The Ancient Art of Cormorant Fishing
By John Asano
Cormorant fishing or ukai (鵜飼) in Japanese is a major summer attraction on the pristine Nagara River in Gifu City, Gifu Prefecture, Japan. What is ukai? I hear you ask. Ukai is a traditional fishing method that uses trained cormorant birds called (u) to catch sweet river fish called (ayu). Cormorant fishing is still performed at a few select locations around Japan including the Nagara River in Gifu Prefecture, Kiso River in Inuyama, Aichi Prefecture and Oi River in Kyoto.
A Brief History of the Art in Gifu
This ancient art has been practiced along the Nagara River in Gifu for more than 1,300 years. It has a very long history in Japan and is mentioned in many ancient chronicles. The samurai warlord, Oda Nobunaga took the ukai fisherman under his patronage and created the official position and title of usho (Cormorant Fishing Master). The shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu enjoyed watching ukai when he visited Gifu City and also gave his patronage and protection to the art. He was so fond of the sweet fish that he had it delivered to Edo Castle in modern day Tokyo. The haiku poet, Matsuo Basho famously wrote a haiku about ukai when he visited Gifu to watch the cormorant fishing: “Exciting to see / but soon after, comes sadness / the cormorant boats”.
Today, the usho fishing masters are the official Imperial fisherman of the emperor of Japan, with the sweet fish sent to the Imperial family several times a year.
How Does Cormorant Fishing Work
Cormorant Fishing takes place at night under darkness. It starts with six long, wooden boats, each manned by a master fisherman and two boatmen, who propel the boat downstream with long wooden poles. The fishermen are dressed in traditional costumes of straw skirt, sandals and black kimono. They use the flames of the kagari-bi (fire lanterns) which reflect off the surface of the river to attract the fish. The fishing masters use the cormorants to catch the fish as they come to the surface attracted by the light. The cormorants dive underwater to catch the fish by swallowing them whole. A special snare around the neck of the birds prevents them from eating the fish, which are kept in the cormorant’s throat and are retrieved later.
The Fishing Masters and Cormorants
There are only ever six usho (Cormorant Fishing Master) on the Nagara River in Gifu. The title and occupation are inherited and are passed down from generation to generation, which keeps this ancient art form alive. The fishing masters lives are solely dedicated to cormorant fishing and their skills and techniques have been honed over many years. They have a special bond with the birds they work with and lovingly care and raise their cormorants all year round. The cormorants are migratory birds that are captured in the wild and trained by the fishing masters to grow into fishing cormorants.
Where to Watch Cormorant Fishing in Gifu
Cormorant fishing is spectacular to watch in Gifu with the beautiful backdrop of the famous Mount Kinka and Gifu Castle. You can watch cormorant fishing for free from the banks of the Nagara River east of the Nagarabashi Bridge. Alternatively, for a closer view, you can pay to see it from one of the many viewing boats. The small wooden boats are a great experience, where you can enjoy the ancient art while eating a Japanese bento and drinking sake. You can purchase tickets at the Cormorant Fishing Viewing Boat Office at 1-2 Minato-machi Gifu City. The boats are usually boarded at around 6:30 pm with the start of the ukai signalled by a small fireworks display.
The Ukai Season is from May 11 to October 15 and is held every night except during a full moon or in heavy rain.
From JR Gifu Station take a Gifu Bus heading towards the Nagara area, and get off at the Nagarabashi bus stop. It takes around 15 minutes and costs 210 yen.
Place: Nagara River, Gifu City
Dates: May 11th to October 15th
Time: Starts at around 7:30 pm
Address: 1-2 Minato-machi Gifu City