Some 500km to the southwest of Tokyo, Japan’s coastline fragments into a cartographer’s nightmare. Like a delicate overlay of lace on the Pacific Ocean, myriad promontories and isthmuses form bays in which ragged-edged islets project from the deep. These conditions favour shellfish, of which the most celebrated hereabouts is Pinctada fucata martensii: the Akoya pearl oyster.

This area is the Shima Peninsula, birthplace of Kokichi Mikimoto, who rose to become one of the pioneers of pearl culture with the production of the first D-shaped pearl in 1893. His achievements are commemorated at the Pearl Museum in his hometown of Toba, in Mie Prefecture on Japan’s main island of Honshu. Here the development of his method and each stage of the painstaking process involved in producing natural and cultured pearls are explained. “In the early days,” says my museum guide, Tatsuo Inoue, “Mikimoto employed the Ama divers to raise adult oysters from the sea bed and replace them after the implantation of a nucleus. But with the development of new breeding and growing techniques in the 1950s, the Ama were no longer required.”

Diver Mayumi Mitsuhashi also campaigns to preserve the Ama's traditions

Diver Mayumi Mitsuhashi also campaigns to preserve the Ama's traditions

The Ama were the reason for my visit. Since time immemorial, these legendary free-diving sirens have been purveyors of abalone for the gourmand Sun Goddess, Amaterasu, at the Shinto Grand Shrine at Ise in southern Honshu. From the refined art of the Edo and Meiji periods, to the salacious appreciation of James Bond in You Only Live Twice, their grace, skill and courage have been celebrated. And even though there is no longer the chance of discovering a rare natural pearl in their cache (wild Akoya oysters are no longer in these waters), the Ama nevertheless still ply their trade in a way that remains almost unaltered for more than 3,000 years.

In a nod to tradition, the museum organises ersatz displays. Along with a group of admiring Japanese tourists, I watched as two Ama — dressed in traditional white isogo robes — disappeared beneath the water for what seemed like an eternity, re-emerging with a haunting whistling sound (isobue) to deposit a mollusc in their floating basket. Their numbers, however, are dwindling. Although the Shima Peninsula harbours 29 communities and the highest concentration of Ama in Japan (700 of the total 2,000), it is rare to see them at work. Yet arrangements had been made: I would accompany a group next morning.

It was a glorious dawn. From my villa at Amanemu, perched on a hill in the Ise-Shima National Park in Mie Prefecture, I watched the sun rise over the oyster rafts of Ago Bay, where the very first pearls were cultivated. By 8.30am, full of happy anticipation, I was at the small fishing village of Wagu, to be met at the port by a spritely, smiling woman in an Easter bonnet: Mayumi Mitsuhashi, my Ama mentor, and Head of Mie Prefecture’s Ama Preservation Society.

Mayumi with a cloth featuring Buddhist prayers to be worn around the head

Mayumi with a cloth featuring Buddhist prayers to be worn around the head

“I’m so sorry,” she tells me, through an interpreter. “The red flag has just been raised. No Ama are allowed to dive today. Too much turbulence and current.” I looked out over the mirror-flat bay. Surely not! A compromise was reached: we would go out in one of their wooden boats towards Oshima Island, where Mayumi’s group of seven Ama, organised as a co-operative, usually dives at 9am and 1pm each day.

The first surprise is that the Ama are not the nubile maidens James Bond lusted over. Mayumi, at 67, is among the youngest, while the oldest in the Wagu Cooperative is still diving, aged 84. They are a tight-knit group. “In the past, girls were trained by their mothers, from an early age, but today they no longer want this job,” explains Mayumi. “There were 150 divers in Wagu when I first started working 35 years ago. Today there are only 45 of us. We are afraid the tradition will die out.” Evidence is reeled off: Kimiyo Hayashi, for example, from the Koshika Cooperative, is the last of five generations of divers. She is 61.

An Ama shrine to the sea gods

An Ama shrine to the sea gods

The boat is full of the Ama’s equipment. There are brightly coloured, home-made net bags with which they dive; fins and weighted belts; red circular floats beneath which hang nets for the haul they raise; a floating red wooden board with a marker flag and the tools of their trade. They are simple implements. “We use an iron spatula for prizing abalone from the rocks and a hooked chisel for gathering turban snails and sea urchins,” says Mayumi. She shows me a squared C-shaped object. “It’s a measure for abalone,” she explains. “The gap is 10.7cm wide. Any shell that can fit through it is too small and must be put back.”

