Japan Eats

Out and about: Ama-san in Osatsu

The ladies of Mie offer the freshest catch in town

What makes the pursuit of fantastic and original cuisine so enticing is that it’s inseparable from the unique culture in which it was conceived. In an era where nearly everything that we dine upon is primly packed, shipped, and plainly arranged to follow the path of least resistance to the consumer, somewhere in the recesses of our consciousness we’re aware that what our palate is experiencing is no mere accident. Someone, somewhere was in a position to conjure up a flavor or a dish because it made sense given a situation and resources and people cross cities, states, provinces, mountains, nations, and oceans with their sights set on tasting “the real thing”.

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Two ama-san in Ōsatsu, Mie prefecture.

For many, one early morning excursion to the Tsukiji fish market followed by a sushi breakfast in the charmingly rustic shitamachi is an authentic enough experience of Japan’s culinary obsession with the treasures of the sea.

However, for the inquisitive and adventurous, I can point to about 1,000 women in Mie who can further satisfy your appetite.

To this day, in the small fishing village of Ōsatsu in the southern port of Toba City, Mie prefecture, nearly 1,000 fully active and hard-working ama-san (海女さん – literally “sea woman”) forage for the ocean’s offerings the old-fashioned way – by diving for them, leaving the air supply at home.

While the distinctive white garb and physically demanding practice have history in some other isolated regions of Japan, as well as in Korea, Toba City (including Ōsatsu) is the home to nearly half of the roughly 2,000 active Japanese ama-san – a significant figure in a city with a population of approximately 20,000. Put simply, 1 out of every 20 people in the city (roughly one out of every 10 women!) spends a good 2 hours in the frigid ocean waters most mornings foraging the key constituents of the local diet. The a.m. session was for a long time followed by a bit of rest in the ama-koya, or “ama hut”, with a second outing, once rejuvenated. Nowadays, dives are limited to just one in the morning, partially for safety reasons, but primarily because there are other options for the working woman today. Indeed, most of the ladies pursue other activities in the daytime. Somewhat unique for a fishing village, there’s a reasonable spread of rice paddies which allow for local farming in conjunction with the diving.

An ama-koya, or “ama hut”.

An ama-koya, or “ama hut”.

The other reason for the more “relaxed pace” may well be the fact that most ama-san are in their 60s and 70s, with the oldest active divers in their mid-80s. A handful of up-and-comers are in their early to mid-20s, though. While certain scenes in Ōsatsu may feel frozen in time, these hard-working ladies on the front line are combating the same social issues as the rest of the nation. One can easily forgive them for limiting their active duty to a “mere” morning dive. That said, with the village gradually making its way into the public eye, and with a surprising number of young women now actively seeking to succeed their mothers and grandmothers in the trade (the opposite of the trend we’re seeing in Japan’s struggling farming industry), it’s entirely possible that the vitality of a new generation of ama-san may bring about an entirely new image and lifestyle for women and the local fishing industry.

Don’t expect these ladies to don diving gear anytime soon, though. While “protecting tradition” and suppressing certain costs associated with gearing up may be the obvious reasons, the major factor is more simple: balance. The natural limitation placed on the divers in these conditions places a natural limit on just how much can be caught on any given day during any given season. It’s this balance that has sustained the city and the culture for generations, and the people of Toba see it as the key to continued sustainability for generations to come.

What does this have to do with your insatiable appetite? Well, where there’s a congregation of individuals partaking in a unique and impressive, but largely extinct cultural practice, you’ll also often find open arms welcoming the curious traveler – particularly when there’s food involved! So it is in the ama-san village of Ōsatsu, currently making the push for recognition as a ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity‘.

Inside the ama-hut designed for tourists

Inside the ama-hut designed for tourists

Although a significant step up in terms of comfort compared to the real thing, a special ama-koya has been constructed specifically for those adventurous individuals who wish to dine only on the freshest morning catch, consisting of freshly grilled sazae, a form of conch or “sea snail”, abalone, as well as the occasional ise-ebi (a member of the lobster family).

It should be noted, however, that while it’s common for clams, scallops, and squid to also appear on the menu, these can’t be classified as part of the “ama-san catch”, as these are left alone by the brave divers. In fact, the primary target for ama-san is seaweed and sea grasses, including ise-hijiki, wakame, as well as awame, a particular variety of kelp which can only be found in local waters, typically only used in local Mie and Kyoto dishes. The varieties of local kelp and seaweed are most commonly prepared boiled or stewed with combinations of soy sauce, sugar, and mirin, often becoming part of soups.

The experience as a whole is most certainly one worth seeking out, as a comforting veil of both vitality and mystery seems to hang low over the waterfront village. Although technically a tourist attraction, the ama-koya offers a chance to get one step closer to the cuisine of local waters than you’ll find just about anywhere else, and the its location far down the oceanfront jetty will conjure a sense of discovery in even the veteran explorer. It’s worth noting that the real ama-koya are not open to the public – the coals burning there are used primarily as a heat source for the small enclosure rather than for preparing meals.

In Japan, quality seafood is never hard to find, but those with curious taste buds and who long to know just where their meal is from would struggle to do better, even in Tsukiji, making the ama-koya dining experience one you’d have a tough time duplicating just about anywhere.

Special thanks to Asami Murata for the photos and wealth of additional information.