Ama Harvest Hijiki: Ijika Town

Ama – ‘women of the sea’ – harvest food from the coastal waters of Japan and Korea. Men – otoko ama – dive for shellfish in some places of Japan (otoko ama  – male ama). However, the largest concentration of ama work the coastlines of Toba and Shima, and these ama are mostly women (see Photos 1 & 2).


Photo 1: Murals of ama divers line the road into Ijika Town. This mural highlights both the ama (women, lower left) and the fishermen of Ijika (on boat with nets, right).


Photo 2: This mural in Ijika Town shows a single ama with her isonomi (prying tool) in hand as she approaches three awabi (abalone).

Ama catch a variety of food, depending on season. Awabi – abalone – is the most valuable, at $100 per kg ($45 per pound). Sazae – top snails – make up the bulk of the catch, but are not as profitable. Other prey include ise-ebi (spiny lobster), tako (octopus), uni (sea urchin) and namako (sea cucumber), and wakame (a brown seaweed).

Each day before diving, ama gather together in their ama goya – small huts with an open fire. They chat and relax while warming themselves, and then go together to sea. They may enter directly from the shore, or go further offshore by boat. Once they enter the water, however, they are on their own. Each diver hunts her section of the reef and competes for the biggest catch – important economically, as well as for status within the community. At the end of the day’s diving they return together to their ama goya to relax and warm up (Photo 3).

Ama Goya

Photo 3: Ama share candy and conversation as they wait outside their ama goya (hut) on the waterfront. They wear full wetsuits with farmer’s hats. Rubber tubing around their waste provides a place to secure their kama (sickle); weights are attached to this rubber belt when diving. A rope around their waste suspends a mesh bag to hold hijiki.

An exception to this pattern is the annual harvest of hijiki (Phaeophyta, Sargassum fusiforme). This brown seaweed grows low in the intertidal zone. Once a year, during the lowest tides of spring, ama work together to harvest hijiki along their shores. The harvest is sold as a unit and the profits shared by all. It is a major event of the year. They hold the event on weekends so that family members, even those that moved to cities, can return to help with the harvest. Ama own the rights (gyoken) to harvest their shores, and only ama can actually cut the seaweed. Their husbands, brothers, sons and grandsons help bag the seaweed and transport it back to port. Sisters, daughters, in-laws, etc. help lay out the seaweed to dry (see Photo 4).

Hijiki Pavement

Photo 4a: The morning’s harvest of hijiki is spread out to dry. The women shown here are relatives of ama. They help process the hijiki while the ama continue their harvest.

Hijiki Close-Up

Photo 4b: A close-up view of drying hijiki, Sargassum fusiforme.

We made plans to observe the annual hijiki harvest at three different ama towns. The exact date of the harvest depends on the weather as well as the tides. Two tentative dates were cancelled due to rain and rough water. Rain prevents drying, and the freshwater breaks down the seaweed’s tissues. Rough water produces strong waves, a significant danger when working the shore.

Fortunately, we were able to visit the ama of Ijika Town, Toba City, as they harvested hijiki (see Photo 5). They planned their harvest for the first weekend of May. A ‘supermoon’** that Sunday (May 6th) created the lowest tides of the year. It rained on Saturday, so there was no harvest that day. Early Sunday morning we called from our home in Kyoto. Our friend and colleague in Ijika, Mr. Tatsuya Sato, reported that it was cloudy, but not raining. The ama gathered in their ama goya (huts) at 7:00 AM. They left for the beach at 9:00 AM to catch the low tide.

Ijika Overview

Photo 5a: Views of Ijika Town. Typical of ama towns in Toba and Shima, these villages hug the coastline, with their homes tucked into the hills above the sea. View from the highway on the ridge above Ijika.

Ijika View

Photo 5b: View from the road into Ijika, just below the two murals (Photos 1 & 2).

