Thursday, October 13, 2016

#hungryintaipeiTRAVELS: 48 HOURS IN TOBA, JAPAN

FOR MONTHS, I WAS TRYING TO FIND the words to write about Toba, this little seaside town that is one of Japan's best kept secrets. I wanted to figure out how to accurately capture the experience I had when I was invited to visit with a media food tour of the city. When we travel and think about Japan, we often think about the big cities- Tokyo, Kyoto, Hokkaido, Osaka, Okinawa- but if we take the time to travel a little further and explore, there's a completely unique experience that we might have otherwise missed.  Similar to when I traveled to Italy last year, I had to visit Rome, Florence and Venice because it was my first time to Italy and maybe my only chance, but one of my favorite parts of the trip was our road trip to Tuscany and a meal on the hilltop of a farm and just taking in all the history. 

Toba is a smooth two hour train ride from Osaka, or four hours from Tokyo. You might have heard about Toba when all the world leaders converged in the Ise-Shima region this past May for the G7 summit, just a week after we were there. If you are ever in Japan, I recommend adding a few days so that you can visit Toba and if you do, here's are some of the things I did and you should too.

1. EAT a seafood feast grilled by the ama women divers who dived and caught it that morning 

You rarely meet the people who catch your food, but here we were able to watch as the Ama women divers expertly grilled (and shucked) the magaki oysters, colorful noble scallops, sazae turban shells and aji fish, and chatted with them (through a translator). Hands down, eating with the ama divers in the amagoya, or the ama divers' hut, was one of the most memorable things I've ever done.

There was a sense of strength and camaraderie from the women, most of them who have been diving and earning a living for their families for over 50 years.  I can barely stay afloat in a pool, much less in the ocean, and these amazing women dive up to 90 times a day, for 50 seconds at a time, foraging for abalone, sea urchin or lobster deep underwater without any scuba gear or breathing equipment. Add to the fact that most of them are now over the age of 65. Seriously amazing.

The Ama hut is open to the public by reservation, but not as well known outside of Japan. I asked them if they ever get any US or Taiwanese tourists, and they said they would have some Taiwanese ones coming the following weekend, but rarely any Americans. So I'm so happy to share this experience with you, as I hope as many people get the pleasure of eating at the amagoyas and meeting the ama divers before there isn't a chance to anymore.

There are several amagoyas in the Mie area, but I strongly recommend going to this one- Osatsu Kamodo (1238 Osatsucho, Toba, Mie Prefecture, Phone:  +81 599-33-7453, 3500yen lunchtime only).

2. GAZE at the pearls at the Mikimoto Museum, learn about how pearls are made and watch the pearl diver show 

The Mikimoto Museum is actually on its own island, which is connected by a short footbridge from Toba. Once you've watched the graceful pearl diver demonstration, you can leisurely explore the museum and learn about how pearls are cultivated from oysters as well as gawk at the rooms full of pearl encrusted displays. Not only are there different grades of pearls, but also different colors and different shapes. It takes over two years for pearls to be cultivated, and only 5% of the cultured pearls are considered top tier for Mikimoto jewelry. One third is marketable and the rest are ground and used for makeup, skin care and medicinal purposes. We didn't have time to browse the shop, but if I did, I would have totally picked up something for my mom because how memorable would it be to have a Mikimoto pearl from Mikimoto Pearl Island?

3. LEARN about the fascinating history and culture of the ama divers at the Osatsu Ama Museum and Toba Seafolk Museum

The ama diving culture has been documented in Japan for thousands of years, but in the last fifty years the ama population has decreased by over 80%. There used to be 6000 ama divers in 1949 and now there are less than 800.  In the past, daughters learned the skills from their mothers and grandmothers when they free dived together, but now there are more career opportunities for women. According to Dr. Ishihara, the Director of the Toba Seafolk Museum, "Abalone is the most treasured and profitable catch. There used to be many ama who could catch 10-15 kg per day, 30-40 years ago. The abalone population of the Shima Peninsula has been decreasing since about 1980. This decline is not only due to pollution or ocean warming, rather, it is thought to be due to overfishing." The ama culture lent itself to sustainable fishing since they followed the harvesting regulations and could individually determine if abalone was undersized or not. The Toba Seafolk Museum has a collection of fishing boats, photos, artwork and equipment to document and preserve Toba's fishing traditions and culture. (1731-68 Ogitsu Uramura-choToba, Mie Prefecture, 三重県鳥羽市浦村町大吉1731-68, 0599-32-6006,

I loved this painting at the museum, among others, that showed the fierceness of the ama women divers, who some call real life mermaids because of their ability to navigate the waters while holding their breath. You can also see the contrast of the romanticism of the paintings in the past to the current sign to the museum which has a grandmotherly figure to greet us. 

