The Lustrous Center of the Pearl Universe: Mikimoto Pearl Island

The Lustrous Center of the Pearl Universe: Mikimoto Pearl Island

In 1893, Kokichi Mikimoto harvested the world’s first cultured pearls. But that’s the end of the story. He trudged on through a harsh life to get there. Now, Mikimoto Island stands as a testament to his perseverance and to the kingdom he created.

Written by Chad Martin
-Author's Introduction
My otaku side brought me to Nagoya, Japan in 2012, but I stayed for the food, countryside towns, and gorgeous mountain scenery. I was born and raised on the east coast of the US, but I dare say I never grew up. I never shut up about Japan.

Caption: Mr. Mikimoto himself stands guard over hisisland in his trademark hat and cape.

Caption: A warm, public foot bath looks out over themouth of the Ise Bay, right between Toba Station and Mikimoto Pearl Island.

On this overcast morning, I set out to learn about allthings pearl. And I was starting with a really blank slate, other than knowingthat they came from clams or oysters or some kind of bivalve. Oh, and thatthey’re clutched when someone else says something unbecoming of their stationin life. Anyway, my destination was the world famous Mikimoto Pearl Island.There I would learn about the science, history, and culture behind the pearlsand the role of the Amasan divers.

Caption: The building just past these boats is wheresome of their catch was being unloaded, but also a shopping center consistingalmost entirely of pearl jewelry shops.

Caption: Here you can see the bridge that extends overto tiny Mikimoto Pearl Island and yes, what appears to be a ship now used foradvertising.

After heading across the bridge, you’ll be on a paththat circles the whole island. It’s lined with monuments commemorating variousevents, recognition, and famous visitors that graced the island with theirpresence. This includes a plaque bearing a Waka (traditional Japanese poetry)that was written to Mikimoto by Japanese Empress Teimei herself:

Pearl oysters from depths of the sea

Long you have sought earnestly

This freeing from hidden dark chambers ofplight

Lustrous spheres locked within, to thelight.

There’s a lot to see and do, but I needed to learnabout pearls first, so I headed to the Mikimoto Pearl Museum.

Caption: The highly-skilled, all-female Amasan divershave been an asset to the region for ages. More about them later...

Caption:As you can see, there are plenty of explanations in various languages.

I love science and the sea, so I really got into thenitty-gritty details of how cultured pearls became a possibility. It’s acomplicated process, but basically a little polished piece of a shell is jammedinto an Akoya oyster and the oyster’s natural response to an alien substance isto coat it with nacre and spit it out. Since it’s a bit too large andstrategically placed, it can’t spit it out and just keeps coating it withnacre, eventually creating a beautiful pearl. Although, a lot of the oystersdie from the trauma of the insertion, and so many other things can go wrong.All-in-all, only about one in five makes a nice pearl. Those pearls are chosenand rated based on size, shape, composition, color, luster, and more, to placethem into specific value grades.

Caption: Different clammy guys around the world makeall kinds of different pearls. But here, we’re interested in the Akoya on thebottom left.

Caption: Various artists have crafted misshapen pearlsinto exquisite designs.

In the gallery, there is a ton of fascinating pieces ofpearl jewelry from around the world. But the most impressive by far were theworks by Mikimoto used for international exhibitions. I’m a very unpatrioticAmerican, but the one-third scale model of the Liberty Bell really stood out to me.

Caption: Even the famous crack has been reproducedusing blue pearls. More than 12,000 pearls were used in its construction, aswell as 366 diamonds!

The Mikimoto 5-Storied Pagoda was also a rare piece ofart. Using about a bajillion pearls, mother-of-pearl, and platinum in itsconstruction, it’s a model of the pagoda at Horyuji Temple in Nara. You reallyshould just see it in person. I don’t want to spoil it for you with a picture. No Googling!

Walking out of the museum, I felt like an expert on theworld of pearls, at least compared to a layman. With new-found confidence, Iwalked just across the path from the museum to see what I’d really been mostexcited about this whole time: live Amasan diving in the bay!

You can head into the stands if you’d like, but all the explanations over the speakers during the show are in Japanese. If you want to learn about the legendary Amasan, head into the comfortable room on the side to hear English explanations instead. There’s still a good view of the show from there. 

Caption: As the boat pulled up with the divers on board,each of the ladies were introduced and waved to the adoring public.

Amasan divers, in their trademark white diving suits,use no oxygen tanks as they plunge into the cold depths searching for all kindsof goodies on the sea floor like shellfish, but also sea plants. I saw themdiving in the freezing waters in late December! Before pearl culturing, it wasup to them to find shells containing valuable pearls as well as tasty treats.

Caption: Don’t worry too much about missing the divingshow. They do it many times a day.

They all dove together, grabbing morsels in the deepand surfacing to place them in the floating bucket before going down for more.If you’re interested in the Amasan, and you should be, there’s a documentaryabout them by the same name that came out in 2016. Also, you can check out theSatoumian Amasan Hut Experience to have a meal with a real Amasan and try someof the foods they collect. And if you’re as lucky as I was, you’ll run into onenear the museum!

Toushijima Ama Hut:

She definitely seemed younger, but many of the Amasanare in their sixties! There are some young divers, but it’s best if they startthis line of work after graduating from high school, and few teenage girls areready to dive into this profession nowadays. See what I did there?

Aside from the Amasan show and the museum, there’s alsothe Kokichi Mikimoto Memorial Hall. Building Mikimoto Pearls was no small featand he wasn’t wealthy to begin with. Many doubted that culturing pearls waseven a possibility. Here you can learn about his personal life, and how it alleventually came together and made Mikimoto a name known around the world.

Caption: The artifacts and maps in here tell atouching, personal story worthy of a feature-length film. Seriously, someonemake this movie.

And if you don’t feel like doing anything but going for a nice stroll, there aregreat views of the bay from the island. It even has its own shrine and smallgardens here and there. Take a break at the cafe and restaurant.

And, big surprise, there is no better place to goshopping for pearls. They have a massive variety of classic pearl jewelry thatwould make a timeless souvenir for your trip to the island, or an unforgettablegift for someone back home. They have some rare and valuable offerings forsale, as well as some reasonable options.

You can get to Mikimoto Pearl Island from Toba Station on foot in just a few minutes. Getting to Toba Station from Nagoya, Osaka, orKyoto takes about two hours by train. Isuzugawa Station, near Iise shrine naiku, is only about 10 minutes away by train.

Mikimoto Pearl Island

Toba 1-7, Toba Shi, Mie Ken, 〒517-0011, Japan

- From Tokyo
  Shinkansen: About 1 Hour 50 minutes (Transfer at Nagoya Station)
 Regular JR or Kintetsu getting off at Toba station: About 1 Hour 30 minutes 
- From Nagoya
 JR or Kintetsu getting off at Toba station: About 1 Hour 30 minutes
<Operating Hours>
January 4th, 2020 to May 1st: 8:30 to 17:00
Hours may vary slightly according to season
- Japanese Site
-English Site

Tourist attractions covered by this article