Someone was the first to think of it. It was probably a fisherman, standing on the banks of the river, spear, line, or trap in hand, frustrated by his catch and eying with envy the cormorants as they dove into the water and came up with a fish every time. And then he had an idea: why not make the birds work for him? So he caught a bird, tied a leash around its neck along with a fitted ring so the bird couldn’t actually swallow the ayu (a river fish), and then let him go at it.

Voila, cormorant fishing (ukai). It’s a highly specialized form of fishing that has existed in Japan approximately 1,300 years, passed down from one generation to the next. Even the shogun, it is said, supported the art of ukai, and over the years fishermen adapted their clothing for demonstrations at imperial ceremonies, traditional attire that has been passed down through the ages to today’s generation of cormorant fishermen.

One of the best places to watch this ancient practice is in Gifu Prefecture, on the Nagara River, where the ukai season runs from about mid-May to mid-October. Every evening after nightfall (except during a full moon, or after a heavy rain when water levels are too high), a half-dozen wooden boats are launched, each bearing a fisherman, his birds, an assistant to pole the boat along the river, and a fiery torch suspended in an iron basket above the bow.

But what I like most about cormorant fishing isn’t just the spectacle, but the experience. Before the fishing begins, visitors board low-slung wooden boats, sit on reed-matted floors, and dine on obento meals (ordered in advance or brought with you). Since everyone is in a party mood, it’s a jovial, convivial outing, and just watching the small fleet of boats on the water is like living inside an old woodblock print.

Then, after nightfall has descended, come the fire-lit boats, each carrying a fisherman handling about a dozen or so cormorants. The birds work by command, diving one after the other into the water and delivering the ayu to their handler. The men and birds work as a perfect team, the result of training and years spent living together. There are six ukai fishermen in the Nagara area, with formidable official titles: “Cormorant Fishing Masters of the Board of Ceremonies of the Imperial Household Agency.” The 122 tools they use related to ukai are labeled Important Tangible Folk Custom Cultural Assets. The actual cormorant fishing itself is designated an Important Intangible Cultural Asset of Gifu City.

Today, cormorant fishing is a demonstration rather than a livelihood, but what I find most impressive about the entire process is that these fishermen have learned their craft from their fathers, and their fathers from their fathers, and so on all the way back through generations to the long distant past. There aren’t too many professions nowadays that can claim such continuity. That’s what makes ukai special. That’s why it needs to be preserved and carried on.

Photos provided by Gifu City