Sue Wallace dines with the free divers of Toba, gaining insight into their millenniums-old tradition.
THE elderly women sit in a semicircle by a smouldering fire, warming up after diving for shellfish delicacies in the cool waters off the coast of Toba in Japan. These women, called ama - Japanese for women of the sea - are part of a tradition spanning thousands of years. Their diving practice is mentioned in ancient classical literature and there's a reference to ama dating back to AD927 in Japan's Heian period.
Toba, at the north-eastern end of the Shima Peninsula in Mie Prefecture, once flourished as the castle town of the Kuki family, who ruled the region from the 16th century. Today, with its many offshore islands, Toba is a popular holiday destination for beach-goers, surfers and seafood lovers.
But it is the living legends, the ama, whom I have come to see.
The ama of this area traditionally presented abalone to the shrine of Ise Jingu and imperial emperors. Today, we visit two traditional diving huts, called amagoyas, and are warmly welcomed. At our first stop, two ama, aged in their 70s, with weathered faces and warm smiles, tell us about their life in the sea.
They burst into laughter as we try to converse by nodding, smiling and pointing and then resort to our interpreter. She asks if we saw the James Bond film You Only Live Twice, where a glamorised version of an ama emerges from the sea. The ama laugh at its unrealistic portrayal. We hear how, as young girls, these women started diving without oxygen tanks and wetsuits, collecting abalone and shellfish. Reiko Nomura, 77, says she's a fourth-generation ama and very proud of her profession. She was taught everything she knows by an elder ama and she, in turn, has taught others.
The ama have developed a unique method of breath control to protect themselves from the bends. After surfacing they let out a long whistle. Their sea whistling, described as a mournful melody, is rated among the top 100 soundscapes of Japan.
At one time, ama dived for Akoya pearl oysters but this has long been abandoned because of the rise in cultivated pearls, a process invented in Toba by Kokichi Mikimoto in the late 19th century. The coastline here is rugged, with pebbly bays and rocky headlands, and is an ideal habitat for sea urchin, abalone, various forms of seaweeds and Pacific spiny lobster. Collecting abalone is hard work and the ama use a long stick, descending eight to 10 metres, either diving from small boats or swimming out from the beach. They only have as long as their breath holds - about 60 seconds - to prise the bounty from the rocks.
The youngest of the ama stay in the water for up to four hours a day, resting and chatting with friends on a floating wooden box. Often they work just with their husband and dive from a boat with a lifeline and a weight that helps them descend quickly. They dive as deep as 30 metres to collect abalone, shells and agar-agar.
After World War II there were 6109 ama divers in the area; today about 1300 still live and work in the region.
"Young women don't want to spend their life in the sea - it is hard work and many are frightened of being attacked by strange creatures," Nomura says.
Traditionally, the ama wore a white cotton diving outfit to ward off sharks. Nomura says she's been lucky and has never seen a shark, just an occasional whale. She touches her good luck amulets as we speak.
Ama tend to live longer than other women, says Nomura, who knows of an 83-year-old ama who still dives. And women are better divers, she says, because they have an extra layer of fat and can hold their breath longer.
The women wear headscarves with their good luck symbols drawn on them, including the seiman, which resembles a star, and the douman, a pentagram or grid, to ward off evil. They also have a small shrine in their hut where they thank the gods for a safe return.
The two women cook char-grilled seafood over the hot coals and we enjoy oysters, turban shells, sea bream, Washington clams, as well as abalone served with soy sauce and wasabi. We sit in the simple hut overlooking the waters where these women have spent more than 60 years diving to earn a living.
From March to April they dive for hijiki and wakame - types of seaweed - and from May to September it's abalone and sea urchin.
Fishing villages, such as Ijika and Adako, line the east coast of the Shima Peninsula, between Imaura, in the south-eastern part of the city of Toba, and Ugata.
Ama can be seen at work collecting abalone and seaweed and if you love seafood there are restaurants offering it on the menu.
At our second stop, a group of ama have returned from the sea and are huddling around the fire, pleased with their haul of abalone and sea urchins, which will be sold at the market.
They say they often sit for several hours warming themselves after a dive, even though these days many wear wetsuits.
"The cold goes to your bones and it takes a long time to warm up," an elderly ama says.
Not far from the huts we head to the local shrine of Ishigami, the goddess from the sea whom the ama worship. Ishigami is a deity who promises to grant one wish in a lifetime to any female who comes to worship.
Another attraction of Toba is the Mikimoto Pearl Island, which features the history of Kokichi Mikimoto who, in 1893, produced the world's first cultured pearl. There is a pearl museum, the Kokichi Mikimoto Memorial Hall and a collection of exquisite pearl jewellery, including elaborate crowns and necklaces. You can also see diving demonstrations by ama dressed in traditional outfits and hear their haunting sea whistling.
The Toba Sea Folk Museum traces the history of the women and features
56,000 exhibits, including a historic tuna fishing boat. There is also a large aquarium, with manatees, dolphins, a walrus and a variety of shellfish.
A visit to the Ama Museum, in Toba's Osatsu village, where most ama divers live, is a fitting end to my day.
The museum highlights their culture and heritage and as I leave I purchase a tiny bag emblazoned with the ama's lucky amulets.
I am served by an elderly ama who takes my hand and says: "It will keep you safe and ward off evil like it has for me." Somehow, I don't doubt her. It is now a treasured reminder of these remarkable women of the sea.
The writer was a guest of Japan National Tourism Organisation.
Japan Airlines (1300 525 287; au.jal.com) flies daily to Tokyo's Narita International Airport, from $1590 with same-day connections to Nagoya and Osaka. Qantas (13 13 13; qantas.com) and Jetstar (13 15 38; jetstar.com) also fly to Tokyo.
Rail services are available from Tokyo to Nagoya and Osaka. Then take a train to the seaside port of Toba. See hyperdia.com for fare and timetable information for both Japan Rail and private railways like Kintetsu.
A Japan Rail Pass (japanrailpass.net) is also available.
Toba Hotel International, 1-23-1 Toba, Toba City, is set in the bay; with great seaside views and seafood cuisine, the six-storey, four-star resort hotel and five-story annexe is situated in Ise-Shima National Park overlooking Pearl Island; +81 599 25 3121; tobahotel.co.jp.
For traditional Japanese accommodation Todaya Inn; 1-24-26 Toba, offers hot springs spa baths; +81 599 25 2500; todaya.co.jp/html/english.html.
See + do
Women Divers Hut visit and lunch, Osatsu-cho, Kujirazaki Toba City. This is a great day out. Meet ama divers and eat seafood in a traditional ama hut on the coast; afternoon tea $27, lunch $47, discount for children. +81 599 25 3121; amakoya.com.
Osatsu Ama Culture Museum, Osatsu-cho 1238 Toba City, +81 599 33 7453. Free of charge, open 9am-5pm.
Mikimoto Pearl Museum 1-7-1 Toba, Toba City, is where you can also see diving demonstrations by ama divers, from 8.30am to 5.30pm most days. Adults $20, children $10; +81 599 25 2028, mikimoto-pearl-museum.co.jp.
Toba Sea-Folk Museum, 1731-68 Daikichi, Uramura-cho Toba City, open 9am to 5pm; adults $10.50, children $5.50; +81 599 32 6006; umihaku.com/past_event/english/index_english.html.