Cormorant fishing (Ukai) began almost 1300 years ago on the Nagare River in Gifu prefecture. Primarily catching ayu, or sweet fish, Ukai is a daily activity for 5 months of the year, and begins late in the evening. Ukai is protected by the Imperial Household Agency; the Ukai fishers on the Nagare River have been given the title of Cormorant Fisher of the Imperial Household Agency, a title which is often passed down from father to son. These Imperial Household Fishers have the responsibility of sending the first catch of the year to the Imperial Household, and in return the Imperial Household has named the Nagare River a protected River.
The cormorants (called “u”) have become such an important part of Japanese lore that there is even a saying about them – “unomi”, which means to swallow something without question. Even Matsuo Basho and Charlie Chaplain came to watch the fishing on the Nagare River.
The boat used in Ukai is known as an ubune and is 13 meters long. At the front of the boat, an iron basket (kagari) is supported by the fire pole (kagaribo) and holds a blazing fire. This fire is not only useful for lighting the way for the fishermen and cormorants, but also attracts fish.
The three members of the boat are the fishing master (usho), the helper (nakanori), and the pilot (tomonori). These men wear the traditional garb of a dark cotton kimono, a headdress known as kazaore-eboshi to ward off sparks, and koshimino, a straw apron which repels water.
The men bang the sides of the boat to keep the birds active. It takes extreme skill by the usho to control the ropes connected to the cormorants so they don’t get tangled. About 10 birds fish at once, and each bird can hold about six fish in its mouth at once.
We arrived at the picturesque Arashiyama riverside at around 6:30, just about the time in a Japanese summer when the sun begins to set. There were two boat trips during the night – 7:00 and 8:00 – and for a fee, one could watch the spectacle from wooden house boats illuminated by paper lanterns. After taking a few pictures of the riverside, we settled into our spots by the river to enjoy the show.
Accompanying the refreshing summer breeze, several wooden boats pushed off from shore, massive bonfires roaring at their helms. The boats made several trips back and forth in front of the boats full of spectators, cormorants cutting through the fresh, dark river from the ends of their leashes. The sounds of people happily cheering, the fishermen calling out to their cormorants, and the chorus of birds and insects from the mountain behind represented perfectly the typical Japanese summer night. A few people were watching along with us from the river side, sitting on the rocks or dangling their feet in the water.
I think that one of the really wonderful things about Japan is that something so old and traditional can be taken for granted as the norm. After watching both shows, we packed up our things, tired and hungry but glad we had come.