SYNOPSIS:  About the origin of the cultivated pearl industry on Mikimoto Pearl Island in the town of Toba.


First Japan turns out to once be the largest silver producer in the world, now it turns out that cultivated pearls originated from right here.  All the things I did not know…

Outside of Ise, just 30 minutes away by local train is the little town of Toba.  From the station it takes a mere five minutes along the inland bay before you reach a covered bridge announcing the entrance to Mikimoto Pearl Island.  $15 entrance fee is not cheap, but this island museum was well done and even though highly commercialized — a huge sales shop is strategically placed and an overpriced restaurant is hoping to entice you — the museum displays were fascinating, tangible and bilingual and the landscaping and layout of the island a masterpiece of Japanese garden aesthetics.

In layman’s terms with lots of visuals, yet in great detail and scientifically sound, the various oysters were introduced, the history of natural pearl production was explained, models showed the process of cultivated oyster care and harvest, video displays showed women working assembly line style injecting oysters with “pieces” and oyster farming was explained in detail.

Among my favourite displays was a diagram showing all the parts of an oyster — did you know that it has dozens of “organs” membranes, layers, muscles, etc. — and how doctors, veterinarians, I guess — check up on these oysters after they have been “impregnated”.  Are they recovering as planned?  Are they eating well?  Is their digestive system operating correctly?  Are they not getting too fat?  It was hilarious.

I don’t quite share the obsession for the perfect round pearls.  Only 33% of the harvest lives up to that, of which 5% are considered premium pearls.  The rest is discarded as unsalable and then used in cosmetics, medicine, etc.  I actually rather liked the irregular shapes of the pearls and could imagine jewelry made of it quite nicely.

I did not know that there are different colours of pearl produced depending on the rim of the oyster.  There is the typical white-silver, there is pink, gold and even a silvery black.

In the sale shop you get sticker shock!  The first room has pieces ranging in the thousands and tens of thousands of dollars.  The next room gets more reasonably down to the hundreds of dollars and finally, there are a few pieces less than that.  But really — could anyone tell when you wear a necklace if it is worth $50,000 or just $500?  Most people might even think you are wearing artificial pearls!  OK, that depends of course on who you are.

One part of this museum is a demonstration of oyster diving done by traditional female divers known as Amu.  In this sea-dependent region from the beginning of times, the men went out fishing, but the women stayed closer to shore and were diving for food, seaweed, sea cucumber, and other critters which to this day are part of the Japanese cuisine.  These female divers have worn white outfits first recorded in the 3rd century.  It is supposed to scare off sharks and dolphins.  They dive pretty much without gear.  If they dive in pairs, one will go down with a weight and one remains in the boat and has to pull the diver up again, presumably not too soon but definitely not too late…  If a woman dives alone they go out with a wooden basket which they string to their body.  The go down a little less fast since they do not utilize the weight and them come up to their baskets to collect what they found.  It was amazing to see how long these women could stay under water.

The connection to cultivated pearls is that Mikimoto employed these Amu for his pearl farms and thereby guaranteed them employment and survival.  To this day there are 1300 female divers working in this region, the oldest of them 80!  Once they come up, they make a unique whistling sound.  It too, has developed over hundreds of years to optimize breathing after being under water for so long.   It is considered one of the 100 most unique sounds of Japan.  I certainly had never heard it before.  But it was hard to record with motor boats going by.

My hat is off to the guy behind this discovery: Kokichi Mikimoto.  Nothing was handed to him.  He came from a lower middle-class family and went through multiple phases of poverty and mishaps.  But he had drive and a vision and he was going to crack nature’s secret to produce pearls and to duplicate the production reliably.  And he did.  There were people who believed in and supported him.  His wife, some scientists, and some bureaucrats ultimately helped to remove some obstacles for him.  But most everything hinged on him.  He was born in Ise, but it was on this island that his wife found the first cultivated pearl after years of unsuccessful trials.  He made his town and this area prosperous.  But he also had a vision for Japan and he made sure that natural areas would be preserved.  He is responsible for the first National Park of Japan. All in all from what I could tell, a quite likeable guy!  No doubt he is revered around here and surely a bit idolized.  But he well deserves it.

This was a nice change of pace from temples and shrines.  But then there still was Meoto-Iwa, the famous shinto shrine of the two rocks that have been connected as if in marriage by a big rope.  Here, the marriage and love of the primordial Shinto deities Izanami and Izanagi – who through their loved created the Japanese islands and whose daughter is Amaterasu the patroness of the Japanese emperor – are immortalized.  Another one of those iconic images of Japan.  And so I had to stop in Futamura, walk a couple of miles and get that photo…  Who could resist.  Clouds or not.  The real attraction of course is to see the sun rise (or is it set) just between the rocks.  No chance of that, today.  It was just a gray day.

But in this spirit of getting away from the temples for a while, I have chosen Nagoya next — a town not exactly known for its culture but its vibrancy and contemporary life, for shopping and theater and most specifically, for an antique market twice a month.  Let’s see what that’s worth.

Good night.

4 comments so far

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  1. The history of the Ama divers is fascinating! I thought you might appreciate this blog, which contains some videos (though the narration in the last one is ridiculous).

    • Great find!

  2. We enjoyed the history of pearls that we also found in China when we visited our daughter there. Years ago we started to give a godchild a pearl for every occasion that would hopefully become a full necklace for her some day. That cultivated pearl idea stopped when even the smallest pearl became seventy seven dollars – not in our budget and who can really tell the difference.

  3. I watched a documentary recently that included a segment on Japan’s ‘women of the sea.’ It featured one of the oldest ama still diving, though she’s traded in her loincloth for a wet suit. A quick web search for the film comes up empty-handed, though there are a few YouTube options and blogs with vintage photos. I recall in closing it said that few young women are interested in carrying on the tradition and that the tradition in Japan is likely to fade into history.

    Thank you for the interesting background about pearl cultivation. And for making the hike to Meoto Iwa. The myth of Izanami and Izanagi has an Adam and Eve quality to it. I like myth. Myth magically transforms two craggy piles of rock into romantic legend. You gotta love storytelling that can do that!