We arrived in town just before noon. The parking lot by the port was covered in cut hijiki, and ama relatives were busy spreading more on the ground (see Video 1 and Photo 4). A transport boat had just unloaded its hijiki and was heading back for more (Photo 6). That boat took us to the beach where ama were at work. A skiff came out to meet the boat with another load of seaweed. Once the seaweed was transferred onboard, the skiff took us to the rocky headland where a group of 19 ama and 13 men were hard at work (Photos 7-9).

Boat at Port

Photo 6: Mr. Tatsuya Sato stands on deck a boat that has just unloaded hijiki. We took this boat back to the beach to observe the harvest.

Loading Hijiki

Photo 7: As soon as the boat returns to the beach, a waiting skiff unloads its bags of hijiki.


Photo 8: Ama of Ijika Town harvest hijiki near the border with Uramura Town. Eighteen women cut seaweed. Thirteen men help bag the seaweed and pass it on to the two skiffs.


Photo 9: Hijiki grows at sea level. Ama wait until the lowest tides of spring to harvest the seaweed. They use a small sickle (kama) to cut the seaweed, and then place it in their net bags, or pile it up on shore. Male relatives gather up the cut hijiki into larger bags for transport back to town.

Ama were variously sitting or standing on the rocks; others stood in the water up to their necks. They used kama – a type of sickle – to cut hijiki from the rocks. They cut a few pieces of seaweed with each stroke, pieces of 30-90 cm in length (about 1-3 feet). The cut seaweed was placed in a net basket tied at the waste, or placed in a pile to be picked up by the men (Photos 10-13, Video 2).


Photo 10: These ama stand in the water as they harvest hijiki. They grab the seaweed with one hand, and cut it close to the rock surface with their kama (sickle).


Photo 11: Ama harvest each patch of hijiki, wading or swimming to seaweed covered rocks.


Photo 12:A harvested patch of hijiki looks something like a mown lawn. Compare the foreground of this picture to the seaweed in Photo 10.


Photo 13: As hijiki is harvested from this outcrop, the bags pile up. Men will finish bagging seaweed after the ama have moved on.

The group we watched had begun work at the northern edge of Ijika, on its border with Uramura Town (location of the Toba Seafolk Museum). The women worked close together, slowly moving between patches of seaweed. After completing one section, they moved southward toward the center of Ijika (Photo 14 & Video 3).

Photo 14a: These four ama have finished their work on this stretch of beach.

Photo 14b: They wade and swim around the point to reach the next patch of hijiki.

Photo 14c: One of the skiffs follows the ama as they move down the beach.

Men gathered up the cut hijiki from the ama into larger bags. They piled the bags where the skiffs could come in for pick up. Skiffs had to carefully navigate their way between the rocks, using anchors and poles to avoid damage. Once in place, the men created a chain to pass the bags from the shore onto the skiffs. Occasionally a bag missed its target and had to be retrieved from the water. The skiff took its load to the larger boat, which in turn took the harvest back to port where it could be dried (Photos 15 & 16).

Bag Brigade

Photo 15: Filled bags of seaweed are passed from man to man, and tossed into a skiff.

Loaded Skiff

Photo 16: A filled skiff prepares to depart. The man in the back of the skiff uses both an anchor with long line and a pole to keep his boat off the rocks.

The shoreline of Toba consists of rocky headlands separated by cobble beaches. The ama worked each rocky section, and then hiked along the cobble beach to the next headland. As they passed, the shore looked as if it had received a haircut – with 10-15 cm (4-6 inches) of hijiki still attached to rocks above the waterline (Photo 17 & Video 4).

Hijiki Haircut

Photo 17: The harvest of this headland is nearly complete. Most of the ama have moved down the beach. The men will follow after getting the bagged seaweed onto a skiff. Note the short pieces of seaweed left behind. The seaweed will regrow and be harvested again the next spring.

It was fairly calm at noon – cloudy, with patches of blue sky and sun breaks. By 1 p.m., however, the wind began to pick up and with it came more clouds. The ama climbed over a large headland to avoid the building storm and waves. They would come back to this spot the next day, weather permitting. They eventually came to a section of shore protected from the wind and waves, and went back to their work. We could see the port from here (Photo 18).