 

All Ama must abide by rules designed to prevent over-fishing

All Ama must be licensed and abide by rules designed to prevent over-fishing and preserve the environment. For this reason, the twice-daily dives are limited to 90 minutes each, during which time the Ama may gather as much as they can, in as many as 60 separate dives that can plumb depths of more than 10 metres. “We dive for 60 seconds each time,” says Mayumi. “It is always a struggle to hold your breath.” Stories abound of Ama lured by the sight of just-one-more abalone and over-taxing their lung capacity — with fatal consequences. Only a week before my visit, a 72-year-old Ama drowned off Toba.

Some Ama wear white cotton jackets over their wetsuits as it's traditionally belived that white will protect you from sharks

Some Ama wear white cotton jackets over their wetsuits as it's traditionally belived that white will protect you from sharks

Abalone — black abalone, in particular — is the greatest prize: a shellfish that must be taken by surprise, before it can seal itself inextricably to the rock. Even so, it requires skill to remove. The Ama then sell their catch to the local fish market, at fluctuating rates (currently £80 and £35 per kilo, respectively, for the black and white varieties). Re-sold in restaurants, a single portion of black abalone will fetch around £60.

Thirty years ago, the Ama were earning a tidy £1,500 per day. “This is because they used to operate a funado system, whereby an Ama would carry a 20kg weight to make a rapid 20-metre descent and would then be hauled up by a rope and pulley by her husband, working with her in the boat,” explains Yasu Kazuhiko, head of tourism for the region. “This saved time and energy, so she could dive deeper and more often, but the rope system has practically disappeared.”

Today’s Ama earn an average of £115 a day, of which 15% is payable to the boat’s captain. And the lucrative abalone season runs only from March to September. “We all dive in these months,” says Mayumi. “Some of us also dive in winter — for Ise lobster, sea cucumber and seaweed.” Even with wetsuits, this is only for the hardiest, with sea temperatures falling to 12°C in February. In winter, Mayumi chooses to work at a pearl farm, extracting kaibashira —the abductor muscle — from oysters after the pearl has been removed. This, rather than the flesh of the Akoya, is eaten.

Fish market

Black abalones fetch the best price at the fish market ar around £80 per kilo

By now, the boat is in open water and I begin to understand the reason for the red flag. We pitch and roll like a jumping bean. Mayumi waves into the distance: “Kaminoshima,” she says. “Tomorrow we go there for the Tidal Festival, to pray for safety at sea. The ceremony involves a Buddhist monk writing prayers on stones and sinking them in the water around the island. It is a festival unique to Wagu.” The waves are swelling and the captain recommends that we head back. Fishing boats are also returning, unloading squid and their silvery catch on to the quay. Black kites, in the know, hover hopefully above the fish market.

Mayumi’s Ama hut, which she shares with three others from her group, is located nearby. A simple room piled with logs and arranged around a large central fire, it’s a place to warm up before and after dives and to change, eat and gossip. The Ama’s clothes hang from pegs to dry. Mayumi shows me her diving mask, adopted by the Ama in 1878 and since modified from a double to a single lens. “We polish them with Japanese mugwort,” she says. “It smells good and helps stop bleeding.” Her other mask (“for special occasions”) is edged in tiny seed pearls.

 

Today's Ama earn an average of £115 per day, of which 15% is payable to the boat's captian

Mayumi is the youngest of Wagu's Ama divers

Mayumi is the youngest of Wagu's Ama divers

The masks are strapped over a carefully wound white cloth, stamped in red with prayers, obtained from a monk at a Buddhist temple each February and worn around the head. It is what is left of the traditional isogo robes, replaced in 1960 by the less romantic but more practical wetsuit, “which must not be more than 3mm thick”. These, too, hang from pegs to dry, like the skins of an eviscerated sea monster. “Some Ama still wear a white cotton jacket over their wetsuits,” says Mayumi. “The traditional belief is that white protects you from sharks.”

The Ama's equipment includes a float, nets and a chisel

The Ama's equipment includes a float, nets and a chisel

It is time for lunch. In a hut sanitised for our use, we squat around a fire with Mayumi — now dressed in early 20th-century white Ama garb — to re-enact a daily ritual: the grilling of the freshest seafood on an open fire. Turban snails, conch, scallops, squid and, of course, enormous black abalones are piled high on a platter and cooked simply in their own juices. It is not a comfortable sight watching the live creatures squirm in the flames, but I admit that they tasted good. And knowing that these were mostly from the hand of Mayumi, diving airless into the deep, cold, dark ocean with prayers strapped to her head, I ate them with new-found respect.

Teresa Levonian Cole travelled with cazenove + loyd (cazloyd.com, 020 7384 2332)  and British Airways (ba.com). Amanemu (aman.com/resorts/ Amanemu) can arrange lunch with Wagu’s Ama

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