravaganza was underway. We filed onto the boat and sped away from the dock into sun speckled waters. While we were traveling, we stood on the deck of the boat, taking in the beautiful morning and the verdant land reaching around the bay.
Soon we had reached the reefs, and it was time to head below.
I was a bit mystified walking into the hull of the little boat because a quick scan told me that the bottom was most certainly not glass, but I sat down on one of the cushioned benches facing the walls. Once everyone was seated, the bottom of the boat started to drop into the ocean, revealing the beautiful coral reef bellow through porthole-esque windows. Though I nearly killed my phone’s battery trying, cameras could not capture the wondrous world below us. It seemed the more I looked, the more different kinds of fish I saw. Some traveled solo and I only saw one or two, others in slightly larger groups of ten or so. My favorites were the ones that swam in schools. Sadly my knowledge of marine creature names reflects my profession as an elementary school teacher; among the ones I was able to identify were the zebrafish, the Dory fish, and the blackfish. I could have spent all day watching the silver fish as they flicked in and out of visibility, alternately disappearing and glinting in the soft light; hundreds strong.
Too soon it was time to go above deck and head back to the starting point, though for others it wasn’t soon enough. The rocking of the boat, which was constantly spinning in slow, lazy circles so that no matter where you were sitting you could have a three hundred and sixty degree view, combined with the various movements of the fish, made it something of a challenge to keep your breakfast. However, there was a very elegant spiral staircase that one could take if they thought that fresh air would help their predicament.
Back on docks where we started, there was a rush to change into swimsuits, fill out waivers, and generally prepare for the next phase. Soon we were on a ferry (remarkably similar to the glass bottom boat, but sans fancy staircase) and making our way to the largest of the islands dotting the wide mouth of this inlet. Kashima (not to be confused with the Kashima off the coast of Hojo) was going to be the launch point for the main attraction of the day: sea walking.
Sea walking was by far the most unique thing we did this day, and is also the biggest draw tourism-wise. The basic premise of the sea walking was that one would put on a helmet which circulated air so you could breathe in relative comfort while walking around, about ten feet under the surface of the water.
Once we arrived, we were given a short talk on the safety procedures and precautions for walking under water and then divided into smaller groups. My group was going third, so while we waited I grabbed a pair of snorkeling goggles and swam around the beaches off to the side of the dock. It was mystifying to be so close to the fish again, but it was very different from seeing the ocean from inside a boat. For one it was more individual; I couldn’t point out a fish or some beautiful coral to a friend next to me, or take pictures for later. Everything I saw I either remembered or I didn’t, which in a way makes it more satisfying, if more fleeting. I’d gone snorkeling before, and the reefs of Kashima were neither the most densely populated nor the more colorful oceans I’ve seen, but it had the kind of feeling that one has when exploring their own backyard. It’s not dramatic nor flashy like a vacation to some far away land, but the magic and wonder of what you discover is no less diminished. It’s easy to forget in the doldrums of our days what a beautiful and fantastic world is right outside our doorsteps.
After about twenty minutes, it was time to make our way back to the dock to get ready for the sea walking. It was thrilling, and a little frightening, to get the helmet put on. They weighed about thirty kilograms, and required a pulley system to be hoisted up and put on your head. Once you were waist deep on the stairs leading into the ocean the helmet was lowered down and, once it hit your shoulders, you were supposed to sink down with it. It was very disorienting at first; the waves from the ocean are no less powerful just below the surface of the water, and it’s difficult to know at first how much of the weight of the helmet you are supposed to bear. For the first few minutes, I was helplessly bobbing up and down on the bottom of the sea, tipped over by every wave and confused as to where my feet were.
However, once I got my bearings and could and move around, the wonderment set in again. It was thrilling to be walking on the bottom of the ocean. The commotion from the air being circulated, the bubbles and my own breathing was really all that I could hear in the helmet but it didn’t matter; the experience is purely visual.
