Wednesday, September 18

Ukai in motion

Ukai is a traditional form of river fishing where fishermen use trained birds to catch fish. In Japan, fishermen around the central Honshu city of Gifu have used specially trained cormorants this way for more than 1,300 years. However, what was once a flourishing industry has largely become a popular tourism venture. These days, a dozen or so rivers host ukai demonstrations during the Summer months, usually just after dusk.

Despite many trips to Japan I’ve never had an opportunity to see ukai fishing in action. By chance, Mum and I learnt that fishing was still active on the Hozugawa river, half an hour north-west of central Kyoto. We jumped at the opportunity to see a demonstration on our first evening in Kyoto. Our luck held as we arrived at the river and found two sessions on offer, with plenty of space available.

Ukai involves some simple, but specialized, equipment. Traditional flat-bottomed boats built of cedar are used. Each has a broad flat platform at either end for processing fish as they’re caught. A long iron rod is fixed to the hull of the boat. It curves high over the bow. A large iron “basket” is attached to the end. Firewood is set alit in the basket after dark to attract fish and provide a working light while fishing.

The cormorants are kept onboard in large wicker baskets until it’s time to fish. The fisherman control each bird using a snare tied around the base of its throat. It takes many years to perfect a ukai knot. When tied correctly, the snare prevents the bird from swallowing larger fish. It can still swallow smaller fish thus encouraging it to continue fishing. Whenever a cormorant catches a large fish in its throat, the fisherman hauls it onto the boat and forces it to spit it out.

The ukai demonstration we saw lasted about an hour. The guests were herded into a series of wooden, flat-bottomed boats where we sat crossed-legged for the entire show. Two fishing boats slowly paddled past us in what could only be described as a procession of light, sound and diving birds.  

The firewood sizzles and crackles, the birds splash around, fishermen bang the side of the boat and everyone seems to shout as birds catch fish. It’s an amazing experience. You can catch a brief glimpse of this spectacle in the video below.

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