Pearl jam

An Ama puts on a diving display
Photos by Mary King

Mary King heads down to Mikimoto Pearl Island - a gem of a destination for jewelry lovers.

One story has it that Cleopatra, who gave some of the most lavish parties in ancient Egypt, was challenged by Mark Antony one evening to bet on the cost of her banquet. Purposely dropping her pearl earring into a goblet, the Egyptian queen is said to have promptly downed her wine and declared the cost of the night' extravagance equal to the worth of 15 countries. Whether in the East or West, myth, magic and mystery have long surrounded the smooth, rounded body that is actually formed in the shells of various bivalve mollusks and commonly used as a gem.

In ancient Rome pearls were said to be made by the gods from the early morning dew of heaven, and Europeans until the 16th century widely accepted what is called the "raindrop theory," that the pearl was the product of solidified raindrops. Like many nations, Japan has long cherished its own mythology and mystique of the pearl. The ancients employed it not for personal decoration but as an eye lotion or heart medicine. The pearl was also worshipped at shrines around Ise to ensure bountiful hunting. In old Japanese folk tales - such as Yohei, the story of a Japanese fisherman - the pearl is said to be "alive." In classical literature, such as the poems found in the Manyoshu, you can read of the early links between pearls and the Ise Peninsula, which is in present-day Mie Prefecture. You also discover in these pages the ama, or female divers, who risked their lives plunging beneath the wild waves to fish for oysters in which they found the highly revered pearl. The Manyoshu tells us of these brave women of ancient times, whose equally brave successors you can see to this very day diving off the coastline just a short car ride from Ise-jingu, Japan's most sacred Shinto shrine.

Grading pearls
Grading pearls

Pearl culture
Today Mie Prefecture is world-renowned as the birthplace of the first cultured pearl. Here on Mikimoto Pearl Island, some 350,000 visitors arrive every year to learn about the significant role Japan has played in preserving and promoting the pearl. On this island, formerly known as Ojima, you can glean all you need to know about the Mikimoto pearls, the queen of cultured pearls that adorn the necks, fingers and ears of the world's most fashion-conscious women. The Pearl Museum tells the entire history of the valuable bivalve and the business of pearling, and it displays jewels and jewelry dating from around the birth of Christ through to the 19th and 20th centuries. Exhibits include priceless artworks comprising thousands upon thousands of pearls. Such masterpieces as the Mikimoto Five-storied Pagoda - a scale model of Horyu-ji Temple - were exhibited at the Philadelphia World Exposition in 1926. Almost the whole work is covered in white-lipped pearl shell, while the roof tiles and nine-ring decoration on the top of the pagoda are encrusted with pearls. A 16mm Agoya pearl occupies pride of place inside the pagoda, whose base alone is paved with 12,760 pearls.

Liberty bell
Liberty bell

At the museum you can view jewelry dating back to the Roman Empire, including gold earrings and necklaces encrusted with pearls, coral, emeralds and lapis lazuli. The Renaissance Italy collection includes pendants and brooches of the most exquisite craftsmanship, while gold nose rings inlaid with pearls and rubies are to be found in the Mogul collection. Mikimoto Pearl Island also caters to those fascinated by the scientific and technical aspects of the way pearls are cultured, from oyster to the final product, and by the economics of how the price of pearls is influenced by such attributes as structure and color. Farming and harvesting are explained in easily understood terms, and visitors can watch pearls being sorted, drilled and threaded onto strings of various lengths before ambling off to Pearl Plaza, where the jewelry on sale is guaranteed to take your breath, and your savings, away.

Diving belles
From Ama Stand visitors can enjoy the rare spectacle of the region's famed female divers in action. Clad all in white to scare off sharks, a known threat in deeper waters, and donning goggles, these aquanauts put on special displays for tourists, plumbing the depths of the bay to retrieve abalone. After plunging to ten meters, the ama resurface with their catch, which they toss into wooden tubs. You will get to hear their melancholy whistle, or isobue, fill the air. This whistle, for which they are renowned, has been called the "elegy of the sea" and is said to evoke sadness in the hearts of all who hear it. The history of ama in these parts dates back some 2000 years. Mie Prefecture now has about 1700 female divers, almost all of whom work in some part of this picturesque bay. They used to catch oysters and octopuses, their enemies, but today's ama dive mainly for abalone and sea urchin. Training usually begins in childhood, in the hands of mothers and grandmothers, many of whom continue to dive well into their 60s and 70s.

Kokichi Mikimoto
Kokichi Mikimoto

The ama are one of the main tourist attractions here, but certainly no visit to Mikimoto Pearl Island is complete without dropping by the Kokichi Mikimoto Memorial Hall, where you will learn about the life of one of Japan's greatest entrepreneurs. Kokichi Mikimoto, the son of a humble noodle-restaurant owner, became the first person to culture pearls artificially. Not only did Mikimoto establish the cultured-pearl industry in the Ise-shima region, he also made what had long been prized as precious jewels widely available for the first time. Today, Mikimoto pearls are on sale in shops and top-class department stores throughout the world. Pearl House, which welcomes tourists, is where the venerable Mikimoto, born in 1858, spent his last years until his death in 1954. The mansion is splendidly situated, overlooking Ago Bay, and its front door still bears the nameplate "Kokichi Mikimoto."

Ama divers in front of Mikimoto's statue

Getting there
Reaching Toba city and Mikimoto Pearl Island takes about 4hrs by train from Tokyo via Nagoya, or 2hrs by train from Osaka and Kyoto. The island is a five-min walk from Toba stn. Admission: JY1,500, open 8:30am-5pm from Jan 1 to May. 20, Jun 1 to Jul 20, Sep 1-30 and Nov 21-30; 8:30am-5:30pm from Mar 21 to May 31, Jul 21 to Aug 31 and Oct 1 to Nov 20; 9am-4:30pm from Dec 1-31. The ticket window closes one hour before the museum.

Where to stay
Toba Kowakien Tel: 0599-25-3251, Fax: 0599-25-3260

Mikimoto Pearl Island, 1-7-1 Toba city, Mie (Tel: 0599-25-2028, Fax: 0599-26-2139)
Toba City Tourist Association (Tel: 0599-25-3019) 

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