THE lady looks up from her cooking and smiles. The lines around her eyes crinkle like an oyster shell but there is an energy about the way she moves and the rest of her face is remarkable unlined. At 70 years old she is the picture of health.
You too could look this good if you are willing to hold your breath, dive into freezing water to a depth of 30 feet and stay there for up to two minutes while picking razer -sharp shellfish off a rock.
The Ama divers of Mie Prefecture are a hardy breed – and if you are interested they are looking for recruits.
Ama means ‘woman of the sea’. These days most Ama are elderly women (some are still diving at 90 years of age) who have honed their skill and their impressive lung capacity over many years. The art of free diving used to be handed down but these days most young Japanese would rather sit behind a desk than submerge themselves daily. After WWII there were around 20,000 Ama divers, now only around 2,000 remain. Half of them work in the Ise Shima region, so this is the place to come.
Lunch with the Ama Divers is a rare insight into a vanishing way of life. Which is why I am sitting in a hut by the edge of the sea watching a cornucopia of sea food - lobster, oyster, squid and giant sea snails- being cooked on an open grill. My host tells me through a translator that there was a flurry of interest in her profession a couple of years back thanks to a Japanese soap opera centred round the life of a diver but most who joined were disappointed by the lack of real -life romance and the reality of the job and gave up again.
It is not the first time the mystique of the Ama divers has attracted interest. The first poem to mention women divers was written in 750* and the beauty of the (in those days) young “Mermaids” who dived for oysters and pearls naked but for a loincloth captured the imagination. In You Only Live Twice James Bond’s love interest was an Ama diver called Kissy Suzuki.
Even Kissy wore more than a loincloth and the real Ama divers have been wearing their traditional pearl-white clothes for 150 years (supplemented more recently by wetsuits). It was Kokichi Mikimoto, founder of the area’s pearl industry who introduced the white costumes when he started employing Ama divers to look after his cultivated pearls on Mikimoto Pearl Island.
As I sit trying to get a giant snail out of its shell (rubbery but delicious) I realise I’d be happy to spend all afternoon listening to the sound of the waves and the gentle voice of this woman of the sea.
* in the oldest Japanese anthology of poetry, the Man’yoshu
Luxury links: www.iseshima-kanko.jp
Hilary Doling 20/3/17