Women have a saying in Ise-Shima: “A full-fledged Ama diver has the guts to feed even her husband.”
Tying a 30-pound stone around his elderly wife’s waist, the husband patiently waits securely in the boat until she completes her dive, filling her bucket with seafood, so he can pull her back in, and together, sail home. Date night? No. This is the 2000-year old tradition of Funado Ama Divers. Men go out to fish, and women plunge into the bay to search for sea life. Why? Because, we’re told, women have more fat than men to help them brave the cold, and have greater breathing capacity. Whatever the reason, this human feat is extraordinary.
1000 independent Kachido Ama divers swim into the frigid waters of the Ise Shima bay in Mie Prefecture. Donning white suits to ward off sharks and protect against jellyfish, they mark themselves with a peace sign to drive away evil spirits, a star sign for a safe return, and a check sign to denote that God will keep watch over them. Without modern diving equipment like oxygen tanks, they dive 10 metres deep, hold their breath for more than one minute at a time, and then whistle to maintain correct breathing. When they return to the surface, they fill their buckets with oysters, abalone, turbon shell, sea urchin and seaweed. They’ve been training since childhood and dive well into their 80s. Their three-hour journey is freezing, so the first one back has to light the fire–quickly.
Seated in an Ama Hut in Osatsu town, we look out over the ocean and await today’s catch. One by one they file in—this mysterious band of woman with cherubic smiles—carrying with them baskets of large clams, scallops, squid and turban shell. Sipping miso soup and indulging in sea urchin rice, we’re mesmerized as they char their treasure over the grill, and serve us their sampling of the sea.
Nearby Mikimoto Island is the birthplace of cultured pearl aquaculture. Ama pearl divers give demonstrations here, but the pearl in the shell is actually inside the museum where we are riveted by the brilliant process patented by Mikimoto Kōkichi for cultivating pearls. Glittering spectaculars fill the museum, like the eighteen carrot gold Mikimoto Pearl Crown, bejewelled with seventeen diamonds and 796 pearls; the Liberty Bell, first exhibited at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, set with 356 diamonds and 12, 250 pearls; and The Globe encrusted in 373 diamonds, 377 rubies and 12,541 pearls. The gift shop is as accessible as it is magnificent, with gorgeous necklaces, earrings, bracelets and pendants of gold, pink, black and white pearls. The only way to get away with not purchasing a unique gift from Mikimoto is to never let anyone know I was here.
On the outskirts of town is Shinmei Shrine, which houses Ishigami-san, God of stones and protector of women. Ama divers worship here, and it is considered a power spot that attracts women from all over Japan, in part because Ishigama will grant one wish: for a woman. In addition to safety at sea, I’m sure that more than a few have had Mikimoto pearls on their mind.
Adam Waxman is an award winning travel journalist focusing on food, wine and well being. As well as an actor in film, television and formerly, the Stratford Festival, he is the Associate Publisher and Executive Editor of DINE and Destinations magazine.