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Throughout its history of Ama divers, fishermen and Shinto traditions, Japan’s coastal region of Ise-Shima has placed a focus on its distinct cuisine.
Mayumi flips each vermilion lobster over in turn as the hot embers sizzle and crackle in front of us, sending flecks of ash into the air with the heady smell of wood smoke. Dressed in white with her head wrapped in a scarf, Mayumi is instantly recognisable as one of Ise-Shima’s few remaining Ama, the region’s women free divers who have collected shellfish from the seabed of the peninsula’s bays for hundreds of years. Despite now being in their 60s and 70s, the Ama stay underwater for up to two minutes at a time, diving for oysters, abalone and scallops.
We sit cross-legged around a sunken fire pit on the tatami floor of one of the traditional wooden huts known as an “Amagoya”. For years, this is where the women divers have gathered between dives to warm themselves by the fire and cook the shellfish they’ve collected over the open flames. In the 36 years she’s been diving, Mayumi has seen the Ama’s way of life evolve, but the international attention they are now receiving – they are now listed as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage – is helping to preserve their tradition.
Mayumi cracks open a lobster to reveal its succulent flesh and the delicate meat of its brain. In Japan, Ise-lobster is revered for being especially sweet, but the brain in particular is considered a delicacy, with a texture that can be likened to sea urchin. This isn’t the only delicacy here that proves to be an acquired taste; throughout summer and into the autumn, the Ama also forage for turban shell abalone.
“Turban shell are bitter but Japanese people love the flavour”, Mayumi enthuses, handing me one of the conical shellfish to try. As we eat, she continues placing more abalone, along with octopus tentacles, horse mackerel and bonito on the grill. As I’ve arrived in autumn, I’ve caught the end of the turban shell season, but it’s just the beginning of the season for Ise-lobster, with the greatly anticipated months of oyster shucking about to begin.
With our veritable feast of seafood come bowls of steaming miso and clay pots of sticky rice infused with strands of the black sea vegetable hijiki, which is found along Japan’s rocky coastlines and is another source of local pride. Ise-Shima is celebrated countrywide for the high-quality produce that’s found off its shores, with the region’s small Toshi Island named one of the country’s three “miketsu kuni” from where the food for the Imperial Court was historically sourced.
From Ise at the top of the peninsula to Ago Bay at its southern end, with the ancient castle city of Toba between, this peaceful coastline is dotted with thriving fishing communities. Here, fishermen take their boats out in the sheltered bays, alongside the Ama who dive down to collect the shellfish by hand.
From the Ama hut in Ago Bay, I travel up the peninsula to Toba. Here I meet Dwinda, a Javan expat who leads visitors on culinary walking tours of the town she now calls home, introducing them to the locals who define this region’s food scene.
“Here in the Mie prefecture, we are surrounded by the mountains of Gifu and the Pacific Ocean, which both bring clean water to the Toba Sea.” Dwinda explains, “This, along with plentiful sunshine and rocks, has resulted in the dense seaweed we call the underwater forest, which in-turn attracts a lot of sea creatures.” The local community’s tradition of fishing that comes from living by this nutrient-rich coast has naturally led to regional dishes, such as tekone-zushi, which originates from ancient times when fishermen pickled bonito in soy sauce, before layering it over vinegar-kneaded rice.
After walking along the old Samurai street where Toba Castle once stood, and crossing the salt-water river which was once the castle’s moat to see Fugu dashing through the water below, we arrive at Kaigetsu Inn. As we slip off our shoes, Dwinda introduces me to the landlady Haruko Izaki. Haruko gestures for us to sit at a low table where she’s set up a small brick stove and has already begun grilling Ise-lobster chikuwa for which the meat is rolled around bamboo sticks.
“People come from across Japan for Ise-lobster when it’s in season,” Haruko tells us proudly, “You can get grilled or roasted lobster all along the peninsula, but if you reserve dinner here, you can have an Ise-lobster set, where it’s prepared in a different way for each course.” As the chikuwa turns golden, she hands us each a piping hot stick to try, before going on to tell us about the ryokan. She explains that Kaigetsu Inn turned 130 this year and is one of the oldest ryokan in the region, which has been in her family for four generations. She has been at the helm for 51 years and has recently seen the ryokan become popular among Europeans searching for somewhere authentically Japanese.
On returning to Ise that evening, I call into the counter restaurant Katsura, where one of the specialties is mike-don, a bowl of unctuous sticky rice topped with the seafood and locally grown ingredients. Like so many regions of Japan, Ise-Shima has a number of unique dishes, from ise-udon – a bowl of thick white noodles in black broth made from sake and soy – to akafuku mochi, a sweet rice cake wrapped in silky red-bean paste. But none are more representative of the region than this one dish, which brings together each of the key local ingredients with great significance to those who create it and make the pilgrimage to try it.
Ise Jinju, the country’s most sacred shrine, draws visitors to Ise-Shima year-round. And while the inner shrine, Naiku, is dedicated to the sun goddess, the outer shrine of Geku is where people worship the goddess of food. People eat the sacred bowl of mike-don in the area surrounding the shrine to show their gratitude for the region’s natural produce. While much of the focus falls on the seasonal delicacies – oysters, abalone and Ise-lobster – this is the dish that best sums up Ise-Shima’s bountiful produce and food philosophy, encapsulating the region’s unique food scene in one.
Need to know
Ago Bay attracted attention with the 2016 opening of Aman’s hot-spring resort, Amanemu. This new hotel brings fine dining to the isolated setting, championing the local produce in kaiseki-style plates, as well as giving guests the opportunity to dine with the Ama.
During oyster season, huts open up in Uramura, which lies just outside Toba on the scenic Pearl Road. People can hop between these huts while sampling the oysters each one has to offer.
At this 130-year-old ryokan in Toba, Haruko Izaki serves up Ise-lobster sets encompassing lobster prepared in a number of different ways, including lobster chikuwa and sashimi.
Provide a number of culinary experiences, including walking tours of Toba.
Oysters – abundant along the peninsula from November through to April.
Mikedon – a sacred rice bowl which brings together all of the season’s ingredients from land and sea.
Ise-udon – thick white noodles eaten countrywide, but in Ise-udon they are served in an inky black broth.
Akafuku mochi – a distinct rice cake encased in sweet red-bean paste which has been made since 1707.
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