Ukai is a traditional Japanese method of fishing that employs trained cormorants to catch freshwater fish called ‘ayu’. For the past 1,300 years, fishermen along the banks of Nagara River have been spending the summer months catching fish with the help of the highly skilled birds. Some of the other rivers where ukai is practiced include the Hozu River and Uji River.
Fishermen who are skilled at ukai have patronage from the emperor. According to legend, samurai warlord Oda Nobunaga took the ukai fishermen under his wing, conferring upon them the official position of ‘usho’ (Cormorant Fishing Master). He is said to have enjoyed watching ukai in action and vowed to protect the art.
When the famous haiku poet Matsuo Basho witnessed ukai fishing, he wrote a poem to honor the tradition: “Exciting to see/but soon after, comes sadness/the cormorant boats.” In modern times, the master fishermen are still the official Imperial fishermen of the emperor of Japan. The sweetfish (ayu) they catch are sent to the Imperial family several times a year.
Photo: Japan Travel Info
Cormorant fishing takes place at night, under the cover of darkness. Six long wooden boats set out, each manned by a master fishermen and two boatmen, leading about a dozen cormorants on leashes. Each boat is equipped with a large fire lantern hanging from its bow, to provide light for steering and fishing. The fishermen are dressed in traditional costumes of straw skirts sandals and black kimono.
Photo: Japan Guide
The birds swim alongside the boat, diving under the water to catch fish and swallow them whole. The fish that are caught are stored in a special pouch inside the cormorants’ throats. A snare fastened around their necks prevent them from swallowing the fish, which are retrieved fishermen.
Ukai fishing is now a tourist attraction in Japan; thousands arrive during the fishing season to travel in special sightseeing cruises that shadow ukai boats. Tourists get to watch all the action up-close for almost an hour at a time. Such cruises generally cost around 1,500 to 3,500 yen per person. Gifu Prefecture is one of the best places to witness ukai fishing – the season begins on May 11 and goes on until October 15.