Diving with Ama 跟海女出海
In one of my previous post I mentioned that I went Diving with Ama during my recent trip to Japan. This was definitely the highlight of my trip to see an Ama dive. This post is dedicated to all the Ama divers.
日本之旅的亮點是在伊勢跟海女出海，親眼目睹這個過千年的傳統工作。海女已經是一個息微的行業，全日本大概只剩有2000多位， 而在伊勢就有大約800名。海女平均年齡是65歲，最年長一位是已超過80歲， 而陪伴我們出海的海女已經69歲! 真是不可思議噢！ 海女潛水不用氧氣樽， 最深可以潛到10米，而每次大概可以停留在水底1分鐘左右，便要回到水面。 近年已經越來越少新人入行，不知在將來還有沒有機會再看到真正的傳統海女文化。
WHO IS AMA
Ama translates to ‘woman of the sea’ in Japanese and is a thousand year old diving tradition. Some even believe that this tradition dates back to much longer. They are predominantly female and free dive without any oxygen tanks. In they old days Amas used to dive topless and were known as the mermaids of Japan. There are now around 2,000 Ama divers in Japan with eight hundred in the Mie prefecture alone.
Ama diving is a rapidly declining tradition and the average age of the Ama divers in Ise is 65, the oldest who still dive is over 80! Their numbers are dwindling fast, and due to the weather, they only dive for around 6 months each year. For me, to go diving with Ama was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
WAITING FOR AMA
The end of the season this year was on the 31st of October, the day I was due to arrive in Ise. That morning we drove down from Nagoya, it took us about an hour and a half. We got to the meeting place, a port by the sea with half an hour to spare. Whilst waiting for the host to arrive to take me diving with Ama, I wandered around the port. A boat had just come back from the sea and were dealing with their catch. They were cleaning and gutting their fish on board. Luckily they didn’t seem to mind me taking photos.
THE AMA EXPERIENCE HUT
After a while our host still hadn’t appeared. It turned out that we hadn’t noticed they had change the meeting location a couple of days ago. The new meeting location was at the Ama Experience Hut not far away. This is where the Amas serve you seafood lunch in the traditional way. Lunch had just finished when we arrived. This was served in a little hut where the fresh seafood are barbecued by the Amas in the center of the room. During the winter season, many Amas work here as an extra source of income. Retired Amas also work here. I’ll talk more about this next time.
MEETING AN AMA
Now its finally time to start our Diving with Ama experience. Our hosts were Shingo, our driver, and Akiko our interpreter. First of all we were taken back to the port where I was earlier on. Here we met Mayumi, our Ama diver.
Mayumi gave us an introduction into the Ama’s daily life, and the inside of their traditional huts, the ama-goyas. Traditionally, most Ama’s learn to dive when they’re a teenager and many follow their mother and grandmother’s footsetp into the trade. Mayumi says she’s been diving for over thirty years – thirty four if I remember correctly.
The Amas normally dive twice a day in the summer, each session lasts for over an hour. They work for themselves, so all their catch is sold directly to the fishing association. This cuts out any other middle man saving them cost on their hard earned work. After the morning dive, the Amas come back to their huts for a rest. I was a bit in awe of all this and forgot to take any photos of the huts 😣!!
GETTING READY FOR THE AMA DIVE
Now it was time to go out to the sea and watch Ama dive. We were driven to another port where the skipper was waiting for us to board the boat to take us out to sea.
We were the only people on the tour which was great as we could really get to understand the whole Ama culture very well. In the old days, Amas used to dive naked. After the second world war tourism started to boom. Tourists were a bit startled by the sight of naked lady divers, so the Amas started to wear the white cloth outfit to dive. This is what you see them wearing at the Ama Experience Huts today. During our tour, Mayumi wore a wet suit, this is much more practical given the already cold weather in autumn. I believe they started wearing wet suits instead of the white cloth outfit sometime around the sixties. The only traditional piece of clothing Mayumi wore is the white bandana, the tenugi. The tenugi has been blessed by the temple to protect the Amas during diving.
The other thing that Muyumi put on were some weights around her waist. Time is of essence when diving without an oxygen tank, and you need to get down under sea as quick as possible. Weights will help you with that. I did ask about the weights hindering you coming back up, but Akiko explained that it’s easier to come up with the weights than to not have them to help you diving down.
Whilst Mayumi puts on her wet suit, Akiko helps to prep the googles. She rubs some traditional yomogi (mugwort) leaves with sea water onto the googles to prevent them fogging up. Then she explains to us the tools the Amas use when diving.
The lifebuoy acts as a marker for the Ama in the sea and there’s a little flag for easy recognition. There’s a net in the middle of the lifebuoy, that’s where Amas keep her valuable catch such as abalone, sea urchin, shellfish, lobster, pearl and seaweed etc. On the top of lifebuoy is a small plank to keep the one and only tool they use when diving. The sharp end of the tool with a little hook is to cut the seaweed. The other end that Akiko is holding is like a chisel and is used to lift abalone and other shellfish off the rocks.
LET’S GO DIVING WITH AMA
Now it was finally time for Mayumi to show us how an Ama dives. With all the prep work done, Mayumi threw her lifebuoy into the sea and then jumped overboard herself.
It was 31st October, autumn had arrived and the weather wasn’t exactly the warmest. The water was quite murky, and visibility wasn’t great. Although Mayumi doesn’t speak English, you can tell that she is a very outgoing and funny lady. Once she was in the sea, she was so at ease with the surroundings and it felt like home for her.
GOODIES FROM UNDER THE SEA
Mayumi can dive down to 10 meters deep (don’t forget that’s without an oxygen tank!) but on these experience tours she normally dives down to 3 meters. The longest she can go under water is about a minute. She would disappear underwater every now and then, and suddenly appear again with some goodies she had found for us. Here’s a selection including the poisonous sea urchin with the long spikes.
Akiko said sometimes she goes diving with Mayumi and she can dive down to 5 meters. Mayumi knows that she is afraid of starfish, and during the dive, she saw a red and black starfish underwater. She bought it back especially for Akiko who shuddered when she saw it! It was so funny!!
AMA AND MODERN TECHNOLOGY
Remember I said most Amas start diving in their teenage years and Mayumi has been diving for 34 years? How old does that make her? Mayumi was actually a bit of a late starter. She said she didn’t take up Ama diving till she ws 35, so now she is 69 years old!!! I bet you never saw that coming! Free diving is so natural to her, as is modern day technology. She was such a pro with my GoPro and took some great videos for me. Here’s a frame from the video that she took.
And here’s the video I made of my Diving with Ama experince bringing everything to life. Thanks to clips taken by Mayumi underwater, this is is one of my best videos to date and shows how amazing the Ama divers are.
MY DIVING WITH AMA EXPERIENCE
This tour was without a doubt one of the best thing I did in Japan. What makes is so special is witnessing the professionalism and skills of the Ama divers. Akiko said they are trying to preserve this important tradition and by organising these tours they hope to spread the Ama culture so more people can be aware of it. There has been an ongoing campaign in Japan and Korea (the only other place where this culture exists) to get Ama diving listed as an Intangible Culutural Heritage of UNESCO. Hopefully they will succeed one day.