The Daily Telegraph - Travel

Pearls of wisdom for world leaders


The setting for this month’s G7 summit in Japan is a place of serenity and sparkle, says Danielle Demetriou

As I sat in that tin-roofed hut in Osatsu – with tangles of fishing nets, old shells and sunfaded posters hanging on the wall and a patch of Pacific glistening through the doorway – I was unable to take my eyes off my hosts. The reason for my impolite staring was not because of the way the two elderly Japanese ladies laughed constantly as they prepared a fresh seafood lunch. Nor was it due to their firemaking skills, as they expertly lit bamboo in a pit dug into the ground. I was transfixed because these two grandmothe­rs had a skill that I could never imagine possessing: they were expert freedivers. Osatsu is a speck of a village in Ise-Shima, a peninsula in Japan’s southerly Mie Prefecture. Wild hills, dense forests and citrus trees warmed by the Pacific span the 55,544hectare peninsula – one of Japan’s oldest national parks – while its sawtooth coastline is peppered with bays, islets and sleepy fishing towns. Pearls take centre stage in the region, which prides itself as the birthplace of the cultivated version. The underwater antics of its female freedivers known as ama (incidental­ly, the inspiratio­n behind James Bond’s accomplice­s in You Only Live Twice) have helped to create a thriving pearl industry. For many tourists, Ise-Shima is often overlooked in favour of the temples of Kyoto, the culture of Nara and the history of Hiroshima. But the peninsula – only four hours by train from Tokyo – is now on the brink of coming out to the world.

The first hint came in the form of helicopter­s recently transporti­ng “Aman Junkies” – luxury-seeking fans of the chic hotel chain – who were making a beeline for the hotel group’s latest outpost Amanemu, which opened on March 1. And Ise-Shima’s is now bracing itself for a further boost with the arrival of its most high-profile visitors yet: a string of world leaders, who will this month arrive to stage the Group of Seven Summit.

The slow-paced rural peninsula may not seem the most obvious backdrop for superleade­rs to discuss counterter­rorism strategies. Yet Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe pushed hard for the event to be staged here, in a bid to cast a global spotlight on a place that is as rich in nature and heritage as it is internatio­nally unsung.

The pearls of wisdom dispensed during the summit, however, will surely be nothing compared to the real thing. My elderly hosts Reiko san, 84, and 77-year-old Shigeno san belonged to a traditiona­l community of ama divers (“sea women” in Japanese), who for 2,000 years have held their breath and disappeare­d under the waves in search of pearls, shellfish and seaweed. Armed only with a mask, a roped basket and a metal tool with a hook, they can plunge 33ft for more than a minute, before rising to the surface with arms full of sea treasures.

“I started diving at 14,” smiled Shigeno san, a grandmothe­r-of-seven, who dives daily between mid-March and mid-September as part of a 150strong ama community. “My mother and my grandmothe­r and everyone before me dived. It’s not easy and it can be dangerous. But it keeps you healthy and you get better with age.”

We were sitting in a hut known as an amagoya – where divers gather around a fire to warm up after diving – which is run by 84-year-old Reiko san (aka The Boss) who retired from diving a few years ago.

“Here we go,” said Shigeno san, holding out a bamboo tray of uncooked – and still moving – sea creatures, from abalone and sea snails to a spiny lobster. “Lunch.”

Piling the seafood onto the fire, they revealed an eclectic selection of details about their lives – the star embroidere­d on Reiko san’s headscarf was for protection; Shigeno san dives with a seven-kilo belt around her waist, so she sinks faster; the cotton outfits traditiona­lly worn to scare away sharks were replaced with wetsuits 40 years ago; and women are better at free diving than men because they can hold their breath for longer and have more body fat. Perhaps most importantl­y, I learnt that few young women today follow in their mother’s footsteps (their youngest diver is 54). As it was a few weeks before the diving season started, I headed to nearby Mikimoto Pearl Island, where the first cultivated pearl was created in 1893, to see ama in action. Here, against a soundtrack of piped music, I shivered in the ocean breeze alongside middle-aged Japanese tourists as two women dressed in white cotton (hiding

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 ??  ?? A freediver in the waters off IseShima in Japan’s Mie prefecture, left
A freediver in the waters off IseShima in Japan’s Mie prefecture, left
 ??  ?? Members of the traditiona­l community of divers, known as ‘sea women’, right
Members of the traditiona­l community of divers, known as ‘sea women’, right
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