TOBA, MIE PREF. – When I arrive at the entrance of Hachiman-kamado, a women divers’ hut in the village of Osatsu along the jagged coastline of the Ise-Shima region in Mie Prefecture, matriarch Reiko Nomura and three of her junior female free divers welcome me with beaming smiles.
The deep crevices etched in Nomura’s face seem to tell an ancient story, one of joy and hardship, and intimately connected to the sea and the Japanese tradition of ama, the female free divers that dates back 3,000 years.
The influx in tourism surrounding the Group of Seven Ise-Shima summit in central Japan offers these “women of the sea” a chance to share their tradition with a wider audience, but this is nothing new for Nomura and the other divers who work at Hachiman-kamado. In 2015, there were over 3,800 non-Japanese visitors to this ama hut from more than 23 countries, and the hut even has prayer rooms for Muslim tourists.
“Just because there is a G-7 summit we don’t expect any big surprises,” says 84-year-old Nomura with a grin. “We’ve been running this place for 12 years and people from all over the world have come to see us.”
Nomura says the best place for tourists to see or speak with female divers is on the peninsula southeast of Ise city. “There are a lot of ama in Shima,” she says, referring to the region in eastern Mie Prefecture with a meandering coastline that juts out into the Pacific Ocean.
Nomura began diving as a child and only stopped when she turned 80. Though her mother was also an ama, diving was a skill she learned herself, like all female free divers in the region.
Before and after their dives for abalone and other sea bounty, ama would gather in bamboo huts where they warmed their bodies by a fire while eating, taking rests and chatting with their friends. Though the hut I’m standing outside is made from concrete, the scene inside, and at many of the other ama huts in the area, is much the same: divers chat and eat together as they warm themselves around a small fire. Today, some huts, such as Hachiman-kamado, even double as restaurants, which can be visited by Japanese and non-Japanese alike.
As I am offered a seat inside Hachiman-kamado, two of the women kneeling before the fire pit begin laying a feast of seafood on the grill, including abalone, Japanese spiny lobster, turban snails and hijiki (a brown sea vegetable).
“This is a real feisty one,” says another ama, Mitsue Okano, 70, pointing to the lobster wiggling in her hand before she pierces it nonchalantly with a skewer.
A seafood lover’s dream, all of the food served here is taken from the ocean around the Shima Peninsula. The abalone, an edible sea snail, is succulent to the core — like a seafood steak bubbling in its own juices. Though too leathery for some, the turban snails are also a delight.
All of the women at Hachiman-kamado are kachido ama, female divers who swim out from shore or head out in a group by boat. These ama use a basket and a weighted belt to dive for abalone and other shellfish in depths of around 3 to 4 meters while working unassisted. They are normally novices or older ama who can no longer dive to deeper depths.
Funado ama, on the other hand, dive in deeper waters where they are accompanied by a boatman (usually their fishermen husbands) to sites farther offshore where they sometimes descend to depths of 15 to 20 meters. When they run out of breath, they give a tug on a rope to be hoisted back by the boatman’s pulley.
“Before, as a woman — in this village of Osatsu — you had no chance of getting married unless you could dive. So while swimming in the ocean as children, we all learned this skill. Over and over we practiced holding our breath and diving very deep,” Okano says.
“We can dive 10 meters in one minute, and when we surface we do an isobue as a natural way to regulate our breathing before diving again,” she adds, before demonstrating this exhalation of breath that sounds like a high-pitched sigh. It’s known as the “sea whistle.”
Nomura tells me a story about diving when she was nine months pregnant with her son, Kazuhiro, and giving birth to him the very next day which was Christmas Eve. Kazuhiro, 55, is now the president of Hachiman-kamado.
“I caught a lot of sea urchin that day,” she says, smiling.
A typical ama will hold her breath underwater for about 50 seconds while searching for abalone, which must be pried loose from rocks with a chisel. They also collect turban snails, sea urchins, sea cucumbers and seaweed all without a breathing apparatus.
There are historical references to the ama in famous literature, such as the eighth-century poetry anthology “Manyoshu” (” Collection of 10,000 Leaves”) and Sei Shonagon’s 10th-century missive “Makura no Soshi” (“The Pillow Book”).
Ama now wear white outfits over their wetsuits, but before the 1960s, many divers worked topless, only wearing a fundoshi (loincloth). With the advent of the wetsuit in Japan, half-naked ama became a rare sight.
In 1956, the number of ama divers had reached more than 17,500, according to a Toho University study, but that number has since plummeted.
In 2010, the Shima Peninsula had the largest population, with close to 1,000 ama divers, but that figure dropped to 761 in 2014, according to the Toba Sea-Folk Museum. Currently, there are about 2,000 ama in 18 prefectures. A microcosm of Japan’s aging population, they average 65 years or older.
The cardinal rule of ama diving is not to defy nature. This means no matter how physically fit, no matter how great one’s lung capacity, an ama should never risk her life diving for abalone and always resurface with room to spare.
To avoid overfishing, the women are generally permitted to dive about two hours per day, and seasons are restricted. Abalone smaller than 10.6 centimeters must be thrown back in the sea.
Abalone and turban snails are prized catches from June through September in most parts of Japan, but abalone cannot be taken from Sept. 15 to Dec. 31 during the spawning season.
Japan and South Korea are the only places in the world where ama divers are said to exist. There are approximately 10,000 female free divers in South Korea, the majority of whom fish off Jeju Island. Japan’s women divers have been hosting a yearly “Ama Summit” with their South Korean counterparts in an effort to have their tradition added to UNESCO’s intangible cultural list.
This year’s Ama Summit is scheduled to take place in Shima, Mie Prefecture, on Nov. 4 and 5.
“They’ve never invited me to the Ama Summit,” says Nomura with a laugh. “We are some of the longest-running ama divers but I have no idea what they are doing there.”
3-3 Adakocho, Toba, Mie Prefecture; 0599-33-6145, open 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m., call ahead to confirm opening times. For more information, visit www.amakoya.com.