Pearls have been around for thousands of years and were once more precious than even diamonds due to their scarcity. In the early days pearl divers in the Persian Gulf would risk their lives to dive to dark depths just for the small chance of recovering a pearl oyster and an even slimmer chance of finding a pearl inside. This all changed in the 1890's when Kokichi Mikimoto refined the process of culturing pearls and started producing them in Toba and Ago Bay, Japan. Today in Toba there are many landmarks dedicated to Mr. Mikimoto including Mikimoto Pearl Island and Museum where you can discover the history and science behind pearls as well as explore the natural beauty of the Japanese islands.
Toba Bay is in a remote part of Japan along the coast between Kyoto and Nagoya. It is accessible by train on either the JR or Kintetsu line. There is a special rapid train available to Ise station called the Shimakaze, or island wind, which is often renown for its luxurious seats and regional on board cuisine.
After arriving in Ise a short transfer on the local line to Toba station is required. This is a short trip which only takes 15 minutes and only costs a few hundred yen (under $5). Toba station is very small but has some fantastic local seafood stalls and a statue of Mr. Mikimoto and a large pearl right out front. There are plentiful pearl shops and places to buy omiyage (souviners). In front of the station a line of shuttles is available to take you to different hotels on the peninsula. Mikimoto pearl island is easily within walking distance and after exiting the west side of the station is only about 5 minutes along the harbor front.
Upon approaching the island there is a large white bridge and a uniquely shaped building with the Mikimoto logo on the front. Tickets can be purchased for entry and are around $20 US for the day. The island itself is beautifully landscaped with pine and numerous statues commemorating Mr. Mikimoto and his many achievements. The main building where the museum is housed is located in the center of the island. A small grandstand used for the Ama or pearl diver demonstration is toward the back and a small house is located on the far side which is memorial through Mr. Mikimoto's life and legacy. Among the meandering paths there are small shrines dedicated to good harvest and safe seas. Pearl diving demonstrations run multiple times per day and are not something to miss! Women clad in white cotton and masks dive to hand collect akoya oysters and place them in floating baskets representing how they used to be harvested in years past.
Mikimoto was not the only one trying to create a cultured pearl but was the first to successfully culture a round pearl that could be marketed for jewelry. He discovered this by carefully carving a bead out of Mississippi mussel shells and inserting it into a living Akoya pearl oyster. These oysters were then carefully placed in baskets and returned to the sea for up to 2 years. They were cared for, cleaned and monitored to ensure they weren't stressed or easy meals for predators. Within the first floor of the museum there are various exhibits detailing this process and even a live demonstration of how a pearl is placed inside an oyster. Each room is another part of the story of how a pearl is born.
After discovering how pearls are created different techniques for sorting, drilling and stringing are examined. Each pearl using the Mikimoto name is selected carefully from the top 5% of the harvest and all others are either used in other jewelry or cosmetics. Mr. Mikimoto was famously known for once burning a pile of inferior pearls to show that only the best were selected to hold his name.
The island isn't just displays and demonstrations, it also has a cafe, library and research center, cosmetic store and full Mikimoto pearl jewelry and accessory shop. In the cafe Akoya pearl oysters are served for lunch as well as regional cuisine and different types of high quality coffee and tea. There is an extensive menu with plenty to choose from.
One of the most unique displays is on the second floor next to the cafe. It showcases rare and exquisite works of art produced by Mikimoto. Some of these items were displayed at world's fairs or created for royalty or other important figures of the time. This hall showcases the history of the brand and contains historical documents as well as their unique "M" stamp used on every piece of their jewelry. It also showcases the Yaguruma or "wheel of arrows" which is one of the most important pieces Mikimoto ever created. It is a work of art and engineering and can be worn and converted into 12 different pieces of jewelry.
Next to this hall is a collection of rare and unusual pearl jewelry from all over the world. Various types of pearls, gemstones and unique materials grace these one-of-a-kind historic pieces. They span all eras of creations with many showcasing the design styles of the 1700's, 1800's or even earlier. It would take hours to admire every detail on these stunning creations.
After exiting the main building off to the right side, and easily overlooked, is a small house with a stone garden in the front. Upon entering is a replica of the soba noodle stand Mr. Mikimoto's parents ran when he was growing up. Each exhibit explores a different part of his life, from a letter he received from Thomas Edison, to his love for nature and the sea to his almost obsessive collection of Ebisu statues which in Japan is the god of fishermen and tradesmen. No wonder he was so successful!
While Toba may be a small and remote part of Japan there are plenty of things to do in the area. Numerous ferries run between the other smaller islands and there is the famous "Pearl Road" which runs between Toba and Ago bay which can be seen by taxi. This was the route used for decades when the pearl trade was at its peak crossing between the two largest pearl producing areas in Japan. Just down the street from pearl island is the onsen (hotsprings) hotel Shiojitei. It is to the east of Toba station and there is always a shuttle outside waiting to take you to and from the hotel. It is a luxurious traditional style hotel with its own inlet, set dinner and breakfast menu and an absolutely stunning hot springs which is dusted with crushed Mikimoto pearls that makes your skin shimmer like pearls.
After staying at Shiojitei a day trip to Ise Grand Shrine is in order. It is a quick train ride back to Ise Station and either a long walk, or 15 minute cab ride to the enterence. It is one of the most sacred shrines and is known as the soul of Japan. It is surrounded by a serene river and ancient trees and is one of the most peaceful and beautiful places you can visit on the peninsula. Just below the shrine is a little tourist village where local seafood, crafts and shops are plentiful. This is reminiscent of old Japan and a glimpse back in time that is unique only to the small quiet towns far away from the big cities.
For all the pearl lovers and those who enjoy the sea, the quiet town of Toba Bay and Ise are definitely a must stop destination for a few days when visiting Japan. Even though they are a bit off the beaten path it is worth the adventure and quiet calm only found in these small remote places of the world.