Meet the ama divers of Ise-Shima, the women preserving Japan’s ancient art of sea foraging

Numbers of ama, Japan's female divers, have declined in recent years as generations left to pursue careers in big cities. The Ise-Shima peninsula, in southern Mie Prefecture, remains one of the best places to learn all about this age-old practice.

By "Visit Ise-Shima" Bureau
Published 18 Mar 2021, 15:00 GMT
Now clad in diving suits, ama divers used to wear white costumes to ward off the ...

Now clad in diving suits, ama divers used to wear white costumes to ward off the cold — as well as hungry sharks.

Photograph by "Visit Iseshima" Bureau

Though only a few hours' train ride from modern megacities like Osaka and Nagoya, Ise-Shima is the timeless Japanese landscape familiar from woodblock prints: a peninsula of forested shores, fishing villages and green islets in Pacific bays. Serene though it may seem, the region exerts a magnetic power over six million Japanese pilgrims who visit the holy Shinto shrine of Ise Jingu every year, while nature-lovers come here to renew their spirits at Ise-Shima National Park. What’s more, Ise-Shima is also the last great stronghold of around 600 ama divers, and the best place for visitors to discover their ancient way of life.

Ama traditions may date back as far as 2,000 years. Meaning ‘women of the ocean’, ama once thrived across Japan, diving to collect seafood for their villages and, in the Ise-Shima area, prized abalone as offerings to deities at Shinto shrines, such as Ise Jingu. Plunging into dark fathoms, gliding among reefs and kelp forests, ama could hold their breath for long periods of time. Now clad in wetsuits, they used to wear white costumes to protect themselves from the cold and — it was believed — to ward off hungry sharks.

To learn more about this tradition, start at the Ama Hut Experience in the Ise-Shima area — visitors are welcomed at a shack on the quays, where weary-limbed ama rest and recuperate after a dive. Inside, guests can meet the divers themselves and listen to their tales of aquatic adventure while tucking into a tasty lunch of freshly dived clams, barbecued scallops and lobster.

Next, follow the coast a few miles north and you’ll reach Mikimoto Pearl Island, a tiny offshore landmass beside the city of Toba and the birthplace of the production of cultured pearls. Ama once played an essential role in this practice, diving to plant, harvest and collect pearl oysters on the seabed; while the pearl cultivation technique has since developed, and ama divers are no longer required, its success wouldn’t have been possible without their contribution. Now a museum, Mikimoto Pearl Island hosts regular diving displays by ama in the surrounding seas, which visitors can observe from a dedicated stand. Inside the museum itself, meanwhile, are models made with Mikimoto-farmed pearls.

To really dive deep into the soul of ama culture, however, head to Ishigami-san shrine, surrounded by a little wood in Osatsu. For centuries, ama divers have come to pray to the resident deity for safe swimming and a good harvest. Now a shrine synonymous with female pilgrims, women of all backgrounds come to ask for safe passage through life — at sea and on dry land.

Ise Jungu, Japan’s holiest Shinto shrine, venerates the sun goddess, who is guardian of the nation.

Photograph by Jingushicho

Three local experiences to try in Ise-Shima


1. Discover the local cuisine
Ise-Shima makes the most of its proximity to the sea. A traditional restaurant in Ise city, Daiki is the place to plunge into local seafood: menus range from multi-course kaiseki banquets to dishes of fresh abalone, spiny lobster and more.

2. Go sea kayaking
Ise-Shima National Park is one of the oldest national parks in Japan, its coastline defined by a labyrinth of inlets and archipelagos. At its southern cusp is Ago Bay, a vast muddle of headlands and tidal channels offering safe harbour from the wrath of the Pacific — perfect for sea kayaking. Shima Nature School offers 90-minute English-language tours out of the eastern edge of the bay, casting off from a sandy beach and setting a course for uninhabited islands. 

3. Visit the Shinto shrine, Ise Jingu
Japan’s holiest Shinto shrine is dedicated to Amaterasu-Ōmikami, the ancestral deity of the Imperial family and tutelary deity of the nation. One of Jingu's rituals expresses the essence of 'eternity', combining sustainability and renewability: while the shrine has existed for around 2,000 years, the physical buildings are rebuilt every 20 years — the old lumbers are used for other shrines, and traditional architectural skills are handed down to new generations. It has long been the ultimate destination of most pilgrims, and everyone can admire the grounds; in 2016, world leaders visited it during a G7 summit.

Getting there

Direct Kintetsu trains connect Osaka or Nagoya to Ise-Shima in around two hours. A lot of attractions are easily accessible by train or bus, but renting a car is a comfortable way to explore more remote locations.

To find out more, visit iseshima-kanko.jp/en

Published in the April 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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