Pause. Rewind. Play. A trip to Tokai, a part of central Japan’s Chubu region, is like viewing a documentary about the country’s history.
One entertaining throwback to the days of yore is traditional cormorant fishing in Inuyama, north of Nagoya. You’ll gaze in amazement as the black birds are set to fish by firelight in the Kiso River by a man dressed in native garb: a black head garment to protect from embers and a straw skirt to warm the body. A dozen birds diligently catch small fish in their beaks, but are unable to swallow the larger ones since they’re harnessed and tethered by thin flax ropes.
Now and again, the boatman pulls the birds back in and, one by one, the ayu fish they have caught are gathered. The ritual is done both day and night. The men light a lantern that helps attract the fish, as has been done for the past 1,300 years. Charlie Chaplin, who visited the area, was a great admirer of the festival, and the gregarious comedian was no doubt rendered speechless by the spectacle.
To prevent the cormorants from flying away, three or four of their feathers are clipped off one wingtip. The birds are then taught to swim and flop up onto the fishing boat’s railing. Inuyama Castle—often referred to as the oldest in Japan, with the original constructed in 1440 and one current tower dating to 1537—makes a fascinating backdrop to this scene. Gaze up at the fortress while enjoying a leisurely lunch in the boat.
All that ornithology is bound to leave you parched, and what better way to quench that thirst than an authentic Japanese tea ceremony at Nagoya Castle.
Just in case you thought green tea was green tea, think again. The area produces several varieties of the antioxidant-rich leaves, which may play a part in the local residents having such beautiful skin. But it’s not just skin that the residents of central Japan can be proud of. The region’s pearls are known around the world, and few experiences are more relaxing (or romantic) that seeing how these elegant gems are produced. The best place to witness this is Mie Prefecture’s, Mikimoto Pearl Island, less than two hours from Nagoya.
The first pearls were successfully cultivated here in 1893 by Kokichi Mikimoto, whose working-class family ran a noodle restaurant. Jewelry with his pearls has since gone on to find favor with royalty. The island’s reputation was bolstered in 1975, when England’s Queen Elizabeth II paid a visit.
If you’re hungry for a souvenir on your visit, you can pick up anything from inexpensive bookmarks adorned with tiny pearls to priceless necklaces. Perhaps most impressive is a replica of the Liberty Bell. Created for display at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the piece is made of 12,250 pearls and 366 diamonds, with the crack reproduced with blue pearls. It caused a sensation among the American public and was known as the “Million Dollar Bell.” Also in the museum is a display of the largest pearl ever found. Sublime.
It is also fascinating to watch the pearl gathering in action at one of the shows given by the ama divers. Historically, it was the women who went down to the sea bottom to fetch abalone along with the gems. It’s said that women do this better than men because they’re better able to breath underwater and have more body fat to keep them warm. Is this really the case, or is it simply an excuse for men to let women do this strenuous work? Who knows, but watching the dives is spell-binding. Dressed in white to scare off the sharks that reside in deeper waters, these women will dive 10 meters to retrieve abalone, sea urchins, sea cucumbers and agar-agar (an alternative to gelatin). Once they resurface, they toss their catch into wooden tubs.
The ama have a hard life—one that you’ll be happy to observe but glad you don’t have to live. After all, you’re here in Central Japan, and it’s time to relax.
Regular shinkansen trains between Tokyo and Nagoya take 1 hour and 40 minutes (¥10,780). Nagoya Castle is 10 minutes from the station by bus. Mikimoto Pearl Island is another 1 hour and 40 minutes from Nagoya. Take the JR or Kintetsu line to Toba (¥2,950). The island is open year-round except for the three days following the second Tuesday in December. Demonstrations by the ama women divers run throughout the year (¥1,500). Getting to the site of cormorant fishing on the Nagoya River takes about 20 minutes by train from Gifu. The demonstrations take place May 11-October 15 (¥3,300). Accommodation can be booked on the helpful English websites of Japanican (www.japanican.com). More information can be obtained from either of the websites of the Japan National Tourist Organization (www.japantravelinfo.com or www.jnto.go.jp).