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Japan: Off the beaten tourist trail

April 27, 2017

In Mie Prefecture in central Japan, you can see the real Japan and, at the same time, discover something unique: ama divers, matsusaka cattle, and the world's first pearl farm.

Japan: Abseits der Touristenpfade
Image: DW/J. Ryall

Swathed in the traditional loose-fitting white attire, an ama diver emerges from the surf clutching the wooden bucket that holds her precious haul. Today she has abalone, sea urchins and scallops; on a better day she will also bring up oysters, sea cucumber and even the occasional octopus.

Stepping quickly up the beach - because while spring is in the air in this part of Japan, that breeze off the Pacific Ocean is still chilly - Kiyomi Koiso takes her catch into one of the divers' huts that dot the foreshore and stokes the hot coals that have been prepared by her colleagues.

Japan: Abseits der Touristenpfade
An ama diver prepares a meal Image: DW/J. Ryall

With a practiced flick of the wrist, she sets about prising the shells open and placing them on the grill. "Sazae," or turban shells, go on in their entirety and the scallops are bubbling in no time.

"The lobsters in Ise Bay are famous for being the best in all of Japan and we ama have been collecting lobsters and other seafood for more than 2,000 years," 73-year-old Koiso tells me.

All ama divers are female. They also decline the modern conveniences of air tanks, fins and other underwater equipment. And they are becoming older, Koiso tells me, because younger women prefer easier jobs. According to the latest figures, only 2,174 women are still earning their living from the ocean.

Today, the ama divers' customers may be visitors to this part of Japan, but this way of life is still integral to Mie Prefecture.

South of the city of Nagoya, Mie is a slight detour off what is known as the Golden Route for tourists, which links the bright lights of Tokyo with the ancient capital of Kyoto and continues on to the gritty charm of Osaka.

The prefecture revels in its reputation as "the soul of Japan," a title that is well earned because it is home to Ise Grand Shrine, the most sacred place of worship in the Shinto religion. But there are many other reasons to visit.

For many, the best meat in the world

Almost in the shadow of the towering walls of what is left of Matsusaka Castle, Shotoan serves the fabulously marbled cuts of beef for which this part of Mie Prefecture is famous.

Japan: Abseits der Touristenpfade
Enjoy your meal!Image: DW/J. Ryall

I approach through a traditional gateway, garden and sliding door into the restaurant. Diners take their shoes off to step onto the floor, which is covered with tatami mats, and take a seat. I am mesmerized by the colors and shapes of the dishes and delicacies laid out before me. There are small cuts of glistening fresh sashimi and pickled daikon radish; tempura fried in a batter that is as light as air; a clear miso soup and a selection of mountain vegetables.

But it is the beef that really catches the eye. Long strips of deep red meat are heated in a pot called a nabe on the table in front of me, along with vegetables and blocks of white tofu. The beef is from the Japanese Black breed and is from cattle that have been raised for 900 days - fully 10 months longer than most beef cattle - and fed beer and massaged daily.

Recognized as one of the three top Wagyu beef brands in Japan, it is the most expensive of them all - but as the meat melts in my mouth, I decide it is a luxury worth indulging in at least once.

The first pearl farm in the world

A short distance along the coast, the Mikimoto Pearl Island is a short boat ride from the town of Toba and the home of the cultured pearl.

In 1893, it was here that Kokichi Mikimoto succeeded in growing the very first cultured pearl in an oyster. In the early years after his achievement, the island was off-limits to all outsiders. That changed in 1951 and today I am following in the footsteps of nearly 50 million visitors to the island - including queens, princes and heads of state.

I stroll through the ground floor of the museum, which has exhibits showing how Mikimoto first cultivated a pearl, a process that remains largely unchanged to this day. A mere 5 percent of the oysters that are harvested have perfect pearls, while as many as 50 percent die. Imperfect pearls are used in medical supplements and cosmetics.

Japan: Abseits der Touristenpfade
Squid drying on a rack Image: DW/J. Ryall

In comparison with the natural wonder of pearls, visitors can also admire the works of art that these translucent spheres can become in the hands of skilled artisans. The upper level of the museum houses a collection of more than 250 exquisite pieces of jewelry, including an earring made of gold with three pearls from the first century BC, Roman jewelry, blue pearls set into Byzantine earrings and an exquisite French pendant from around 1600, a cross with inlaid pearls.

So much of Mie's wealth relies on the natural world, and the people of this unspoiled region of Japan have learned long ago to live in harmony with their surroundings and take only what they need to ensure that plenty remains for future generations.

Julian Ryall


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