Nanatsugama caves were origin of a diving legend

The Yomiuri Shimbun

A view of the Nanatsugama caves from a cliff top. The green seawater of varying shades and wide cave entrances give off an air of mystery.

By Tomoo Ota / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterKARATSU, Saga — My trip began when I boarded an outlandish squid-shaped leisure boat at Yobuko Port in Karatsu, Saga Prefecture. After a 15-minute sail through choppy waters and pleasant salt-scented winds, a row of caves lining the base of an about 40-meter-tall cliff came into view.

The collection of caves, called Nanatsugama, is the product of erosion from rough waves in the Genkainada sea area. The cliff is made of basalt rock that accumulated due to volcanic activity millions of years ago.

The largest of the caves measures about 3 meters wide at the entrance and 5 meters high, with a depth of about 110 meters. Sadamasa Inoue, skipper of the leisure boat, reduced speed and deftly maneuvered the vessel as we sailed into one of the caves.

Slide 1 of 2


  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Columnar joints are seen in layers inside one of the caves.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

As I stood on the bow, rocks shaped like hexagonal pillars came into view. They seemed to consist of many overlapping layers — the whole scene looked like a giant bees’ nest.

The structure is a columnar joint. It is thought the hexagonal shape formed as rocks cracked and solidified due to the cooling of lava.

Inoue, 39, said: “This area is called Nanatsugama because there are seven caves. But when you count carefully, there are actually eight. The new cave probably formed amid the constant battering of waves. One broke through and became a roughly 70-meter-long tunnel.”

Nanatsugama also has ties to Jacques Mayol, a legendary French diver who was the first person ever to skin dive to a depth of 100 meters.

Born in Shanghai in 1927, Mayol spent his summer vacations in Karatsu every year as a child. When he was 7, he would skin dive with his older brother in seas around Nanatsugama, where he saw a dolphin for the first time. Mayol described the fateful encounter in his book, “Homo Delphinus: The Dolphin Within Man.” The book was published by Kodansha Ltd. with the Japanese title, “Iruka to Umi e Kaeru Hi.”

He wrote that, as a child, he thought of dolphins as comrades and that he believed intuitively his relationship with them was only just beginning.

Mayol would go on to work at an aquarium in Miami, where he developed a close bond with one particular dolphin. He polished his diving skills by swimming with the dolphin in its tank, and later became famous worldwide when he was portrayed in “Le Grand Bleu” (The Big Blue), a film directed by Luc Besson.

Mayol returned to Nanatsugama in 1992 and stayed at Yoyokaku, a long-established ryokan inn. Harumi Okochi, 73, the ryokan’s okami female general manager, described him as a “man of nature.”

One morning, when Mayol was to be recorded diving near Nanatsugama for a Japanese TV program, he suddenly insisted on calling off the dive. Those involved in the program were perplexed by his behavior.

However, Mayol told Okochi that he could tell it would rain in the afternoon based on the smell. As he predicted, it rained that afternoon and the seawater became muddy.

Afterward, Mayol would return to Nanatsugama two or three times each year. But in December 2001, the legendary diver committed suicide on the island of Elba in Italy after battling depression.

Yoyokaku has always had a guest room named Nanatsugama. A small photo of Mayol now hangs on the wall in the bathroom.

As if looking off into the distance, Okochi said, “Even now, once or twice a year we’ll have guests who want to hear about Jacques Mayol.”

Kunchi festival growing popular

Karatsu Kunchi, an annual autumn festival held at Karatsujinja shrine, took place from Nov. 2 to 4. More than 500,000 tourists participate in the festival every year. The event’s registration last year as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage has contributed to its growing popularity.


The flight from Haneda Airport to Fukuoka Airport takes 1 hour and 50 minutes. Take the Kuko Line subway and JR Chikuhi Line for a total of 1½ hours to Karatsu Station. Then drive 30 minutes from the station to Yobuko Port. Inquiries: Call the Karatsu Tourist Association at 0955-74-3355.

To find out more about Japan’s attractions, visit

Click to play


+ -

Generating speech. Please wait...

Become a Premium Member to use this service.

Become a Premium Member to use this service.

Offline error: please try again.