Woman and Shell

Text by Paola Corini
Photographs by Luca De Santis

We were supposed to be meeting the last Amas, fisherwomen who dived underwater holding their breath, on the peninsula and we were afraid we were chasing a nostalgic and in part selfish desire to see something that didn’t really exist anymore. A female tradition whose techniques and customs had remained unchanged from two thousand years ago until 1960: a rope loincloth tied to their husband’s fishing boat, which they pulled to ask to come up for air, a white cotton handkerchief knotted on their head, a hook, a wooden bucket, a net, a mask without a snorkel. A deep past, sensual to the eyes of tourists. 

From the start, we hadn’t understood why they’d arranged to meet us at the train station in Toba. For once, we arrived before our Japanese guides and we felt the same enthusiasm for that stop as children do for a motorway service station. There was a small taiyaki shop right down by the station and everyone bought a big, sweet, fish-shaped wafer filled with vanilla custard.

Here in Toba we remembered that the Japanese are a sea nation and that Japan is an island in the Pacific: the scent of salty water together with the more intense light of the coastal sunshine had come in through the train window. 

The current wasn’t cold, we could have worn a short diving suit, instead of a full-length one. Mrs Misako was seventy years old and she must have been beautiful when she was young. The neat freckles on immaculate, make up-free skin, a secular nun with her hair hidden in the light, white cotton cap worn in summer and winter alike. She told me sea cucumbers would be good for my skin.

She liked the company of younger women, and Mrs Terumi was almost ten years younger. Today they’d try to catch some awabi for us, the expensive abalone shellfish that still get a good price on the market.

By age, Misako and Terumi could be the daughters of those beautiful Ama girls from the island of Hèkura who are always smiling in the photos of Fosco Maraini. We couldn’t work out if they had daughters, but the ones who had girls didn’t teach them “the profession”: they know how to dive like their mothers, perhaps just for fun, but today they have the chance of getting a better job, perhaps in some city office. Living off the sea is hard work. 

Everyone writes about the whistling sound these women make when they resurface after their dive. What I remember most is the sigh that they emit even sooner, as soon as they get some air, the moan of a happy, youthful woman. 

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