Toba Sweetheart

Monitor tour offers foreign residents a special experience

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By Jenn Languay
Published Monday, June 11th, 2012 (10:01pm)
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When I tell friends back in Canada that I live in Mie-ken, their response is "Where?" Admittedly, I had the same reaction when I learned my placement on the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. I'd never heard of the small, rural prefecture that stretched along Japan's east coast just south of Nagoya.

It would seem that the Japanese Tourism Agency's (JTA) latest initiative is designed to dispel some of this ambiguity. A new English-language tour crafted by the JTA is designed with foreigners in mind and exposes them to some of Mie's less well-known tourist sites. We were presented with the opportunity to attend a test run of the tour in January, and the unbelievably low price of ¥5000 made it impossible to turn down.

Having never visited the Toba area prior to the tour (combined with my minimal Japanese ability), I was a perfect test candidate for the "Sweethearts Tour" experience. The Sweethearts are the forest and the sea, which (as we learned on the tour) work seamlessly together to form a perfect environment for the growth of stunning pearls and delicious shellfish in Ise Bay. I wasn't sure what to expect going in, but walked away from the experience with a new appreciation for Toba and a fresh perspective on the prefecture I call home.

The tour began early on January 14th, with a 7:30 a.m. pick-up from Kintetsu Yokkaichi Station. There were three pick-up points — Yokkaichi, Tsu and Toba — which made getting on the tour very convenient. The bus drove us first to Toba Port, where the 20 of us and our tour guides boarded a private ferry for the short journey to Toshijima. There, we were given a rare glimpse of the Toshijima Fish Market, which had taken a holiday specifically so that we could tour the facility. It was here we learned that this tiny fishery was one of the most productive in Japan, accounting for more than $15 million of the city's annual fishery income.

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Afterward, we were lucky enough to be invited into one of the island’s communal fishing huts that dot the shore. These spacious shacks feature a few benches and fire pits used by local residents to relax between fishing trips. Those of us brave enough to taste it nibbled on some of the locally grown brown seaweed while we learned about the work that is the backbone of this small island community.

The hospitality we experienced at the fishery and fishing hut was repeated throughout the day as we toured the small island on foot, admiring the narrow streets and tightly-packed houses. We were treated to lunch at a local restaurant which was located in what looked to be a resident's dining room. The homey decor and the generosity of the owner was a great accompaniment to the fabulous and filling meal we enjoyed, which included fresh sashimi, tempura, and a variety of cooked fish. Having the opportunity to sit down and eat with the owner was one of the more unique dining experiences I've had in Japan and truly brought home just how warm and welcoming this small community is.

After lunch, we made the quick journey back to the mainland to experience the second part of our Sweethearts experience – a tour of the forest. As we climbed the steep path amidst the towering trees, our guide explained the importance of maintaining the forest. Each year they cut back the branches of the larger trees so that more light can reach the ground to promote new growth. This in turn creates a mineral-rich soil which trickles down into the harbour with each rainfall to create a perfect growing environment for the seaweed, shellfish and pearls that sustain the local industry. The views from the top of the hill were also impressive and well worth the short hike!

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The brochure's mention that we would spend the afternoon searching for firewood and grilling oysters in the forest had left me feeling a bit anxious in light of the sharp coastal wind and cool weather, but I was pleasantly surprised once we boarded the bus and headed to a family-run oyster grill. Searching for wood turned out to be a fun activity where we could volunteer to use an axe to chop the wood that would be used to grill our oysters. The oysters were served hot and tasted absolutely delicious. I think knowing that we'd had a hand in preparing them only made us appreciate them all the more. Needless to say, they were gobbled up in to time and we were left to janken over the last remaining shell on our plate.

With our oyster grilling adventure over, we headed back on to the bus and were taken to our hotel. Kaigetsu was a traditional Japanese ryokan and much larger than I’d expected. Our room offered a bedroom, sitting room and toilet room with plenty of space for two occupants. We had the option to shower in our room or use the ryokan's sento (public bath). Many of us made use of the sento, which was quaint with only a handful of showers and one large soaking tub.