The guide took us on a short circuit around some coral, pointing out fish and writing their names on an etch-a-sketch type board. He wrote mostly in hiragana and katakana, but if he knew the words for something, he would write it in English. For me, the most thrilling part of the trip was the little underwater bugs (‘bags(?)’ our guide wrote the first time) that were living on the coral. They looked like tiny anemones; fixed to one point and waiving dozens of miniature phalanges in the water. They came in an assortment of bright colors; white, yellow, pink, green. The best part though, was when our guide brushed his finger over them and they disappeared, faster than a blink, back into whatever recess they hid in. It was mesmerizing.
All too soon, our trip was over and it was time for us to head back to the steps to have our helmets heaved off of us. We left that little underwater oasis, with fish darting in between our feet, and tried to find our land legs again. Some people simply hung out on the dock and watched the other divers, or walked around the small island to see the campground. But I was back in the water as soon as I was out, exploring around the pier and seeing what other fish there were through the snorkeling goggles. My count for extraordinary sea creatures was three; one eel, one mantaray, and one yellow trumpet fish. There was even a paddle board for us to use, but I only got to try it in the last few minutes before the ferry was back to pick us all up.
I spent too much time in the sun, but those few hours under the ocean -the glass boat, the snorkeling, and the sea walking- were all layers of one magical experience that I would gladly revisit, given the opportunity.
However, our day was just beginning. Once back at the rest stop, everyone cleaned up (or at least rinsed off) in the public showers and changed back into our everyday clothes. After counting off and making sure that we hadn’t lost anyone over board, it was back on the bus for the third phase of the trip.
We went further along the coast to a little town built into the side of the mountain. Every house was shored up and enclosed by a stone wall, and each one was on varying levels. Wending throughout the entire village were stone paths and stairs, connecting each of the residences. The alleys were narrow, and though well lit from the midday sun, it was always a mystery what you would see down the next alley, or within the walls above you. Sometimes it was a house, sometimes a garden or a small orchard. Within one wall was a small grassy space and a park bench, overlooking the vista into the sea. There wasn’t a soul to be seen, but the houses and yards looked well kept, and it was a pleasure to walk through and explore the area.
The purpose of this stop was to patronize a cottage-turned-restaurant, which was nestled about midway up the hill in the village. Our group took about ninety percent of the seating room in the little restaurant, but that only enhanced the sense of coziness. The food was amazing, mostly sashimi of varying kinds, miso soup and, of course, rice. There were some tempura pieces as well, and an option for kakigori after. I got matcha (another first for me; I’ve had the tea, and several matcha flavored candies, but never the shaved ice form), which tasted sweeter than I expected, but was very delicious.
Once everyone was fed, we wandered back down through the stone-walled village and once again boarded the bus. Retracing our journey, we went to another part of Ainan, where we took a lesson in Sea Born Art. This art form is common in Ainan, where local artists scavenge the beaches for shells and seaglass and weld them into beautiful lamps, frames, and anything else that their creative minds can think of.
We didn’t have time for a welding lesson, so instead we afixed small pieces of shell and sea glass to wooden picture frames using a hot glue gun. There was very little in the way of instruction, but that only meant that everyone’s frame looked entirely different and unique. All of the pieces that we used were scavenged from the beaches during clean up operations, and the people behind Sea Born art hope that they can help raise awareness and encourage people to clean up beaches through their art.
Finally, the day was over. We piled into the bus for the final time, no longer strangers, and ended the trip where we started.
If anyone is looking to get to know your southern neighbors a little better, or are feeling like you just haven’t spent nearly enough time in the ocean, I can’t recommend this trip enough. It was well balanced and with enough variety to please anyone who joins.
Ada Smith is a second year JET living and working in the small country town of Kihoku-cho, Ehime. In college she worked as a journalist for the school newspaper and was published in the campus literary journal Cross Currents. Though her time outside the classroom is spent cooking, knitting, and traveling; she still loves to write about her experiences.