4. MAKE A WISH at the Ishigami-san shrine 
After visiting the Toba Seafolk Museum, we walked through the town towards the Shinmei Shrine and passed by this area where you could write a wish down,  deposit it a box, ring the bell. Follow the directions after making your wish, so you can join ama divers and locals in hoping that Ishigami-san, a stone goddess, known for granting wishes to women can fulfill your wish.  (1385, Osatsu, Toba, Mie)

5. RELAX with an onsen hot spring bath at the hotel 
This is the one thing I regret not trying while I was in Toba. I figured it would be similar to the hotsprings in Beitou or Yang Ming Shan in Taiwan, but my friends who tried it said it was a cool experience. There are public baths as well as private in Todaya Hotel, and there are light robes and slippers in the rooms for you to use. 

6. EXPLORE the town and eat udon, sushi, seafood, hotpot or crepes
On my last evening in Toba, I walked about 10-15 minutes away from my hotel to explore the quiet neighborhood in Toba. Beyond the train station, there were a cluster of residences and restaurants that included various Japanese restaurants, but I was surprised to spot this little hipster looking cafe, Killibilli, as well as an Italian restaurant. Living in Taipei, I'm always fascinated by new restaurants that open that are atypical from what you would expect in Asia and why people who are not native to that country choose to move and live there. I really wanted to try a crepe, but I'll have to save it for my next trip.

7. TRAVEL to nearby areas in Ise-Shima region

  • Even though Japan is so close to Taiwan (the flight is less than three hours to Osaka, only 90 minutes to Okinawa), this was only my second visit to Japan. I don't know why I waited so long to revisit Japan and this trip definitely inspired me to take more frequent visits to Japan so I can explore the different cities. On our first night in Toba, we were treated to an epic show and tell of the Ise-Shima region's culinary delights- the delicious dinner menu included abalone (dived for by local ama women divers), spiny Ise-ebi spiny lobster, tempura, sashimi, Matsusaka beef, sushi and sake. If you were a beef lover, you could find the best waygu in Matsusaka, a one hour train ride from Toba. There are also a lot of islands nearby to explore.

    8. ENJOY the local breakfast buffet 
    Loved the variety of foods, local vegetables and seafood that the Todaya Hotel offered in its breakfast buffet. There was also western pancakes, bacon and eggs offered, but definitely take advantage of the home court foods. 

    Thank you to Genuine Education Network and the city of Toba for organizing such a wonderful visit. GEN aims to educate about 'genuine' practices of food and sustainability, and the "wisdom and traditions behind the Japanese food culture," such as the ama divers, and is doing amazing work.  

    Ever since I returned from Japan, I have told EVERYONE that I know about the ama divers and told friends that they must plan a trip themselves. Many of my friends, who travel frequently to Japan, were even surprised to hear about the Ise-Shima region and Toba for the first time, and were equally fascinated by the ama divers stories. Before going to Toba, I didn't know what to expect since it was my first time accepting an invitation to a media event abroad (I previously had been invited to events in London, Malaysia and Vietnam, which I declined). I was a bit intimidated to go somewhere I wasn't familiar with and with people I didn't know, but in the end, I discovered that Toba was a lovely city with many friendly people and lots of delicious food. Even on my last evening when I was walking around the town, I randomly ran into a local journalist who recognized me from the first night and he walked me all the way to the train station and helped translate for me with the man at the train ticket booth who didn't speak any English to buy a train ticket from Toba to Tokyo. It's that sort of thing that made my trip so memorable and the kind of trip that makes you want to keep exploring the world. 

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