Go Deep into Japan
Surrounded by water, Japan is a paradise for marine activities. Professional free diver Hanako Hirose introduces some of her favorite coastal destinations and talks about the incredible wonders that lie underwater.
Competitive free diver
Hanako Hirose is a professional free diver, diving instructor, and underwater model. In Vertical Blue 2017 in the Bahamas, she became the second woman to dive to a depth of 100m in Constant Weight (CWT), breaking records for Japan and Asia. She later went on to set a world record, diving to a depth of 106m
I spent a lot of my childhood playing on the shores of Mikurajima, a small island on the Pacific Ocean—it’s where my grandparents lived. The sea was so beautiful and teeming with marine life. My family would skin dive for shellfish or play with the many wild dolphins that inhabited the waters. I wanted to spend as much time as I could with the dolphins, so that’s what pushed me to hold my breath for so long. Surprisingly though, I was a terrible swimmer (laughs).
I first found out about competitive free diving as a middle schooler, when I watched the movie The Big Blue about French free diver Jacques Mayol. In high school, I got a part-time job so I could attend a free-diving school. I eventually started competing in championships around the world. There was a time when I actually wanted to be a jockey, because I loved riding horses too (laughs), but now I’m just determined to break all kinds of records for free diving
Dean’s Blue Hole, The Bahamas (Vertical Blue 2022)
Mikurajima is a tiny island with a population of about 300 people—most of them happen to be my relatives (laughs). It’s a part of an island chain off the coast of the Izu Peninsula, collectively known as the Izu Seven Islands (although they’re actually a part of Tokyo!). To reach it, you take an overnight ferry from Tokyo’s Takeshiba Pier. I love the journey, as you wake up in the morning and find yourself in a serene island.
I think the best part about Mikurajima is its population of wild dolphins. There are dolphin-watching and snorkeling tours, and you have a very high chance of spotting them.
On land, the island has lush swaths of forestland. It’s a paradise for nature lovers since you’ll find all kinds of plants and wildlife, like the nioiebine orchid, Pleske’s grasshopper warblers, and streaked shearwaters. You can even combine your visit with a trip to the nearby island of Hachijojima, also known for hiking and diving.
Wild dolphins in Mikurajima
Mikurajima’s primeval forest
On top of my list is Amami-Oshima, which was recently designated a World Natural Heritage Site. It’s an amazing place with its crystal-clear waters and colorful clusters of coral. Dotted with caves, underwater tunnels, and mangrove forests, the landscape is very dynamic. It’s inhabited by rare creatures like Ishikawa’s frog and the Amami rabbit. In many places, visits from divers and tourists tend to change or damage the natural environment, but Amami-Oshima is still well-preserved thanks to efforts from the community. I hope we can continue to keep it that way.
Okinawa, in the south part of Japan, is pretty popular with international divers for its beautiful waters and diverse marine life. It’s made up of dozens of islands, and recommendations depend on what you want to see. For example, you can head to the Kerama Islands for humpback whales, and Miyakojima for cavern diving. The islands have a unique culture all their own, different from the mainland—that’s another reason why it’s worth visiting.
Coral reef in Amami-Oshima
I’ve been to places like the Bahamas and Palau, where the waters are so clear, they look like swimming pools. In contrast, much of the seas surrounding Japan are deep, opaque hues of blue and green. That comes from all the seaweed and kelp. They’re a testament to how nourishing the waters are for marine life. When you dive in, you see fish of all sizes—it’s such a diverse and thriving ecosystem.
Also, in many tropical waters, the water temperature tends to stay the same throughout the year, but in Japan, you can sense the changing of the seasons when you’re diving—this is because the country is long on a north-south axis, so there’s great climactic variation by region. It’s tropical in the south parts, while areas further north have monsoonal and continental climate. So, depending on where you go, the marine life varies according to the season, as does the temperature. Of course, you have to put on special wetsuits when it gets colder! My favorite time of the year is late September, when fall is approaching and the water is around 25 degrees Celsius. There are also a lot of options when it comes to the type of places you can visit—you can dive with drift ice in the northern island of Hokkaido, or check out tropical fish in Okinawa.
For me, food is very important and I realized that the quality and taste of seafood here is unrivaled. Japan is surrounded by the sea on all sides, so you can find fresh seafood almost anywhere you go. I love eating fish like sea bream and yellowfin tuna in Kagoshima in the south. In the Izu Peninsula, not far from Tokyo, I recommend the dried horse mackerel, a salty dish which goes quite well with sake.
I work as an underwater model, and when I take pictures, I always try to show the harmony between man and nature. Our oceans are so precious, and it’s important for us to cherish and preserve them for future generations. Whether it’s for surfing, swimming, or snorkeling, I’d love for people to come visit and see for themselves how biodiverse and beautiful Japan’s oceans are—hopefully this will inspire them to foster an even deeper appreciation for the outdoors.
At Osezaki, Izu Peninsula
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