Ama* – women of the sea – harvest shellfish and other seafood by diving into the sea. Awabi (abalone) and sazae (turban snails) provide their main source of income. However, many Ama also harvest seaweed. Seaweeds play an important role in Japanese cuisine and the retail market exceeds $1 billion annually. While many of these seaweeds are cultivated today, wild harvested seaweed earns premium prices.
Ama dive with the seasons. The Ama of Goza Town, on the tip of the Shima peninsula (Ise-Shima) finished the year diving for namako (sea cucumber, see earlier post). They remained on shore in January and February to avoid the cold waters of winter. They began diving again March 1 for wakame, Undaria pinnatifida, (Phaeophyceae, Laminariales) a leafy kelp used in soups and salads (Photos 1-3).
Machiyo Yamashita-san, a master Ama diver in Goza, harvested wakame 10 days this March. We visited her on the morning of March 15, the last day of the harvest. We found Yamashita-san in her Ama Goya (hut), chatting with another Ama as they warmed themselves by the fire (Photo 4). Ama spend 30 minutes or more in their huts before diving, getting warm to the point of sweating. They don their wetsuits in the heat of the Ama Goya just before entering the cold ocean waters, 14.5o C (58o F) in March.
They took a short boat ride from the harbor to the dive site. En route, they de-fogged their masks using toothpaste, a modern replacement for the traditional leaves or seaweed still used by some Ama (see Ama Summit post). Once on site, each Ama put on her mask and fins, and quickly jumped overboard. They used a tanpo – a modified life preserver – to hold their catch and tools, and to provide support at the surface between dives (Photos 5-8).
They immediately began diving for kelp. Surface dives were made headfirst with their feet and legs lifted out of the water (a pike dive). Each dive lasted approximately 30 seconds. Wakame was attached to the bottom by a holdfast, a root-like structure, at depths of 4-8 meters (13-26’). Each thallus** (the scientific term for the entire body of a seaweed) ranged in size from 1.5-2 meters tall (4.5-6.5’). Yamashita-san rapidly tore seaweed from the rocks, gathering a handful (6-12 thalli) before surfacing (see Photos 9-14).
At the surface, Ama breath forcefully to effectively ventilate their lungs; some whistle or make ‘puu’ sounds. After 30-40 seconds at the surface, they dive again. Yamashita-san worked for almost two hours, from 9:45-11:30 a.m., making approximately 100 dives (see Video 1).
Initially, Yamashita-san harvested the entire thallus. Later, she used a kama – a small sickle-shaped knife – to cut the seaweed off at the holdfast. Although it took more time to harvest this way, it would save time later when preparing the seaweed for market (Photos 15-19).
When diving for shellfish, an entire day’s catch can be carried within a single tanpo. Seaweed, however, is collected in bulk. Yamashita-san had to bring her tanpo back to the boat frequently to unload her catch. Typically, she brought a full tanpo and an extra handful of wakame on each trip to the boat. She handed her catch to Sendo-san (‘Mr. Boatman’). Sendo-san tossed in an empty tanpo ready to be filled, and secured the full tanpo (see Photos 20-24 and Video 2).
While the Ama continued to harvest wakame, the boatman emptied the full tanpo into another net bag, and closed up now the empty net of the tanpo (see Photos 25-27 and Video 3).
Reiko spoke with Sendo-san on the boat while I was in the water. His name is Tatsuhiro Iwamoto and he is the son of Yamashita-san’s cousin. He works as an Otoko Ama (male Ama) during the abalone season, but otherwise works as a tako (octopus) fisherman. One of his fellow tako fishermen came by to show Reiko his catch (Photo 28).
On my previous dives with Yamashita-san I remained with her for the entire series of dives. However, the boat filled up with so much wakame that Sendo-san had to bring Reiko and I back to the harbor. He then returned to the dive site for the Ama and more wakame. The two Ama filled over 10 bags in less than two hours.
After the dive, Yamashita-san displayed her catch (Photo 29). She hung up whole wakame by their holdfasts to dry (Photos 30 and 31). The rest of the wakame was processed for immediate sale. A specialty store had ordered 150 kg (330 pounds) of fresh, wild wakame, which she bagged up after trimming (Photo 32).
Besides trimming the ends (holdfast and upper edges), she cut out the central ‘stipe’ – the stem-like portion of the thallus (see Photos 33 & 34). I was more familiar with the ‘blade’ (leaf-like portion) of wakame, used in soups and salads (see below). However, the stipe can be eaten as well. First, slice it into narrow strips. Second, add a bit of boiling water, then rapidly stir and agitate. The alginates in the kelp create a frothy sauce that is appreciated in Japanese cuisine; it was a little less inviting to my western sensibilities, but okay to eat (see Photos 35-38).
Yamashita-san graciously sent us back to Kyoto with a large bag of fresh wakame and a bundle of dried wakame harvested two days before. We trimmed the fresh seaweed and cut the blades into smaller pieces, about 15 cm (6”) on each side. Tossing the blade into boiling water changed the kelp immediately from a golden brown to a bright green. A quick rinse in freshwater and it was ready to be served in either miso soup or a seaweed salad – good with vinegar or a sesame dressing (see Photos 39-41 and Video 4).
We shared the fresh wakame with our family and neighbors. I was later able to share some of the dried wakame with my tea class teachers and classmates. It was much appreciated by all. Thank you Yamashita-san!
Wakame is the second most important seaweed in the Japanese diet, with recent annual harvests of 50,000-67,000 tonnes (data from 2010 and 2005, respectively). However, modern Japanese eat less seafood today than in the past, and the same is true of wakame. In 1976, Japan harvested 147,000 tonnes of wakame. At that time, wild wakame made up 13.6% of the total. In 2005 only 4.5% of the total was from wild wakame.
Wakame, like other kelp, prefers cool temperatures. They grow rapidly under the right conditions, but deteriorate in warmer waters. By late spring and early summer, the blades become degraded and essentially die back. Thus, they are an ideal catch for Ama at the start of the year. Moreover, their spores will give rise to new growth in the fall, which sustains the wild population.
Although we visited on the last day of the wakame harvest, these Ama were not ready for a holiday. The next day, March 16, was the opening for awabi (abalone) season, the most important catch of the year. For the first two days of the awabi season, the Ama of Goza and the Ama of Koshika, the neighboring town, will dive together along their shared border. In this way, they will avoid conflict with their neighbors.
Coming soon: more on seaweeds. We made our own nori using traditional methods in February, and we visited modern nori farms and factories throughout the growing season and the harvest. Hijiki – another wild seaweed – will be harvested at the lowest tide in April by many Ama villages. We plan to be there (Photo 42).
For more on Ama see these earlier posts:
** Seaweeds are not true plants. They lack stems, leaves and roots. Kelps are a group of brown algae (Phaeophyceae, Laminariales) that are relatively large and complex. Their body, or ‘thallus’, consists of a holdfast (root-like) for attachment to the bottom, a stipe (stem-like) that provides support for the main body, and a blade or blades (leaf-like) that make up most of the body of a kelp. Some kelp (but not wakame) have pneumatocysts (air-bladders) to keep their blades closer to the surface where the sunlight is most intense.