After lunch, I headed to the ferry port to catch a ride around Toba Gulf, about a five minute walk from the station. The day was sunny and warm, the first glorious day of spring weather. Twenty minutes later, I was on the ferry and watching a group of seagulls trail behind it, as some of the passengers were feeding them chunks of bread. Several rocky islands dotted across the sea, none big enough to have any inhabitants. Fishing boats bobbed in the waters near the greenish-blue shorelines, manned by old fishermen in tracksuits who lazily cast their reels into the gentle waters. An old Japanese man once told me that Japanese fish are very smart, which perhaps explained why the fishermen’s buckets beside them were empty. The ferry, to my surprise, was soon pulling into a small harbor on a random tiny island. The island, it turned out, had a facility where one could see a dolphin show. I got off to have a look around. It was a strange little place, with a couple of souvenir shops with outdated dolphin toys and a shop selling noodles. The dolphin show turned out to be good but the dolphins were kept in such a small pool that I felt a little sorry for them. There were several of them however, so at least they had company. One benefit of the dolphin show was that if you signed up, you could pet the dolphin. So myself, along with nine other kids, got to pet the dolphins after the show, as the trainer was able to get them to come close to us.
After the dolphin show, I waited for the next ferry and hopped on it to head to the Mikimoto Pearl Island. Once I had entered the grounds of the facility, I checked my watch. Sure enough, I was just on time to watch the famous ama-san diving for pearls. The ama-san tradition is a long one in the Toba area. Ama are women divers who were once very important in the cultivation of pearls. Because pearl cultivation has developed so much, ama are no longer needed. Mikimoto Pearl Island is the only place in Japan you can see them diving in their traditional white diving gear (as a demonstration). Mikimoto himself is the founder of Mikimoto Pearls, which has stores all over the world. He once said, “I wish to adorn the necks of all the woman of the world with pearls.” Sounds like a good business goal to me.
Toba is not really a place for backpackers. If you are on a budget and want to stay the night, the only choices are ryokans, which can be a bit pricey. The ryokans are lovely and almost all of them have an onsen. I decided that a ryokan would be a good choice, despite the nagging voice in my head that said I should have just taken the last train back to Osaka. My stomach grumbled and I picked up a package of dried octopus which tasted better than it sounds. The ryokan I chose, called Isobue, was located at the top of a large hill overlooking the sea. Nothing to complain about, I thought to myself, as I looked around at the beautifully manicured gardens on the grounds when I arrived. Isobue actually refers to the whistle-like sound that an ama-san makes as she exhales when resurfacing. The staff at the ryokan were friendly and I was shown to my simple tatami room as I dodged a group of old men in cotton robes heading for the onsen downstairs. I decided that soaking in a hot onsen sounded perfect and luckily, when I entered the women’s onsen a few minutes later, it was empty. I love being in an empty onsen, it’s the best feeling, a small moment of privacy. After soaking in the hot spring waters said to make the skin more beautiful, I got out, dried off, and put on my robe. Everyone at the ryokan was wearing them and I didn’t want to be the odd one out.
I passed the downstairs restaurant and decided to go in. The sounds of loud laughter filled my ears as I passed a table of red-faced old men at a table filled with beer bottles and bits and bobs of random dishes. They mumbled something about gaijin (foreigners) and laughed. I ignored them and sat in the farthest corner of the restaurant. I decided to order the region’s famed specialty of Ise shrimp, sashimi style. It was delicious but for 5,000 (about $50US) yen for nine pieces, it was a little out of my budget range. Still hungry, I left the restaurant and bought a beer from one of the vending machines. That would have to do for dinner. I went upstairs to my room and flipped on the television. I soon found myself mesmerized by the hypnotic trance of a Japanese food show, where a few people were going around Hokkaido with missionary zeal and trying ramen, exclaiming oishii. Sitting in my robe on my futon, drinking Asahi and watching Japanese television, I couldn’t think of any other place I would rather be.