Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Mikimoto Island

Our next stop on the pearl tour was Mikimoto Island. Mikimoto Island derives its name from artisan and entrepreneur Mikimoto Kokichi who developed the Nishikawa technique for producing cultured pearls. According to his Wikipedia entry, Mikimoto became fascinated with pearls after watching pearl divers from Ise deliver their goods to his family's grocery store.

The word ama in Japanese literally means "sea woman." There are over 3,000 ama that spend between three and four hours a day in the water collecting oysters and urchins. Mikimoto Island offers visitors a chance to see the ama in action during one of several "shows" presented through the day.

We arrived at Mikimoto Island after a beautifully scenic ride by bullet train. Located on the Shima Peninsula, Mikimoto is surrounded by a number of small fishing villages.

Japan mass produces the Akoya pearl, grown similarly as Pinctus maximus. Mass production is possible because cultivators can fit one or two pearl nuclei (depending on size) into each oyster. Retailers demand larger Akoya pearls of at least eight (8) millimeters. The oyster produces a very thin layer of nacre and generates a much more predictable pearl.

The depth of the nacre determines the pearl's lustre. Akoya pearls range in several shades of white and off-white and feature pink, blue, and cream-colored hues.

While touring two facilities in Kobe, we took a snapshot with Mikio Ibuki who was, at that time, the head of the Japan Pearl Exporters Association.

We were a little embarrassed and flattered by the showing of courtesy from our Japanese hosts. Punctuated with plenty of bowing and nodding, the workers in each factory worked very diligently. We viewed a number of displays in the Tasaki store showing us the quality and evaluation of the saltwater pearls. Akoya pearls are evaluated according to size, color, lustre, and surface purity. The officials confirmed that about 5% of the total number of Akoya pearls harvested meets their "top quality" designation.

We also toured the Otsuki factory where we were escorted through a number of rooms showing workers sorting through and preparing the pearls. Some women drilled the pearls; others sorted them, and a third group strung the pearls with fine threading.

Occasionally, a worker would look up at us and offer a very short and polite smile and head bow then promptly return to work. The workers would work diligently in their modules throughout their shifts. We were lead to another showcasing area to see strands of the high-quality Akoya pearls ready for market.

Our time in Japan was growing short. The next day we finished our pearl tour in China where, surprisingly, our familiarity with careful cultivation and clean, hospitable environment soon took a turn for the worse.