Harvest From Ijika

Photo 18: Harvesting hijiki within view of Ijika Town. Ama moved to this location to avoid the wind and rain of a coming squall.

They continued to work as the rain began to fall around 1:30 p.m. We left shortly afterward, and hiked back to town, a ten-minute walk. The ama followed us a few minutes later. Back at the port, all of the hijiki had been gathered up and covered by tarps to protect it from the rain. The ama piled into pickup trucks, and the harvest was over for that day (Photos 19-22).

Ama Return

Photo 19: The storm arrived and stopped the harvest for the day. The ama and their helpers walk back to town. Note the white caps building behind them.

No Littering Sign

Photo 20: Signs on the road back to Ijika Town use ama in a campaign to stop littering.

Covered Hijiki

Photo 21: Back in Ijika Town, the hijiki that had been drying was covered up to protect it from the coming rain.

Ama Trucks

Photo 22: Their work done for the day, ama pile into pickup trucks and head home.

We spent the night within sight of the port, at the home of Mr. Tatsuya Sato (a young biologist, generous host and excellent cook). At 5:08 a.m. the town’s loudspeakers woke us up with the day’s work plan: meet at 5:30 to dry the seaweed from yesterday; depart at 9 a.m. to cut more hijiki. The early morning event was for all: ama and their relatives. They needed to get yesterday’s hijiki out to dry to prevent spoilage. By 6:00 the port’s parking lots were covered in hijiki and one group started to cover the top of the breakwater (see Photos 23-25 and Photo 38).

Early Morning at Port

Photo 23: The next morning was calm, and everyone worked rapidly to put the seaweed out to dry. By 5:45 AM nearly all the parking surfaces in town were covered in hijiki.

Hijiki Dump

Photo 24: A dump truck unloads hijiki to be placed on the top of the seawall that protects the port. Note the seaweed on the parking lot in the background (same lot as Photo 4).

Hijiki Bags

Photo 25: Men carry bags of hijiki onto the seawall, where it will be spread to dry.

We followed the same group from the day before as they drove to a quiet back road outside of town. Dump trucks brought bags of seaweed for distribution along the road, and everyone spread it as quickly as possible. At one point, they had to stop and uncover a lane of pavement to allow a car to ‘escape’. Once the car passed, they quickly filled the space with hijiki and moved on (Photos 26-29).

Hijiki Road

Photo 26: Hijiki covers a country road outside of Ijika Town. Note the women moving hijiki from the left side of the road. They had to make room for a car parked in the lot to the left.

Trapped Car

Photo 27: The ‘trapped’ car departs, leaving the road to the ama and their seaweed.

Hijiki Recover

Photo 28: Once the car departed, ama and their relatives quickly cover the road.

Covered Road

Photo 29: The entire road was covered by 7:00 AM.

Reiko spoke with one of the ama while we were waiting. She was 68 years old, one of the younger ama in Ijika. Like many of them, her mother was also ama. However, her daughter had not joined her as an ama. All of the ama of Ijika are over 60; most are in their 70’s. They are concerned about the future of ama in Ijika.

By 7 a.m. they had completed the section of road to where it connects with the road that leads to the Toba Sea-Folk Museum in Uramura (the neighboring town, Photo 30). We headed back to town for breakfast. Sato-san prepared another seafood feast.

Seafolk Sign

Photo 30: Posing with Mr. Tatsuya Sato at the end of ‘Hijiki Road’. The connecting road leads to the Toba Sea-Folk Museum in the neighboring Uramura Town.

At 9 a.m. ama were gathered around their ama goya, chatting, showing off some potted plants, and getting ready for the day’s harvest (Photo 31). The ama of Ijika are divided into four groups, each works their own section of Ijika’s reefs. However, as part of the shared harvest, the four groups rotate these areas each year on the weekend when they cut hijiki. We had been with the minami (south) group the day before. This year, it was their turn to harvest the northern section of Ijika. Yesterday, they had gone by boat to the northern edge of town and worked their way back to town. Today, other groups headed south by boat, but the minami group walked back to where they had stopped yesterday (Photos 32 & 33). We walked with them to the end of the road. By 9:30 they had climbed down the stairs to the beach, and sat down to wait for low tide. Some of the men travelled with them; others came by boat with the bags ready for harvest. We said our goodbyes and returned to Kyoto (see Photos 34-38).

