Delve into Ise’s anciently female tradition and engage in an open-hearted conversation with the Ama, traditional female divers who have been fishing the local waters for thousands of years in Toba and Shima region. “Ama” means “Fisher Woman” in Japanese, but that hardly describes what these women truly are. The Ama Divers are all women who free-dive, without the benefit of equipment except for goggles and an “Isonomi”, a chisel, to pry shellfish from the rocky bottom of the ocean.
They are one of the most beloved cultural treasures of Japan, and are the family bread-winners in the Mie Prefecture, carrying on a family tradition that goes back over 3,000 years, a proud way of life passed down from grandmother to daughter to granddaughter. About 1,000 ama divers practice in 28 districts on the Shima Peninsula of Mie Prefecture.
Today, Amas are primarily known as pearl-divers, but they originally dived simply for food such as shellfish, octopus and seaweed, while pearl-laden oysters were only a bonus find whenever they came across them on the seabed. The Ama divers on the Shima Peninsula are also deeply linked with Ise Jingu Shrine. Noshi awabi (strips of dried abalone) are made from shellfish gathered by Ama and are formally presented as sacred offerings to Ise Jingu Shrine thrice a year.
Some of the Ama dive from boats, while others dive from the shore and can reach down up to 10 meters in just 1 minute. To avoid damage to their lungs from rapid pressure change underwater, they have a special method of breathing with slow exhale. Once you hear the plaintive whistle an Ama diver uses to control her breathing, known as isobue, you will never forget the sound!
The Amas usually gather at their humble buildings, called an Amagoya, or Ama hut, to rest, eat and warm up after their dives. This is where you can experience the Ama way of life, first hand. Enjoy fresh seafood B.B.Q, talk with the Ama women divers and even dance with them. Lunch typically consists of grilled shellfish including sea snails (sazae), large clams, scallops and abalones (in season), served with organic rice grown like, hijiki salad, miso soup with spiny lobster, and some sashimi of sea bream (tai). The seaweeds served are also gathered by the Ama divers.
In the truest sense, meeting with these Mermaids of Japan is a life changing humbling experience.