The Nanyo area in the southwestern part of Ehime Prefecture has its own unique climate and culture, including the rich nature of the Uwakai Sea with its rias coastline and Shikoku Karst, the picturesque townscapes of Ozu, Uchiko, and Uwa, and the local cuisine that makes the most of nature’s bounty. The area has been gaining popularity in recent years, partly due to the extension of the expressway from Matsuyama, the central city of Ehime Prefecture, to Uwajima, making it easier to access. This time, I joined a snorkeling tour to enjoy the rare tropical fish and coral reefs off the coast of Uwakai in the Nanyo area.
Snorkeling off the coast of Uwajima in Ehime prefecture is not the most intuitive activity in winter. As I was looking at the weather report forecasting afternoon rain, I was already shuddering to think about immersing myself in the cold seawater under an ominous cloud cover. It wasn’t raining yet, but our E.B. (Easy Breathing) Divers hosts had moved our hotel meeting time up one hour earlier (to before sunrise) to get a head start on the sky. Little did I know then that snorkeling around Yura Shrine would be the highlight of my four-day trip to Setouchi.
The excitement started to build during the drive along the coast from the city of Matsuyama. The highway was surrounded by forests shrouded in a dramatic cloak of low misty clouds only seen on cold winter mornings. Occasionally, we emerged from a tunnel into clear blue skies that appeared to have magically dissipated the fog above farming villages in green valleys below.
Nearing our final destination, we made a brief stop at a Tsushima yasuragi no Sato to sample the local snack of jakoten — bite-sized slabs of fried fish paste, traditionally handmade from small fish caught in Uwajima since the Edo period (1603〜1868). Salty and hot, they were the perfect appetizer to whet my appetite for a local marine adventure. The roadside station also sells many other local delicacies, including oranges from Ehime, which is famous as a citrus powerhouse. By now, the sun had fully risen, and it was getting warm outside. As the mountainside scenery exploded into fiery autumn leaves, I was already fantasizing about the underwater colors and textures of Uwajima’s living coral reef.
Soon we arrived at the port on the tip of the edge of Tsushimacho Tsuboi under gently clearing skies. We crossed the bay over the shallow coral reef, around pearl farms marked by floating black spheres, and where “Wabune Boat Race,” a traditional event, is held every summer at Yura Shrine. Now the bay was perfectly calm, and I imagined how all these activities centered around this spiritual power spot were hinting at the infinitely rich seascape hidden underneath the surface of the water.
On the far shore, the sea-facing torii of Yura Shrine (由良神社), a tiny secluded sanctuary dedicated to the goddess Suseribime, beckoned us to follow the divine sea path to its hearth.
The shrine is as divine as it is discreet, a deceptively simple wooden building ensconced in a dense grove behind the large stone torii, guarded by two stone komainu. Its roof is decorated with intricate carvings of dragons, carp, and phoenix. Adding to its allure is the fact that it can only be accessed by boat.
Once we paid our respects and prayed for protection at sea, we were ready to get wet and go under. And so was our winter snorkeling gear: I wore a full wetsuit over a rubber vest with gloves for extra warmth, while the instructor Hiroko wore a tight-necked drysuit over her light sweatshirt and sweatpants.
Surprisingly, the water didn’t feel at all cold. My body adjusted quickly, the wetsuit was super buoyant, and Hiroko led the way, each of us with one hand holding onto the small floating device between us. All I had to do was keep my eyes open and breathe.
The first thing I saw was the coral directly beneath us, healthy and flourishing in intense hues of maroon, beige, and emerald. As we moved along the shallow reef, sea creatures began to appear: indigo blue sky fish, brightly striped anemone fish, small jellyfish, and bigger, longer brown fish camouflaged against the moss. When we broke up pieces of boiled egg into soft white bits and released them into the water, the fish came even closer to nibble at them hungrily.
But the most spectacular sight was a swirling school of kibinago (slender sprat or silver-stripe round herring), which suddenly swooped around and before us like a shimmering meteor shower in the sunlight. (Little did I know that the next time I would see these slender silvery bodies would be on a dinner plate.)