Ama & Plants

Photo 31: Ama look at some potted plants outside of their ama goya before the start of the day’s harvest.

Ama & Boat

Photo 32: This group of ama takes a boat to reach their section of beach.

Ama Upstairs

Photo 33: The minami (south) group of ama head back to the beach where they stopped work yesterday.

Ama Above Beach

Photo 34: Ama observe ocean conditions from above the beach.

Descend to Beach

Photo 35: Ama descend from the seawall to the beach.

Men & Boat

Photo 36: A group of men arrive with stacks of bags ready to be filled with hijiki.

Waiting for Tide

Photo 37: Ama wait on the beach for the tide to go out.

Ijika Overview

Photo 38: View of Ijika from the highway above the town. Note the seaweed covering the seawall and the parking lot of the port.

The hijiki harvested this weekend was dried over the next few days. It was boiled and then dried again before being sold to retail markets, about one month later. Consumers buy hijiki in its dried form. It can be eaten as dried flakes mixed with other items (e.g. sesame seeds, dried fish) and sprinkled over rice; these mixtures are known as furikake. Another common usage is to soak dried hijiki in water, and then fry it with carrots, oage (a type of fried tofu), konyaku (processed yam) and other foods as a side dish. Alternatively, it can be cooked with rice along with carrots, etc. in a rice cooker (see Photos 39 & 40).

Hijiki Side Dish

Photo 39: A common hijiki dish. Dried hijiki was soaked in water and then fried with carrots, oage (a type of fried tofu), konyaku (processed yam), edimame (soybeans) and chicken.

Hijiki Rice

Photo 40: A rice dish cooked with hijiki, carrots, oage (a type of fried tofu), konyaku (processed yam) and chicken.

Many types of seaweed pick up arsenic from the waters where they grow. Most of this arsenic is in an organic form not considered dangerous in the typical quantities used by consumers. Hijiki, however, contains relatively large concentrations of inorganic arsenic, a carcinogen. Some western governments, particularly members of the UK, have cautioned against its consumption. Most Japanese health experts have suggested that hijiki is safe for the typical Japanese household, given common serving size and frequency of use. None of the people we knew in Kyoto were aware of this concern. However, a 2008 paper by Nakamura et al concluded that its contribution to cancer “. . . may not be negligible.”***

Special thanks to Mr. Tatsuya Sato for sharing his knowledge and home. We are grateful to the many ama of Ijika Town who allowed us to observe their harvest (Photo 41).

Photo 41: An ama of Ijika Town and Mr. Tatsuya Sato head to the port for the start of the day’s hijiki harvest. The mural of an ama diver borders the road behind them (with blue highlights, Photo 2).

** A ‘supermoon’ or ‘perigee moon’ refers to a full moon or new moon coinciding with the moon’s perigee, when it is closest to Earth. Supermoons appear larger, and cause greater tidal exchanges, both higher high tides and lower low tides. This year the full moon occurred one minute after perigee on May 6th  (Japan time).

*** Nakamura Y, Narukawa T, Yoshinaga J. 2008. Cancer risk to Japanese population from the consumption of inorganic arsenic in cooked hijiki. J. Agric. Food Chem. 56: 2536-2540

This entry was posted in Japan Sabbatical by Robert Reavis. Bookmark the permalink.

About Robert Reavis

I study fish behavior and marine ecology through direct observation while diving. I also teach General Biology, Marine Biology, SCUBA and Scientific Diving at Glendale Community College. This year (2011-2012) I will be in Japan to study Traditional Fisheries and Modern Environmentalism.

One thought on “Ama Harvest Hijiki: Ijika Town

  1. The more I read about ama, the more I want to be there, learning from them. It saddens me to think more people in Japan don’t want to carry on this tradition. Aren’t there any mermaids left in Nippon?

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