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Heights of beauty, tradition on Shima Peninsula

Dozens of islands are seen in Ago Bay in Shima, Mie Prefecture. The G-7 Summit will be held on Kashiko Island seen in the center. (Mainichi)

Ago Bay in the southernmost area of Mie Prefecture's Shima Peninsula is known for its complex, deeply indented coastline. The bay has more than 60 islands of varying sizes, and the sea is dotted with a countless number of rafts utilized for cultivating pearls -- thereby giving the area its own uniquely picturesque flavor.

    I visited the Yokoyama observation point in the city of Shima, which overlooks Ago Bay. While it is possible to drive up to the entrance, you must walk from there to the actual observation platform, located 140 meters above sea level.

    A tour guide shows people around Yokoyama observatory in Mie Prefecture. (Mainichi)

    Visitors have their choice of two different paths: a gently sloping one that affords sweeping views of the bay, or a stone stairway that is shorter but more challenging to climb.

    I chose the latter at the suggestion of my guide, and just as I was getting out of breath from lack of exercise, the tree-lined view at the top suddenly gave way to a stunning vista of islands stretching far off into the distance, along with coves opening into Ago Bay.

    The view from the Yokoyama observation platform received a star in the Michelin Green Guide Japan -- high-profile recognition for this place of obvious and impressive beauty.

    Ama divers are seen preparing oysters and scallops on a fire place in Toba, Mie Prefecture. (Mainichi)

    For those who love a good sunset, a trip is also recommended to Tomoyama Park, located on the bay's eastern side.

    After enjoying my visit to the observatory, I next went to the city of Toba, which faces Ise Bay and is known for its rich maritime culture.

    The Ise-Shima area, which is located along the Shima Peninsula and includes the cities of Ise, Shima and Toba, is home to the "ama" divers, who have collected shells and marine alga for some 3,000 years.

    The signboard for the "Osatsu Kamado" ama divers' hut. (Mainichi)

    As of 2014, around 500 of the 2,000-some ama divers in Japan were working in the city of Toba. I visited one of their huts in the local town of Osatsu, known as the Osatsu Kamado.

    The huts are an important place for the ama divers, since this is where they warm up after returning from the ocean, and eat their meals while chatting among themselves. The huts have recently been opened to tourists, for whom the women grill fresh shellfish on open hearth fires. I visited the Osatsu Kamado at lunchtime, and was able to enjoy some fragrantly tasty grilled oysters and scallops.

    Most of the divers are in their 60s and 70s, with some still going strong in their 80s. They are healthy and effervescent -- and I'll just bet that the secret lies in the nourishment from the gorgeous ocean surrounding them. (By Miho Kamei, Staff Writer)

    --What to eat in the Ise-Shima region

    Ise-udon, a local specialty to the Ise-Shima region, is seen. (Mainichi)

    The Ise-Shima region has been known for its delicious food since ancient times. In the ancient poetry anthology "Manyoshu," the area was referred to as "Miketsukuni," or supplier of food to the Yamato Imperial Court. The Japanese word for spiny lobster has "Ise" in its name, and as one might guess, the area has plenty of fresh seafood, including abalone and edible seaweed. One must-try local specialty is Ise-udon. This noodle meal may transcend your knowledge of ordinary udon, as the extra-thick noodles are boiled for an hour, becoming fluffy and soft, and are then dipped in a heavy, black sauce -- not soup!

    Ise-ebi, Japanese spiny lobster, is designated a seafood of Mie Prefecture. They are popular as a good luck food enjoyed on New Year's Day. (Mainichi)

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