Experimental Tourists in Toba

A feast of shellfish being prepared for us by the Ama Divers of Toba!

Recently I had the opportunity to go on a “Monitor Tour” of Toba, a fellow city of Mie-ken famous for its oysters, pearls and women divers. The tour was offered to a small group of local foreigners at next to nothing, in order to assess if it would be worth offering to foreign tourists in the future. I don’t usually like doing “touristy things,” but there’s no way I was passing up an all-inclusive getaway weekend for the less than the cost of a weekend’s worth of groceries!

The way Japanese people do tours is pretty epic, if this tour was at all representative. I felt like a variety show guest star half the time, chanting “へえええええええ?! (Heeeeeeeeeeee?!)” in chorus with everyone else in the group when surprising things happened, and exclaiming “うまい!(Umai!)” every time I tasted something new and delicious.

The name of the tour was “The Forest and the Sea are Sweethearts,” which is a little long, but a creative way of expressing the tour’s theme. On our first day we took a boat to a small, remote island called Toshijima, where we visited a seafood sorting facility, and the friendly old fisherman in charge explained a bit about the fishing industry there. This was followed by a tour through the narrow and jagged streets of the town, where local people looked in bewilderment at our large group of rowdy foreigners, and capped off with an epic feast for lunch. This island, it seemed, is one of the rare remaining traditional places in Japan, that is actually relatively undefiled by tourists and feels like an authentic community.

In the seafood sorting plant, we had to wear these stylish safety hats. Unfortunately the plant was closed for winter break when we were there, so even though the owner opened it just for us, we didn’t get to see any fish!

One of the many curious lanes on Toshijima Island. If you notice the mark on the house to the left, it is the kanji for “8” inside a circle, called a “hachimaki.” These mark the homes of single males. The bigger the hachimaki, the… younger the male. After learning the meaning, the guys in our tour group were quick to point out “you can’t judge a man by the size of his hachimaki.”

The epic lunch prepared for our tour group! All kinds of seafood: cooked seafood, raw seafood, seafood in yummy sauce, as well as tempura and, of course, rice and miso.

Astroviper trying to stay warm in the icy breeze atop the boat, on the way back to the mainland from Toshijima.

After that we ventured into a nearby forest, where a man from the local forestry department gave us a tour and explained their efforts to make the forest more sustainable. Basically, they thin the forest out by cutting down selected trees, so that more sunlight can get in, more water can get out, and the forest itself can breathe. At this point, I didn’t really understand the connection between forest and sea our guides were so excited about, but as his explanation was in Japanese with only very basic English translation, I likely missed a fair bit.

In the forest, this guy from the local forest preservation company described their method of thinning the forest to make it more sustainable.

Very cool twisty trees in the Toshijima forest.

It wasn’t until later in the day that I figured out why exactly “the forest and the sea are sweethearts,” and ironically I garnered this from another Japanese explanation with no translation whatsoever. Hooray for understanding something! After returning to the mainland of Toba from the island, we visited a roadside hut where a massive amount of fresh oysters were barbecued for us. By fresh I mean FRESH, literally, they had just pulled them out of the ocean within an hour of our arrival to prepare for our group. One of the guys cooking the oysters explained that, the reason this area was so rich in oysters (and pearls) is because of the optimal conditions created by streams from the forest mixing with the ocean water in just the right way. Aha moment!

Cooking oysters, straight out of the ocean!

These little guys were probably still alive when they got thrown on the BBQ. Not anymore! No jumping oyster sashimi, thank you very much!

While we waited for our oysters to cook, the shop people entertained us (and themselves) by letting us try our hand at chopping firewood. Now, to me, growing up camping, this is a chore. So I was amazed at how many people in our group were so excited to try it. This guy knew what he was doing, and the shop owner was so impressed that he went into the back and brought out this massive chunk of wood (probably waiting for someone like this guy to come along!)

