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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Mikimoto Pearl Museum

ミキモト真珠島, 鳥羽

Probably the must-see sight in Toba on the Mie coast is Mikimoto Pearl Island which houses the Mikimoto Pearl Museum.

Statue of Mikimoto Kokichi in characteristic bowler hat

Toba is the world's birthplace of the cultured pearl industry. In 1893 Mikimoto Kokichi (1858-1954) produced the world's first cultured pearl. Mikimoto's life and work is celebrated on Mikimoto Pearl Island.

The interesting, hi-tech Pearl Museum explains in both clear English and Japanese how natural and cultured pearls are produced, how the pearls are graded, polished and strung on necklaces or set in jewelry. There is also an exhibition room of pearl jewelry including antique pieces, elaborate crowns and even Himeji Castle constructed from pearls.

Cultured pearls at the Mikimoto Pearl Museum

The Kokichi Mikimoto Memorial Hall is also a well-presented exhibition of the great man's life from his humble beginnings growing up in a Meiji-era noodle restaurant (which is authentically reproduced), to his discovery of the potential for pearls and marine products in general from a trip he undertook to Tokyo and Yokohama as a young man.

Kokichi Mikimoto Memorial Hall

Through gradual trial and error Mikimoto eventually discovered a means of producing cultured pearls and in 1899 opened his first pearl shop in Ginza, Toyko. Mikimoto's pearl jewelry business was one of the first Japanese companies to become an international brand and he opened stores first in London (1913), and later in Paris, New York, San Francisco and other US cities as well as Bombay and Shanghai.
Mikimoto bought the patent of a rival Japanese system of producing cultured pearls - the Mise-Nishikawa method - and thus secured a virtual world monopoly of the cultured pearl business.

Examples of Mikimoto's writings and his collection of Ebisu statues (Ebisu is the guardian deity of fishermen and had a special place in Mikimoto's heart) are also on display.

On the hour is a performance by female divers - ama (海女), who traditionally dived to bring up shellfish, seaweed, natural pearls and oysters and then returned the oysters to the seabed after they had been "seeded".

Mikimoto Pearl Museum

Though men also work as divers, women were traditionally favored as they could withstand the cold of the sea better due to a greater percentage of body fat than males. Wearing a white suit and a mask, three ama dive from a boat to show off their skills in collecting shellfish from the deep. Working ama don't wear the white suit nowadays, but instead favor brightly colored orange tops (so boats can see them) and thermal tights.

Once a popular side business for women in the countryside, diving by ama is gradually dying out in modern Japan and most of the ama divers are now in their 50s, 60s or even older. The glamorous ama featured in the 1967 James Bond film You Only Live Twice would be a rare sight indeed.

Mikimoto Pearl Island
1-7-1 Toba,
Mie Prefecture
Tel: 0599 25 2028
Admission 1,500 yen


Toba is easily reached by Kintetsu Railway from Osaka (approx 2 hours), Kyoto (approx 2 hours) and Nagoya (1 hour 40 mins). A JR or Kintetsu train takes about 20 minutes between Ise and Toba.

There is a ferry across Ise Bay to Chubu International Airport (100 mins) near Tokoname on the Chita Peninsula with train connections to Nagoya and also a crossing to Irako on the Atsumi Peninsula in Aichi Prefecture (55 mins).

See the Isewan Ferry Company for more details (Tel: 0599 26 3335).
Buses cross the scenic Ise-Shima Skyline road between Ise and Toba.
Toba JR Station Tel: 0599 25 2066
Toba Kintetsu Station Tel: 0599 25 2126
Toba Tourist Office Tel: 0599 25 2844
Kintetsu Taxi Tel: 0599 25 2538

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