Once we were cleaned up, our tour guides presented us with some very generous coupons that could be used at a number of local restaurants. Having eaten seafood all day, my group and I were eager for a little diversity. It seemed that this was the general consensus among the rest of the people on the tour and the single Italian restaurant was quite full once we arrived for dinner. This had no impact on the speed of service though, and before long we were enjoying plates of creamy pasta and crispy thin-crust pizza. After such a productive day, I struggled to imagine what was possibly left for us to see on Sunday.

Our second day in Toba started early, with an impressive breakfast spread offered by Kaigetsu. We were treated to a traditional Japanese-style breakfast of miso crab soup, a large pink grapefruit, rice, fish, and pickles. It was an impressive amount of food and I struggled to finish it all.

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From there, it was off to the famous Mikimoto Pearl Island, where we had the opportunity to watch the Ama (female divers) dive for pearls in Toba Bay. The water was a nippy 11 degrees Celsius, but this didn't seem to hinder the well-trained divers as they repeatedly dipped beneath the frigid waves in nothing more than their traditional white robes and a pair of goggles.

While at the museum, we were treated to an excellent English-language tour that explained the painstaking process of making pearls and then selecting the finest ones to bear the Mikimoto name. Mikimoto Pearls are famous around the world for their quality, and this tour provided valuable insight into an industry that I'd previously known very little about. After the tour we were given the opportunity to explore the museum at our leisure, which led many of us into the gift shop to buy some reasonably priced cultured pearl jewelry and other trinkets.

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The afternoon of our second day was spent in the fishing town of Osatsu, where we had the chance to explore some of the local shops, shrines and landmarks. At each shop we were treated to a special dish or demonstration by the staff, which not only kept our hunger satiated but provided us with a great chance to learn more about the history of this small, coastal village. I'm not sure I'll ever be able to forget our experience with the turban shell (sazae) at one local fish distributor. It was the first time I understood the true meaning behind the Japanese saying "Motainai" (meaning, to respect food by not wasting it). I don't think I'll ever have the chance to eat sushi that fresh again!

After enjoying a delicious Toburger graciously provided by our tour guides for lunch, my group and I made our way up to Shinmei Shrine, which is said to grant one wish to female visitors. It was certainly popular, with a steady stream of women lined up to submit their wishes to the honourable stone goddess, Ishigami-san. A few minutes down the hill was where I found one of my personal favourite landmarks of the trip - a large "dragon" tree located next to the Ama Culture Museum. The size of the tree was impressive in and of itself, but its claim to grant wishes to those who placed their hands on it made it all the more special.

What followed was perhaps my favourite experience of the tour. We were ushered into an Amagoya (a hut where the Ama divers rest between dives) and treated to an array of grilled fish served by the divers themselves. While nibbling away at freshly cooked oysters, clams and turban shells, we had the chance to ask questions of the women who'd spent their life diving in Toba's waters. They were very candid as they told us about the implicit trust that exists between the husband and wife fishing teams, and how dangerous diving can be. More than one of the ladies had lost a friend to the ocean. It was both fascinating and a little sad to learn about the slow demise of such a wonderful tradition. With each generation there are fewer and fewer divers and fishermen willing to resist the lure of the big city and stay in these small coastal towns. Within a few decades, Japan’s Ama will be a thing of the past.

As our final day of the tour wound down, I was left with a new appreciation for the coastal towns of Mie Prefecture. The warmth and hospitality of the locals we met at each stop of our tour made it a memorable trip that I would happily repeat again. The opportunity for more English-language tours targeting foreign tourists is an exciting prospect. If the Sweethearts Tour offered by JTA is any indication of what we can expect from the Mie tourism industry, Mie has a good chance of becoming a destination for tourists from around the world. I look forward to the day when I can tell friends in Canada that I live in Mie and the response isn't "Where?" but "I've heard of Mie! I really want to visit!"

For more information on the Sweethearts Tour and others like it, please contact the JTB Central Japan Office (Tsu) - 059-228-0203 or visit the JTB website (Japanese only)

Additional information about touring Mie and Japan can be found in English at the Japanese Tourism Agency Website and the Mie Tourism Guide.

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