Exploring the Yonaguni Monument

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Exploring the Yonaguni Monument

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1Exploring the Yonaguni Monument Empty Exploring the Yonaguni Monument on Tue Jan 16, 2018 8:51 am



In the early 1980s, whilst scouting for dive sites on the remote Japanese island of Yonaguni, a young diver discovered something underwater that took his breath away. He describes it as an "underwater Machu Picchu". Watch the clip above shot by Diveplanit.com to see it for yourself.

That young diver was Kihachiro Aratake, and he is now owner of the local dive shop on Yonaguni Island. I'm hearing his story firsthand some 30 years later, and as he gets to this part of his tale his eyes widen with excitement, the magic and mystery of the moment still with him.

Either he truly believes it is an ancient monument – perhaps a fragment of the mythical lost continent of Mu – or he's a really good story teller.

So, is it an ancient monument, the remains of a legendary city like Atlantis, swallowed by the ocean thousands of years ago? Was it built by aliens? Or is it a natural rock formation? Archaeologists and geologists are still at loggerheads 30 years later, and during that time, it's been the subject of several books and documentaries.

So naturally it's the first thing I want to see when I arrive here for a scuba diving holiday, to decide for myself.

Yonaguni is the western-most island in Japan's tropical Okinawa archipelago. There is spectacular diving to be found throughout Okinawa, and the prefecture also has a fascinating culture, somewhere between Japanese and Chinese.

The chain of islands was once known as the Ryuku Kingdom, independent from Japan and recognised by the Chinese Empire of the time. Back in the 17th century it was an important trading port, and the international influence is also tangible today – the local sake made with Thai-style long grain rice and distilled using methods also learned from the Kingdom of Siam.

The Yonaguni Monument dive site is close to shore on the south-eastern side of the island, a 40-minute trip around the coastline from the harbour, and while it's a shallow dive – between five and 10 metres – the area is sometimes subject to strong currents.

The entrance to the site is through a small tunnel which opens out on to a flat square area. As you emerge from the tunnel, right in front of you are two massive columns, with perfectly square edges, stretching up to the water's surface. From here you follow a flat road around the tall walls of the monument to an area that looks like a stage.

There are large steps leading up to the stage, and more steps leading on to higher levels of the structure. I think it's when I see the steps that it strikes me the monument simply must be man-made, each the same height and width as each other, with sharp 90 degree angles.

At the edge of the stage, the walls drop down steeply to a depth of around 45 feet, and you can just imagine crowds standing below, looking up at some kind of spectacle. The water is incredibly clear, with visibility of at least 40 metres.

I peer over the side of the stage into the gully. No crowd today, but I can see two turtles gliding along, far below us.

Past the stage there is a deep triangular alcove, which Aratake believes to have been some kind of chapel or alter. Our dive guide, Aratake's son Shorty, shows me on his compass that the 'chapel' faces exactly due north and there is a large slab of rock placed just before the apex, almost like a sacrificial altar.

A little further along is another perfectly symmetrical structure, which looks like a giant turtle. Could this have been a god-like creature that the ancients worshipped?

I must admit, it's pretty convincing. Geologists argue that the rock formations are natural sedimentary – sandstone. Archaeologists counter this claim arguing that the monument could have been carved out of stone (sandstone is relatively easy to carve, isn't it?). But if this monument was built on land and then swallowed by the sea, it must have happened over 10,000 years ago, the last time sea levels rose. Which means it predates the Egyptian Pyramids and megalithic structures such as Stonehenge by about 5000 years.

Whether or not you believe this is a man-made structure or a natural rock formation, it's still an incredible sight to see, and it's not the only amazing dive site here in Yonaguni.

There are 67 surveyed dive sites here, many with beautiful caverns and caves to explore, pristine coral reefs and other striking features such as large fields of anemones and enormous gorgonian fans. Better still, even in November the water temperature is 27 degrees, thanks to a warm current that runs up the east coast of Taiwan.

There's plenty of marine life here too, everything from brightly coloured anemone fish, to turtles, rays, and in season, huge schools of hammerhead sharks.

So, is the Yonaguni Monument man made? You really have to see it to believe it (or not). Its mystique has managed to last over 30 years so far, and no doubt it will continue.


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