海女 ama—diver

Yesterday morning before breakfast, we walked from our hotel to the nearby rocky seashore, where Shiro and Miffy and I paddled in the warm sea water amid the breathtaking beauty of the “Echizen Matsushima” shoreline.

As usual Shiro swam around for a while, while Miffy mostly just stood in the shallow water and barked at the sea. While she has never yet succeeded in making the sea go away, she has not given up trying.

While we were there, a very ancient lady in a wetsuit came to the shore pushing a half-barrel on a wheelbarrow. Without a word she walked straight into the water, towing the barrel behind her.

When the water was deep enough, she started swimming out to sea, pushing the barrel in front, until she swam out of sight.

The lady was an ama, a diver for shellfish. This is a traditional activity in Japan that is mainly done by women. Many of them are very old. They are free-divers; they use no breathing equipment. They hold their breath for long minutes while working underwater, making brief visits to the surface every so often to deposit their catch in the floating barrel.

Later that morning, a little further along the coast, we saw another ancient lady returning to shore with her catch. The dogs were very interested.

There was a strange disconnect where, on the one hand, she was too old and feeble to carry the net of shellfish up the steps by herself, while on the other hand she swims out to sea every morning and uses a big knife to dislodge shellfish from the sea-bed while holding her breath, then carries them home on a moped. Like some weird combination of granny and superhero.

I asked her whether I could help her. She didn’t understand what I said. I asked her if she needed help bringing the heavy load up the steps. She didn’t understand. I asked her about the shellfish in the bag, whether they were sazae. She couldn’t understand a word I said. Wakkaran, wakkaran, she repeated, shaking her head. Another disconnect, this time between my ability to speak Japanese and her ability to hear or understand. A Japanese man came along and together we helped her to carry the barrel and the shellfish to the top of the steps.

Note on the word of the day:

ama is written with characters meaning 海 “sea” and 人 “person”: 海人; or 海 “sea” and 女 “woman”: 海女.

 

 

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