Japan is a country with an incredible amount of coastline to explore, but few places perfectly capture the culture of life by the sea quite like Toba. Due to its location on Ise Bay, everything about Toba relates back to the relationship between its people and the Pacific Ocean. Visitors soon realise that everything from the religion to the industry and culture revolve around living in harmony with the sea, all of which helps make Toba quite a special place to visit if you’re able to.
Here’s what you need to know about Toba to see why it should go on your itinerary as you travel around with your Japan Rail Pass.
Brief Background to Toba
Since Toba isn’t one of the best known destinations with international visitors, it’s worth spending a moment telling you a little about the city. Toba sits on the northeastern tip of Shima Peninsula at the mouth of Ise Bay by the Pacific Ocean. Surrounding the city is Ise-Shima National Park, a protected area covering the dramatic coastline along the Pearl Road and the various islands just off the coast of Toba.
Toba’s relationship with the water has always defined it, as the city actually started out as a haven for pirates from the 15th-to-17th centuries. With the construction of Toba Castle, now in ruins, the city transformed into an important centre for trade and military control. In more recent times, Toba has made a name for itself as a leading Japanese producer of oysters and cultured pearls.
Best Things to Do in Toba
With a visit to Toba you’ll find a nice variety of attractions and sights to see, although you may have to travel a bit from the city centre to reach some. Below are some of the most popular things to do in Toba.
Widely regarded as one of the best aquariums in Japan thanks to its specialized breeding programs, Toba Aquarium is an obvious place to visit for tourists. Inside the aquarium there are over 25,000 creatures across 1,000 different species, both saltwater and freshwater. The aquarium is divided into twelve zones that visitors pass through, some with incredibly rare animals like the dugong and finless porpoise.
Mikimoto Pearl Island
Possibly just as famous as the city’s aquarium is the nearby attractions on Mikimoto Pearl Island. This is the place to go if you want to learn about Japan’s cultured pearl industry and buy a special pearl souvenir. At the Pearl Museum, visitors can learn about the process of cultivating the island’s world-famous pearls and the story behind the incredible all-female Ama freedivers, who for generations have been responsible for collecting oysters, abalone, pearls, and more. In fact, there are even performances by ama divers held at the island, so you can see these masters of their craft in action.
Toba Sea-Folk Museum
Out among hills on the coast east of the city centre lies the Toba Sea-Folk Museum, dedicated to the fishing and diving traditions of the region. Since 1971, this museum has highlighted the culture and heritage of the Ama divers found around the country. The museum’s collection includes a huge assortment of wooden boats from around Japan and informational displays on everything from regional fishing practices to environmental concerns and ties between religion and coastal living.
Shinmei Shrine Ishigami-san
Southeast of Toba on a hilltop near the city of Shima lies the Shinmei Shrine Ishigami-san. This Shinto shrine is extremely popular with female worshippers, as it’s believed to be a place where women’s wishes come true. Beyond exploring this superstition, visitors will also appreciate the gentle setting of the shrine with its ancient forest surroundings.
There is a lot of coastline to see around Toba, but one of the best places to see it is the Toba Observatory, roughly halfway between the Sea-Folk Museum and Shinmei Shrine along the scenic Pearl Road. From its mountain peak, tourists can enjoy an uninterrupted panoramic view of the various peninsulas nearby and then later treat themselves to a special meal at its top-tier restaurant.
Tips for Visiting Toba
- To avoid the crowds and sweltering summer weather, the best time to visit Toba is generally from April to June.
- Two or three days should be enough time to properly explore Toba comfortably and maybe even make it to one of the other interesting destinations nearby as well.
- Other popular places to visit near Toba include Futaminoura, Ise, and Shima.
- Some of the farther out attractions along the Pearl Road like the Toba Observatory and Sea-Folk Museum will require a car or local buses to reach.
Visiting Toba with the JR Pass
Those looking to visit Toba will be pleased to learn that it’s quite an easy place to reach by train whether you have a Japan Rail Pass or not. Rail pass holders first should travel to Nagoya using the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen from Kyoto, Osaka or Tokyo, and can then board the Rapid Mie train service onward to Toba.
Another option is to travel to Toba using a Kintetsu Limited Express, a private railway service that operates to Toba from Osaka, Kyoto and Nagoya. However, the JR Pass is not valid on Kintetsu train services.