Ta-da! I’ll tell you a secret – I actually hate oysters. But it was kind of an intrinsic part of the tour, so I couldn’t turn them down. The secret to surviving is soy sauce and shichi-kara (“Japanese seven spice”).

That night we were given generous vouchers to visit one of several recommended local restaurants. We could have had our pick of seafood, but many of us were just so seafood-ed out by that point, that we decided to patron the lone Italian restaurant on the list to counterbalance all the oyster meat in our bodies with some good old-fashioned pizza. It was a good thing we did, too, because the next day we would be stuffed with even more seafood than our stomachs could reasonably hold!

Early the next morning after a huge ryokan (Japanese-style inn) breakfast of… guess what… seafood! (but surprisingly also do-it-yourself bacon and eggs), we embarked for Mikimoto Pearl Island. The island is named for Kokichi Mikimoto, who is the founder of cultivated pearls and credited with launching the entire pearl industry. He is quoted on their official website as saying, “I would like to adorn the necks of all the women in the world with pearls.” Thanks to my husband, and apparently (unbeknownst to me at the time) the harrassment of one of my friends directed towards my husband on my behalf, I am now one of those adorned women! Hehehe…

Those are my fingers in front of what may be the largest oyster shell ever!

This pagoda made entirely of pearls was one of the most elegant things on display in the pearl museum.

By far the most memorable part of the pearl museum, and possibly the whole trip, was the Ama Divers. These are women whose job it is to dive for oysters. They do this virtually year-round, stopping only for a short period of time during the coldest of seasons. Although, for our tour, they provided a short demonstration despite the frigid January waters. Adorned in white diving clothes to ward off potential predators, single women dive solo in groups, and married women dive with their husbands supporting them by waiting above the water to pull them up. The husband and wife pairs need to have a high degree of trust, because not being in tune with one another could pose a very real risk of death. Many of the women train for this career since childhood, and only women from within the community can do it. If a woman from outside wants to be an Ama Diver, she has to marry into the community first. It’s a pretty serious deal!

An Ama Diver about to enter the frigid January waters off the coast of Mikimoto Pearl Island

The divers have a long rope attached to the bucket, so that after diving down and collecting oysters (or whatever they may find), they can come straight back to their bucket to deposit their spoils.

After the museum we went on a walking tour through Toba, sampling different local foods along the way. At one point we erupted into a traumatized chorus of “へえええええええええ” when, after our group befriended a very alive shellfish known as “sazae,” the lady introducing us to it took it and promptly sliced it up, body AND innards, to sample. It was… interesting.

Hello Sazae!

Oh, hello Sazae! Let’s be friends! And… then you die.

The flesh (top) and guts (bottom) of our friend Sazae. We said “いただきます” (thanks for the food) more sincerely than ever before, Avatar-style.

For lunch we were treated to the local burger specialty, “Toburger,” presumably a play on the words “Toba” and “burger.” The patty was made with assorted ground seafood rather than beef. I was skeptical but… “うまい!” It was delicious!

After we were thoroughly satisfied by our burgers we went to the last main stop of the tour: the Ama Divers hut. There several Ama Divers prepared an epic feast of shellfish for us – oysters and clams and sazae, oh my! We ate until we were almost bursting, and I stopped only when I started feeling the old gag reflex flare up. I didn’t want to offend our amazing hosts, but I simply couldn’t put another gram of shellfish into my body! After eating we filled out a survey about the trip, thus paying our dues for all the great experiences jam-packed into a pretty cheap weekend. From there we boarded the bus and left Toba, stuffed and exhausted, but quite happily so.

There are Ama Diver huts where the Ama cook for you. They were the nicest most congenial women and they happily put up with all of our ridiculous questions!

I am not sure if or when this particular tour will be offered to the general public, but if it does become available I would definitely recommend it! For people coming to Japan who want to experience something unique and “off the beaten path,” or for people who’ve lived here for awhile and are looking for something new,  Toba, Mie is the place to go! Just… make sure you’re prepared to eat a lot of shellfish!