Spanish dancer.

THE IDEA OF DIVING IN JAPAN has fascinated me since the late 80s. I spent two years in Taiwan as a divemaster, and had dived with a number of Japanese divers. I was always amazed by the amount of gear and gadgets they carried.
My regular Japanese buddy Mr Matsuhashi was equipped with every possible piece of camera equipment, including two Nikonoses and a video housing.
The Japanese love to photograph everything they see, and divers can get carried away with the pursuit to the point of not enjoying the dive itself.
Mind you, this is the case with many photographers, and Im no exception!
Mr Matsuhashi travelled extensively in his native country and visited many of the top dive locations. He regularly talked about the southern islands of Okinawa, swimming with manta rays and diving the lost world of Yonaguni, a sunken site of ruins believed by some to be a civilisation dating back to well before the Pyramids.
In the 1990s, National Geographic published an article by underwater photographer David Doubilet showing some spectacular reef shots from Okinawa, and spectacular portraits of colourful fish.
The image that stuck with me was of a spider-crab that could grow to have a leg-span of as much as 4m. I wondered how I could encounter this mythic beast before finding that it lives at 300-400m.
Japan has such a diverse range of diving. In the northernmost region is Hokkaido, which offers ice-diving in the winter months. Divers wanting a break from the Tokyo rat-race can take a three-hour drive south-east to the Izu Peninsula, but this is a popular spot, so they could find themselves in a queue waiting to get in!
Venturing further offshore provides a chance to see the giant crabs that inhabit shallower waters.
Six hundred or so miles south of Tokyo are the Ogasawara islands, an idyllic group of archipelagos of 30 sub-tropical and tropical islands, said to be particularly good for manta rays and whale-spotting.
Japan is reckoned to have more than 700,000 divers, around 100,000 of them active. Beginners have at least 20 training agencies from which to choose, 10 of them national.

TO MY AMAZEMENT, half of Japans divers are female, a far higher proportion than in other countries.
One told me that women divers like diving because of the warm water and the variety of dives available in their own country. Fashion also comes into the equation. The Japanese like wearing fashionable kit, and the beautifully tailored female divewear, designer gizmos and cool-looking watches all help to entice women into getting submerged.
Most diving is done from a boat, though some areas such as Kushimoto are situated in a marine park and offer shore diving. Some facilities charge a fee of around $25 a dive, and divers have to hire the tank and weights from the dive centre.
Japanese divers like to travel with dive clubs, visiting locations such as Guam, Micronesia, the Philippines, the Maldives and Palau, their favourite destination. Glossy diving magazines cover these locations in great detail, with beautiful photo-spreads of turquoise water and pretty fish.
Technical diving is still relatively unknown in Japan, and most dive centres know little or nothing about it. There are some 200 tekkie divers, maybe half of them active, and only 30-40 rebreather divers, very few using trimix.
The government has made mixed-gas diving complicated through its rules for filling special compressed gas tanks.
These have to undergo tests similar to any that might be done elsewhere in the world - but the cost is about 250 per tank!

TEKKIE DIVING USUALLY MEANS using nitrox, but not venturing deeper than 50m. When we originally approached a dive centre about using trimix, the staff were curious and appeared unfamiliar with the equipment and protocols of this type of diving.
If you are planning to visit Japan with a rebreather, consider the cost of fills. Helium is expensive and Sofnolime difficult to obtain. On our trip, IANTDs Japan office was extremely helpful, and helped us sort out such issues.

Early this spring a friend from Austria, commercial diver Axel Schoeller, invited me to join a small expedition to Japan to dive a new wreck, that of the Stella Polaris. The name was unfamiliar, but I learnt that it was one of the first cruise ships ever built.
Lying in 72m, just 2.5 miles off the southern seaport of Kushimoto, the wreck had never been dived.
The chance to be the first to visit it, and to dive some of Japans reefs as well, could not be missed.
After an 18-hour flight to the city of Osaka we were collected by our local organiser Keiko. As the only Japanese-speaker, she would be an invaluable team-member.
A three-hour journey further south to Kushimoto and we were greeted with gifts and a traditional meal at our guesthouse.
The following day the owner of one of Japans largest dive facilities, Seamans Club Dive Shop, greeted us with handshakes, bows and business cards - and informed us that we needed a series of permissions to dive.
Having thought our paperwork was already complete, this was a frustrating start. The following days were spent visiting the Coastguard and Fisheries Department, exchanging more business cards, presenting our written proposal and drinking a lot of tea while Keiko did all the talking.

AFTER THREE DAYS, all parties finally gave us the green light to dive. Their caution may be understandable, because the Stella Polaris sits in a particularly bad position for diving.
Its in the middle of the worlds second largest current, the Kuroshio, which runs up the southern coastline of mainland Japan to Taiwan.
The unpredictable Kuroshio snakes in and out of the bay in which the Stella Polaris lies, reaching up to 7 knots. A Japanese team had attempted to dive the wreck late last year but hadnt even made it into the water.
We had chosen May. We understood that the current would be kinder.
In 1925, the Bergen Line of Norway ordered the Stella Polaris from shipbuilder Gotaverken in Goteborg. At 417ft long and 5200 tons gross, and with a top speed of 15 knots, she soon earned a reputation as a cruise liner well suited to more intimate voyages.
On regular cruises she carried some 200 passengers, and half as many on
a round-the-world voyage. A crew of 130 ensured them first-class service. In the summers Stella cruised northern waters, in spring and autumn took in warmer ports of call in the Canary Islands and Mediterranean, and her trans-global voyages took place in winter.
Stella Polaris had her share of misfortunes. In 1937, the Norwegian steamer Nobel was carrying dynamite and ammunition when a navigation failure led her to collide with the Stella.
Fortunately, the dangerous cargo failed to ignite before the Nobel sank. Stella Polaris suffered a damaged prow and a foreshortened bowsprit that would remain as a reminder.
From the outbreak of World War Two to April 1940, the day the Germans landed in Norway, the ship was laid up in Oslo. Bergen Line moved her north, but in October the Germans seized her for use as a recreation centre for submarine officers.
After liberation she was used to carry Russian prisoners-of-war home, before being handed back to Bergen Line in November 1945.

