Translated by Jelena Kitamura
Cormorant Fishing - 5 Spots To Witness A Treasured Fishing Tradition
Written by Mayu
Ukai (cormorant fishing) is a traditional technique of catching river fish with the help of cormorants. Three rivers in Japan are said to be preserving this old custom - Nagara River in Gifu, Hiji River in Ehime and Mikuma River in Oita.
Ever Heard of Cormorant Fishing?
Ukai, or cormorant fishing, is a part of a long-standing fishing tradition in Japan where fishermen use the help of a cormorant, a type of a bird that lives in Japan (the Order Suliformes, the species Cormorant), to catch fish. This activity usually starts around May and lasts until September. The tradition began when fisherman noticed the cormorants' habit of storing caught fish in their throat then tossing it back up afterwards. The fishermen thought of using this habit to catch ayu, sweetfish (Plecoglossus altivelis), by harvesting via the cormorants and collecting the tossed-back-up fish for themselves.
The whole process is a collaboration between one to three men, and five to twelve birds, and is usually done by night, when the fishermen go out on the rivers with fishing fire attached to the front part of the boat so that they can scare and scramble the ayu fish. After being startled by sudden illumination, the fish move around quite sluggishly and fall prey very easily to the cormorants. The fishermen loosely tie a snare around the bird’s neck so that the bird can easily swallow small fish while the bigger fish get stuck in the throat for later collection.
This tradition is very old and is said to have been preserved intact for nearly 1300 to 1400 years, back when it was nurtured at various locations, such as River Nagara in Gifu prefecture. Today, three rivers are well-known for keeping this tradition alive – Nagara River in Gifu prefecture, Hiji River (Hijikawa) in Ozu City, Ehime prefecture, and Mikuma River (Mikumagawa) in Oita Prefecture.
Cormorants are considered to have exceptionally good eyesight and to be very fond of humans. To be able to catch fish together, fishermen first have to train their cormorant partners for three years, after which they grow into an unbeatable team. But, there has to be a special connection between the two – the cormorant and its trainer have to live together and build a parent-child-like relationship of mutual affection and understanding. Even long after the bird retires and is no longer able to fulfill its duties, it stills shares the same living space with its fisherman partner – the bond they have is truly unbreakable.
The Cormorant Fishermen
A cormorant fisherman is not your typical fisherman – he catches fish with the help of cormorants. He is dressed in a navy blue fisherman uniform and has a traditional straw koshimino, a straw skirt, around his waist – he is out to hunt fish with his partner.
However, we must point out that Gifu’s Nagara River cormorant fishing, especially in Gifu and Seki cities, is somewhat different from the other cormorant fishing areas - because of its history and tradition, it is under the protection of the Imperial House of Japan. Therefore, the cormorant fishermen of Nagara River are considered to be part of the Imperial Household Agency.
© (GIA) Gifu Prefecture Tourism Federation
Ubune is a wooden boat, usually 13 to 15 meters long, used when cormorant fishing.