Ukai (Cormorant Fishing)


Ukai is a traditional form of fishing in Japan where masters train cormorant fishing birds to catch fish which they store in a pouch in their mouths. The masters are then able to get the cormorants to release the fish. I’d visited Uji the day before and looked to watch this there however, due to high river levels, it was cancelled; I’d heard they also had Ukai in Arashiyama and when I arrived I walked to the Togetsu bridge area and found out it was on. I decided to watch from a boat rather than the shore as I’d heard you could get a better view – I bought my ticket for 1800 yen and then loaded up into the boats.

When all were aboard, the boats were launched from shore, they were rowed similar to gondolas with a giant bamboo stick pushing the boats forward, the chap with this responsibility didn’t seem the youngest of chaps but did very well. After reaching the center of the wide river, the boats were joined and another boat pulled alongside selling beer and BBQ fish which was a bit of a novelty. After this, the Ukai boats started fishing.

There were two boats, each with three people manning them. At the front there was a fire lantern which hung over the water and was designed to attract the fish. Someone was in charge of the cormorants and 6 of these perched on the front of the boat. When signaled, they jumped into the water and started looking for the fish. They were tethered and once one caught a fish, the master would pull the cormorant in and get it to give up the fish. There was chanting and banging on the boats like drums making this seem like a bit of a ceremony. The boats went up and down the side of our boat a few times as the night time started to creep in, we started at about 7pm and were finished in about an hour.

Whilst this was a more traditional form of fishing in Japan, it seemed very much there as a tourist attraction these days. It was interesting to see but the birds looked to be used more like tools and pulled around a bit. I wondered on the boat whether I needed a ticket as you’d get a view from shore but it seemed designed so that the cormorant fishing boats generally would have blocked the view of the fishing itself and so I was happy to have chosen to go on the boat.

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