East of Ise, the ragged Shima Peninsula juts out into the Pacific Ocean. Most of this mountainous area belongs to the Ise-Shima National Park, whose largest settlement is the port of Toba, home to the famous Mikimoto Pearl Island. Although it’s on an attractive bay, the main reason to stop in the town of TOBA (鳥羽) is to pay homage to the birthplace of cultured pearls. The seafront is mostly a strip of car parks, ferry terminals and shopping arcades, behind which run the main road and train tracks. However, there are a number of interesting museums that have opened in recent years, and the abundance of good seafood restaurants is also worth considering should you wish to stop over.
In 1893, Mikimoto Kokichi (1858–1954), the son of a Toba noodle-maker, produced the world’s first cultivated pearl using tools developed by a dentist friend. Just six years later he opened his first shop in Tokyo’s fashionable Ginza shopping district, from where the Mikimoto empire spread worldwide. His life’s work is commemorated – and minutely detailed – on Mikimoto Pearl Island (ミキモト真珠島), lying just offshore, five minutes’ walk south of Toba’s train and bus stations. Even if you’re not a pearl fan, the museum is extremely well put together, with masses of information in English describing the whole process from seeding the oyster to grading and stringing the pearls. There’s also a section devoted to Mikimoto’s extraordinary pearl artworks. The unsung heroines of all this are the ama women divers who stoically come out every hour in all weathers to demonstrate their skills.
Further along the seafront is the Toba Aquarium (鳥羽水族館). The steep entry fee is off-putting but it is one of only two places in the world where you can see a captive dugong. The Toba Sea Folk Museum (海の博物館), further down the coast road in Uramura, is housed in an award-winning wooden building overlooking the ocean. The museum, both inside and out, has been constructed to resemble the upturned hull of a wooden fishing boat. It has some informative 3D exhibits on the historical relationship between the people of Toba and the sea, and if you are interested in the ama women divers, there are some good displays here providing more historical background. The museum is 10km south of Toba on the Pearl Road driveway.
The ama women divers
The ama women divers
The female diving culture of Ise-shima dates back to the earliest annals of Japanese history. Known as ama, the women free-dive for shellfish, such as oysters and abalone, as well as harvesting seaweed. On average they’ll spend three to four hours a day in the water, going down to a depth of 10–15m without any breathing apparatus, and some are still diving past the age of 70. Ama usually dive year-round either in small groups, or from boats skippered by their husbands. The reason for women-only divers is that they can hold their breath longer than men and are blessed with an extra layer of insulating fat, which protects them from the freezing waters.
Traditionally, ama harvested seafood in Ise Bay and transported it to Ise-jingū, where they presented their catch as an offering. They played a major role in the development of the cultured pearl industry in the nineteenth century, helping to gather the akoya pearl oysters. Today, there are approximately 1300 ama in the Toba area; they still wear the customary white outfits, which apparently scare off sharks, and which are also marked with special protective star-shaped charms to ward off bad luck.