Ukai is the age old tradition of using cormorant birds to fish for aiu (sweet fish). Cormorant fishing has been going on in Gifu prefecture for more than 1300 years and last weekend we had the opportunity to go on a viewing boat to see what it is all about.
Before we boarded the boats we all gathered around and listened to a talk given by this very nice, and quite funny, Japanese man. It was, of course, in Japanese and I certainly couldn’t understand all of it, but I was able to take some of it in. When he started demonstrating using a cormorant, though, I was able to grab most of what he was saying.
Here he was showing us how the birds swallowed the fish and then how the fishing masters would get the fish back up again. Amazingly the birds neck is so stretchy that it can hold 3 or 4 fish at a time.
After the man gave his demonstration we all got on our boats. The boats motored up river while we all sat, relaxed, drank beer and ate our bentos.
Once we made it through the rapids, our boat needed to be both pushed and pulled by another boat to make it – must be all the heavy foreigners, we docked on shore and had about an hour just to relax and make merry. While we were waiting there was an entertainment boat with women wearing yukata doing traditional dances and there was a concession boat.
The woman on the concession boat, much like at a baseball game, sold over-priced snacks and drinks. But, unlike a baseball game, she also sold fireworks. Shooting the fireworks off the boat was enough to entertain everyone for the hour or so while we waited.
Then, once darkness settled in, the real show began. We floated down the river alongside a cormorant fishing master (the job is passed down through families to the male offspring) and watched them do their work. The fishing master was incredibly efficient and elegant. He carefully monitored each one of his birds making sure that they didn’t get tangled and that they were emptied when they needed to be.
The whole time the fishing masters eyes barely left the water. He seemed so in tune with his birds knowing exactly what they needed. The bonfire was his only source of light and it was there as much for him as for the birds. The birds need the light to be able to find the fish.
We didn’t get a chance to sample any of the sweet fish, cormorant fishing was once a a fishing industry, now it is more of a tourist industry. The days catch is generally sold to flash hotels in the area where it is served to guests at a pretty high cost.