Toba's best-known attraction, located on a small island connected to the mainland by a pedestrian bridge and consisting of several buildings, is touristy but still quite enjoyable, especially if you have a weakness for pearls or have ever wondered how they're cultivated.
To learn about the man who toiled through years of adversity to produce the world's first cultured pearl, visit Kokichi Mikimoto Memorial Hall, built in 1993 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Mikimoto's success. Born in Toba in 1858 as the eldest son of a noodle-shop owner, Kokichi Mikimoto went to Yokohama as a young man and was surprised to see stalls selling pearls with great success. He reasoned that if oysters produced pearls as the result of an irritant inside the shell, why couldn't humans introduce the irritant themselves and induce oysters to make pearls? It turned out to be harder than it sounded. It wasn't until 5 years after he started his research that Mikimoto finally succeeded in cultivating his first pearl, here on what is today called Mikimoto Pearl Island. In 1905, Mikimoto cultivated his first perfectly round pearl, after which he built what is probably the most successful pearl empire in the world.
The Pearl Museum tells all you'd probably ever want to know about the creation of pearls, with English-language videos showing the insertion of the round nucleus into the shell and the harvesting of the pearls 2 years later, as well as explanations of the process of making a pearl necklace by hand, from the selection and sorting of pearls to the drilling and stringing. You can learn about the criteria used for pricing pearls (luster is the most important) and color selection. The museum also contains some of Mikimoto's earliest jewelry and models made with pearls, many of which were only recently reacquired by Mikimoto & Co. Ltd. through auctions. My favorite is the brooch made for the 1937 Paris International Exhibition, which can be worn a dozen different ways by employing various clasps. The five-story Pearl Pagoda has 12,760 Mikimoto pearls and took 750 artisans 6 months to complete, after which it was exhibited at the Philadelphia World Exhibition in 1926. The Liberty Bell, a third the size of the original, has 12,250 pearls and was displayed at the New York World's Fair in 1939.
In addition, ama (women divers) in traditional white outfits demonstrate how women of the Shima Peninsula have dived through the ages in search of abalone, seaweed, and other edibles. They were also essential to the pearl industry, diving to collect the oysters and then returning them to the seabed following insertion of the nuclei. At one time, there were thousands of ama, known for their skill in diving to great depths for extended periods. It is said that there are still more than 1,000 of these women divers left in Mie Prefecture, but I've seen them only at demonstrations given for tourists. If you happen to see ama working in earnest (diving for abalone and other food, not pearls), consider yourself lucky. Here you can watch them from the air-conditioned comfort of a viewing room built especially for overseas guests.
Of course, there's also a shop selling Mikimoto pearl jewelry and a restaurant. You can easily spend 1 1/2 hours on Pearl Island.