Overfishing, ocean pollution and sea bed crawling, which destroys ocean floors, are just a few of the threats the ocean is facing today. Mie Prefecture’s Ago Bay offers socially conscious travelers the chance to dive deep into the traditional—and sustainable—world of ama diving.
Ama translates to “sea women” and refers to the Japanese female freedivers who have honed their skills over generations. These fearless underwater hunters employ traditional techniques and minimal equipment to harvest a bounty of seafood from the ocean’s depths. With a history spanning more than 2,000 years, ama diving not only serves as a means of sustenance, but also as a symbol of resilience, cultural pride and a profound respect for the ocean’s treasures.
The earliest written records of ama date back to the 8th century in the Man’yoshu, an anthology of Japanese poems (although others say this practice has existed for thousands of years prior). It is said that women were traditionally chosen as ama divers since they have more subcutaneous fat compared to men, making them more resilient to cold temperatures. In the past, they were equipped only with a diving mask, tenugui (bandana) and fundoshi (loincloth), secured to the boat with a simple rope tied around their waist. Post World War II, they wore more modest outfits made of white cloth or rubber wetsuits.
Today, the ama continue to freedive using minimal equipment (using diving tanks is prohibited). Although there were as many as 10,000 divers around Japan after World War II, that number has dropped to 2,000, most of whom are in their 60s or older—ama diving as a career has become less lucrative. Kachido divers work in shallow depths (four to eight meters) while funado divers use heavy weights to bring them down as deep as ten to fifteen meters. They work up to two minutes underwater before resurfacing and letting out an isobue, a whistling noise to help regulate breathing between dives. Their fresh catch is placed in nets floating on the surface.
While you can sometimes find ama diving in coastal towns in Japan and South Korea (called haenyeo), Mie Prefecture is said to be where ama diving originated. It is blessed by Ise Bay’s rich marine ecosystem which has historically provided abundant opportunities to harvest seafood. This was further supported by the Mikimoto Pearl industry. In 1893, Kokichi Mikimoto, a resident of Toba, Mie, successfully cultivated the world’s first cultured pearls, revolutionizing the pearl industry. Ama divers played a crucial role in collecting oysters and participating in the pearl cultivation process.
Mie has also developed initiatives to celebrate this tradition, making it a hub for those interested in experiencing the world of ama diving while simultaneously ensuring the sustainability of marine resources through conservation efforts. Armed with local knowledge and low-impact techniques, the divers selectively harvest according to season, thereby preserving their environment.
While you can watch a demonstration of ama diving from the Ama Viewing Platform at Mikimoto Pearl Island, tour company MIEscape takes it one step further by offering a unique experience where you can join an ama diver to harvest seafood and then dine on your fresh catch at the ama hut afterwards.
The tour starts at Kashikojima, one of two inhabited islands in Ise-shima National Park (there are just 98 residents), and famous for its azure waters and pearl cultivation. The island is connected to the mainland by two bridges and is surprisingly easy to access by train. After changing into a wetsuit and listening to instructions, you’ll board a small boat with an ama diver and spend a morning assisting and learning to freedive (or snorkel if that’s more your pace) for shellfish.
Our ama diver for the day is Kimiyo Hayashi, a local who has been diving since she was a child.
“My mother and grandmother were both ama divers,” remembers Hayashi, whose summers were spent playing in the ocean. “After graduating from middle school, I had an opportunity to go to America for work as an ama demonstrator.” That was when Hayashi decided to pursue ama diving full time. Even at the age of 68, she effortlessly dives down as deep as six meters. Most divers dive for half a year (spring to summer) and spend the other seasons farming or helping with pearl harvesting, but the hardy Hayashi dives throughout the year.
After diving, head to Satoumian, a restaurant and ama hut, where you can hear more of the ama diver’s stories as she prepares and grills your seafood. From March to September you’ll be able to catch awabi and tokobushi abalone, sazae (turban shell) and uni (sea urchin). In October, the ama divers turn to Ise ebi lobsters.
The tour runs from April to late November and requires a minimum of two participants. It costs ¥33,000 for the experience including boat fare, wetsuit rental, English translation and insurance.
The best way to get Ago Bay is by taking the Kintetsu Limited Express train from Nagoya Station to Kashikojima Station (90 minutes). There are several hotels nearby. To book your experience, visit MIEscape.
Further north along the Ise Bay coast in Toba is the Osatsu Ama Culture Museum. While small, this museum celebrates the heritage of ama divers from the local Osatsu Region and is a must visit for those interested in Japan’s ama diving tradition. Admission is free.
This museum preserves the knowledge, history and antique equipment of the region’s fishing traditions and culture including ama diving. They also host workshops, talks and animal identification at nearby tide pools. Admission is ¥800 for adults and ¥400 for children.
Also located in Toba, this island is an iconic destination known for its pivotal role in the history of pearl cultivation. Visitors can explore the pearl museum, purchase pearl jewelry and see a demonstration of the ama divers in action. Admission is ¥1,650 for adults and ¥820 for children.
Photos by Trent Maxwell
Featured Photo Courtesy of Iseshima Tourism & Convention Organization