Bunnai Morishita isn’t sure why women stopped wearing pearls. “Maybe if someone like Michelle Obama wore them it would become fashionable again,” he says.
In his office, the 70-year-old head of the Ise Pearl Association leans back in his chair and sighs, reminiscing about a time when Hollywood starlets graced dinner parties sporting pearl necklaces. Mikimoto Kokichi (1858-1954), the man who perfected the method for farming pearls once boasted he’d like to “adorn the necks of all women around the world with pearls.”
Morishita shares the sentiment. “Pearls and a black dress, like Audrey Hepburn. It’s a classic look. Nowadays, everything is casual.”
Globally, the pearl market has become flooded with cheaper pearls from other countries — especially China, which, in 2009, had as much as 50 times the pearl production capacity of Japan.
But as pearl farmers in Ise struggle to keep up with globalization, those raising oysters for food are in the midst of a booming market, something that has many thinking that the region’s future is its food.
I meet oyster farmer Isao Kimura in his roadside kakigoya (oyster hut) south of the city of Toba. He slides a plate of raw oysters topped with lemon slices, salsa and spring onion across the table. As we eat, he explains what makes oysters from the region, called Matoya oysters, so special.
“It’s the Mie balance — sweet, salty, chewy and tender — other varieties don’t have that balance or sweetness,” he says.
The sheltered waters of Ago Bay are particularly suited to cultivating bivalves — a group that includes mussels and clams — which are easily stressed. The less they are disturbed, the better they grow. They’re also one of the few cultivated seafoods that actually improve their environment, making them an ethical choice. After the meal, we head out to see Isao’s oyster docks.
We head to Ago Bay at sunset. Black kites glide above, keeping pace with the boat as forested green islands scroll by, the nesting seabirds visible on the peaks. When we arrive, Kimura cuts the engine and swings us alongside the floating wooden planks.
He disembarks and hops from beam to beam with the agility of an athlete. Lifting a bag of oysters from the water, he selects a few for us to try. He opens the shells with a knife and we eat. They’re sweet, creamy and still taste of the sea. They may be the freshest oysters I’ve ever had.
Looking at the heavy labor involved, I ask him if he ever tires of harvesting oysters — or of eating them. “When big storms are coming it can get pretty stressful. But I love being out here in the fresh air when I work,” he says with a smile. “And, I probably do eat more oysters than I should, but I can’t stop.”
The next morning, I wake early and watch the lights of fishing boats from the hotel window as they team out to the Pacific. The sun hasn’t risen yet. It casts a glow from behind the horizon.
As it rises, fishermen begin their day proper, dropping lines and hooks to pull skipjack tuna from the depths. Oystermen like Kimura and Morishita walk those undulating docks checking their keep. Elderly ama divers use their hands and tools to select abalone, sea cucumbers and spiny lobsters from the murky bottom of Ago Bay.
At the markets, fishmongers name their prices and sell the best of the catch to local chefs who use it to create meals that nourish and delight their customers.
Shima Peninsula may be most famous for pearls, but the true treasure is the bountiful natural environment and with it, a plateful of fresh oysters.