The midday sun felt warm and bright, illuminating all the marine life of Uwajima’s native coral reef. I wanted to swim out further, but the deeper water was also murkier, so we lingered near the shore.
That day we were the only people enjoying the bay, making it feel like a private snorkeling pool. As a veteran scuba diver, Hiroko knew exactly what to look for and where to find it, and she made me feel completely at ease in the water with her. I almost felt like Urashima Taro being guided to an underwater palace through the sea. Hiroko laughed as I marveled in excitement at the variety of marine life on display before us.
“In summer, there are even more fish,” she said. “You can also see turtles, rays, and more.”
Although we had plenty of time for a leisurely exploration of the reef, I was still basking in the delights of undersea discovery when it was finally time to climb back into the boat. I had just put down my fins when Hiroko poured soothing warm water into my wetsuit, indulging me in an impromptu standing onsen. Then, Norihito drove the boat back to the port, offering us a last view of the sparkling bay with the wind in our hair and the sun on our backs.
Once I changed out of the wetsuit, we headed to an onsen further down the coast in Ainancho, the area’s more mainstream hotspot for diving, snorkeling, and other water sports. And just as we hit the road, it started to rain! Of course, E.B. Divers had perfectly timed our day with expert foresight.
Safe inside the onsen, I relaxed in a genuine hot spring bath, enjoyed a light seafood lunch, and indulged in a refreshing mikan gelato. By the time Hiroko and Norihito came to pick us up, they had finished cleaning up at the port and even edited a short smartphone-friendly video of our outing together. Hiroko had been documenting our entire Yura Shrine snorkeling excursion with her GoPro, both above and underwater so that we could just focus on the experience itself and enjoy the adventure.
Back in Matsuyama, we stopped at the E.B. Divers shop for a friendly chat over tea and mouthwatering slices of raw katsuo tataki (skipjack tuna) expertly cut by Norihiko, who moonlights as a bartender. Their cats kept us company as the divers recounted rare marine life sightings off the coasts of Ehime and Kochi prefectures, including a bright red akaguchi (starry handfish) immortalized in a photograph on the wall. It was the perfect end to an inspiring day trip to Uwajima’s more intimate waters, knowing that going snorkeling was the equivalent of just getting our feet wet in the Seto Inland Sea. We were all grateful for Ehime’s healthy and thriving coral reef.
Norihiko and Hiroko Seike have been leading tours, training divers, and selling/renting equipment through their company E.B. (Easy Breathing) Divers since 2004. They have over 35 years of experience as diving instructors between the two of them and stay up-to-date with all the latest gear and equipment for their shop, so an all-inclusive snorkeling day-trip is only the beginning of what they can offer. In addition, the lush personal underwater photography on their walls and website bears witness to the diving couple’s many years of experience, expertise, and passion.
As we parted ways back in the city center, Hiroko left me with a wink and these tantalizing words: “See you next time in summer!”
To get to E.B. Divers shop in Matsuyama from Tokyo, take the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen line to Okayama, then transfer to the scenic Yosan Limited Express line to Matsuyama station. From there, you can either take a taxi (15 minutes) or walk to Dobashi tram station and take the Gunchu line to Kamata station.
text by Cherise Fong
Photographs by E.B. Divers, Hiroko Seike, Cherise Fong
2-23-7 Yougominami, Matsuyama, Ehime
Shop hours: 11 AM – 8 PM
Snorkeling tour from 8 AM to 5 PM (with advance reservations)
Price: 9,900 JPY per person (Includes snorkeling equipment rental fee and one bath towel)
HP (Japanese): https://eb-divers.com
Reservations can be made from this web page: https://eb-divers.com/snorkeling (Japanese)
*This tour is for people between 120 and 190 cm in height and between 35 and 90 kg in weight. For those over 60 years old, a medical history check and medical certificate are required before entering the sea.Free pickup from Matsuyama City is available upon request.
Free shuttle service is also available from Matsuyama city.