STELLA POLARIS RESUMED HER WORLD CRUISES until 1960, when a Japanese buyer renamed her Floating Hotel Scandinavia and removed her propellers so that she could be classified as a hotel for tax purposes. Later dubbed Restaurant Scandinavia, the business closed in 2005 with an onboard Sayonara party thrown exactly 78 years after her maiden voyage.
Bought for further use as a hotel/ restaurant in Sweden in August 2006, she left her berth for the first time in 30 years to be refitted for the voyage in Shanghai, China.
The ship was towed out of Numazu, but the tugboat crew was soon reporting to the coast guard that the Stella was taking on water and listing.
She was moored at Kushimoto, where bilge water was pumped out, but when she began to sink she was eventually towed out to sea on the owners orders and scuppered.

THE OWNER HAD GIVEN US the position and we found the wreck easily enough. But our excitement was short-lived. The Kuroshio was ripping at possibly 5 knots, so diving was out.
We returned fully equipped over the next two days, but the unpredictable current remained brutal, and we were all pessimistic. Then, early on the third day, we were amazed to find that there was almost no current at all. We threw in the shot, and Axel and I jumped in with our rebreathers, and support diver Tanaka.
At 50m, in more than 20m visibility, I could see the inclined forward mast and the swimming pool in the distance.
The towline was floating up from the bow, and fishing nets were strewn over the deck. From the anchor-winch I had an almost perfect view of the upright wreck. Damaged bridge apart, it looked to be in almost perfect condition.
At the bow in 65m the name Stella Polaris appeared clearly on the white hull. After a relatively short dive, we surfaced relieved that the current had remained slight.
We informed the authorities, and the Japanese media took up the story, the Stellas sinking having been big news. We gave a press conference, but for the next few days the Kuroshio current swept the wreck as strongly as ever.
Then, on the eighth day of our 10-day expedition, we struck lucky. The current was slight on the surface and, amazingly, non-existent on the wreck.
We had planned to investigate damage to the bridge, but it was more a case of: where was it Large ships moor in the area and it seems likely that an anchor ripped the bridge off. Parts of the structure were hanging in lines in midwater,. All that was left were the two telegraphs and the compass binnacle.
Short on time, we explored only the bow section. The authorities had denied us permission to penetrate the wreck.
After 20 minutes it was time to come up, but we hadnt been disappointed by our two dives, and had enough video footage to satisfy our client.

WITH ONLY TWO DAYS LEFT, we took the chance to do some scenic dives. Kushimoto claims to offer some of Japans best reef diving, and is a popular destination for diving nationals, though rarely visited by foreigners.
With 10 other divers we were led down to the Seamans Club dive-boat, We Love Sea. Stepping aboard, I caught sight of more underwater cameras than
I had ever seen on one boat, and a surprising number of the latest DSLR housings. Every diver had a camera, some two or more.
It took 15 minutes to reach our first dive site, Asaj, a 30m plateau with smaller plateaus coming up to 10m. The visibility was green, and I soon regretted my choice of a wide-angle lens.
As we swam among the boulders, and through swim-throughs, schools of sweepers darted and dashed around us. The rocks were covered with brightly coloured fluorescent Ceratosoma trilobatum nudibranchs, and at the end of the dive we saw a Spanish dancer twisting across the reef.
On surfacing we were greeted with a bucket of hot water as a makeshift shower, and a cup of green tea. The team whisked us back to the centre, where a Japanese lunchbox and a hot cup of miso soup awaited us.
In the afternoon at Good Wrasse World the visibility was better and the reef even more interesting. Ranging from 3-15m, it consisted of a sandy bottom with small rocky areas.
A resident green turtle was grazing on some coral. Used to divers, it didnt seem bothered by our presence.
Our enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide led us to a small coral head where colonies of pygmy seahorses resided, though at 3-5mm we could barely see them, let alone photograph them!
We proceeded to visit a jawfish that lived in a hole with a small shrimp, and gently placed a few stones in the entrance of their home. The fish picked them up and carefully added them to an existing neat pile.
It was an intriguing glimpse of Japans reef diving. I hope to return to explore the Stella Polaris further, to spend more time in Kushimoto, and to head south to Japans premier dive destination of Okinawa to see its caves and caverns.
Japan is extremely safe, and the people so welcoming. Everywhere we went, we were entertained and presented with gifts - it was a magical experience.

Chilling at Seamans Dive Club.
Local dive masters.
The name Stella Polaris is plain to see.
On the bridge.
A hot shower is always welcome when you get back to the boat.