I found out about ama (海女, literally “woman of the sea”) in 2017 while looking for what to do in Ise-shima. I was unable to squeeze in a visit though because of the tight schedule of our 2017 trip but this time, I got the opportunity to meet them.
NOVEMBER 25, 2018
Some of the things I learned about ama during the visit:
- Most ama are women and it is said that this is because males can hardly endure the cold water during diving.
- Ama freedive for about 10m in the Pacific Ocean, with earplugs to protect their ears from water pressure.
- They are mostly known for pearl cultivation but they also get seafood – octopus is their biggest enemy so they usually “fish” them; but they also get awabi (abalone), Ise ebi (Ise lobster), and sea cucumber among others.
- There are about 120 ama divers in the area of Toba I visited, with the eldest being 85 y/o and the youngest being 24 y/o.
- Ama usually work for about 2-4 hours and then take a rest in their huts…
I was so happy that I got to do the ama hut experience, especially with Ise ebi (Ise lobster) in season. The highlights of this experience were getting to eat seafood that were freshly caught by ama and conversing with ama divers, with the help of an interpreter.
I was undecided which tour company to pick between Osatsu-kamado and Hachiman. But the deciding factor was the free direct shuttle bus offered by Hachiman.
I found HACHIMAN KAMADO’s website to be outdated so I was hesitant to book but I read positive reviews online so I booked a reservation. I got an email within 24 hours that the 12:30 schedule I wanted was already fully booked so I asked if I could still avail the lunch set even if the schedule would be at 13:00. I got a reply that this was okay so I sent a new reservation form.
I got the Deluxe Seafood Set (¥7,560) which includes grilled shellfishes, sashimi, seaweed, soup, rice, pickles, and an option to choose either awabi or Ise ebi. I was excited for the lobster so the obvious choice for me was Ise ebi, and besides, I was able to try awabi last year.
From Ujiyamada Station (after Ise Jingu visit), we took a train going to Toba.
The shuttle was scheduled to leave at 13:00 and apparently there was no other visitor for the 13:00 schedule who availed this. When we reached the Ama Hut Hachiman area, there were 2 or 3 other groups in the room but they all had private cars for transportation.
Junko-san, the interpreter, greeted us and she pointed to the basket with the deluxe seafood set.
Junko showed each group to the assigned then one of the ama served us this kai (sea bream) sashimi. It was so fresh that I liked it even without dipping in the shoyu.
While busy with the appetizer, some of the ama started grilling the different kinds of shellfish.
Everything was so good, except for the weird kind that tasted as salty as the sea. The rice was served afterwards and that helped in neutralizing the saltiness. Ise ebi, the highlight of the lunch, was cooked lastly.
(I was so excited when I saw the ama with cooked Ise ebi approaching our table but then she just left after placing it on the table. I was confused how to remove the shell but another ama saw me – she wore her gloves then methodically removed the shell. Yay!
Ise ebi is not as big as the usual lobster but it is way bigger than shrimps. One bite and I could jump from joy because it tasted really good. There was a hint of sweetness and I savoured every bite of it!
One of the ama saw the sea bream we finished and she asked if we wanted it grilled so we said yes. It was so yummy but a bit difficult to get fish meat since there was only a little left.
After that heavy lunch, one of the ama went to the center of the room and started speaking in Japanese. Junko interpreted the ama’s story on their work, how they get seafood, and other interesting facts on the remarkable work they do.
Next, a few of the ama showed one of their traditional dances while music was being played on the background.
Before our visit was officially ended, Junko introduced us to Reiko-san, the oldest ama in the area. She is 80+ years old and considered the leader in the group but has retired from diving duties a few years ago.
We still had around 30 minutes before the bus leaves for Toba Station (15:10) so I took the opportunity to go near the water and walk along the shore. It was a bright day and I thought to myself that the view there would be even better during sunset.
When we returned to the ama huts, the ama were busy cleaning up. There were no visitors left and I could hear them chatting lively. Near the entrance, there were two ama talking to Junko. They saw us approaching and they asked us where we were from. When we said Philippines, they brought out PH flags so I asked the shuttle driver to take a photo of us.
They went back to talking afterwards and I was so bummed out that I forgot to buy dried mangoes for them because I wanted to give them a little token from PH. I remembered though that I had a small pack of peanuts so I shared it with them. When it was near 15:00, I said goodbye to them then Junko gave me a piece of chocolate. The ama also told me and Junko that I was “kawaii”. So sweet!
What a way to end my Ise-Shima adventure. Some may find this tour to be too expensive but the interaction with the ama was priceless for me. I wouldn’t mind doing this again when I get to revisit Toba in the future.