To explore Japan’s history of pearl farming head to Mikimoto Pearl Island just off the coast of the town of Toba.
Japan’s relationship with pearls dates back thousands of years, but when it comes to the country’s modern cultured pearl industry, Mikimoto Pearl Island is where it all began. Over the years the island has shifted from a centre of pearl cultivation in Mie Prefecture to a popular tourist attraction, where visitors can learn about the trade and see beautiful pearl accessories. For those interested in learning more about the island’s history and Japan’s pearl industry, here is our guide to Mikimoto Pearl Island.
Brief Background to Mikimoto Pearl Island
Unless you can’t resist the idea of shopping for pearl jewelry, it’s important to understand the history of Mikimoto Pearl Island to see why it’s worth visiting. The island, found just off the coast from the town of Toba in Ise Bay, is named after local entrepreneur and pearl farmer Mikimoto Kōkichi.
It was from this island in 1893 that Mikimoto is credited with successfully culturing pearls for the first time. There is some debate in the history books regarding who deserves credit for coming up with the accepted practice for pearl cultivation, but it’s clear that Mikimoto was a pioneer of the industry, who helped transition Japan from pearl hunting to pearl farming. He opened his first pearl store here in 1899.
For some time during the early 20th century, Mikimoto used the island as a centre for pearl production and had great success thanks to his company’s proprietary technique. In the 1950s, the island started to transition towards tourism, and a museum to Mikimoto and one focused on pearls were opened in 1958 and 1962, respectively. This was even before the island gained a bridge to the mainland, which was added in 1970.
Things to Do on Mikimoto Pearl Island
When visiting the island, you’ll find a range of informative attractions and fun activities to keep you entertained.
Without a doubt the main attraction of the island is the Pearl Museum. As its name suggests, this museum is entirely focused on all things related to pearls. The museum is divided into two sections, one that showcases pearl jewelry and one that explores the use of pearl in various works of art.
Items in its impressive collection include a gorgeous kimono belt, a replica of the 1939 New York World's Fair's Liberty Bell and a scale miniature of Himeji Castle, all of which are made from pearl and other precious materials.
Experience a unique aspect of Japan’s pearl industry by watching the hourly performance of the island’s Ama divers. These female divers are famous for their traditional way of cultivating pearls, as they free dive below the water in distinctive full-body white diving wear. While no longer active in the area, visitors can see how the Ama would dive down to the seabed to plant and harvest the oysters for their pearls.
Mikimoto Kōkichi Memorial Hall and Statue
Since he played such a major role in the development of the island’s cultured pearl trade, it’s understandable that there are a few attractions dedicated to Mikimoto Kōkichi. The most significant is the Mikimoto Kōkichi Memorial Hall which acts as a museum to the life and work of Mikimoto, even including a replica of the restaurant where he was born. Another island attraction dedicated to the man is a large bronze sculpture dedicated to the “Pearl King”.
Gardens, Walkway and Lookout Platform
Because of its great location and natural scenery, the island itself is quite a pleasant place to explore. Walkways take you from the main attractions out to quiet gardens and around the island’s shore. On the far side of the island from its bridge you’ll find a lookout, with views out to the other islands around Toba and Ise Bay.
Information for Visiting Mikimoto Pearl Island
- Mikimoto Pearl Island is open from 8:30am to 5:00pm between January and November, and from 9:00am to 4:30pm in December. The island is closed the 2nd Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of December.
- Admission to the island ends one hour before closing time.
- The entrance fee for Mikimoto Pearl Island is 1500 yen for adults and 750 yen for children aged 7 or older.
- Visitors looking to purchase a special souvenir here will naturally find plenty of pearl jewelry available at the island’s gift shop at Pearl Plaza.
Getting to Mikimoto Pearl Island with the JR Pass
The good news for international travellers who want to visit Mikimoto Pearl Island is that it’s not hard to reach using the JR Pass. There is a private railway - the Kintetsu Limited Express - that directly connects Toba with Osaka, but it will require purchasing a separate ticket.
Instead, rail pass holders can take the Rapid Mie train service on the JR Kisei line from Nagoya right through to Toba station. The train trip takes 1 hour 45 minutes and once you arrive at Toba Station, the island is only five minutes walk away.
To visit the island from Kyoto, Osaka or Tokyo using JR trains, first take the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen to Nagoya and then change there. From each of these cities, Toba is roughly 3.5 hours travel using JR trains.