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Ukai (Cormorant Fishing) 2018: Cultural Adventure

Ukai is a traditional fishing method in Japan wherein instead of using fishing rods and nets, the usho or cormorant fishing master uses an aquatic bird known as the cormorant to catch fish. 

This traditional fishing method can be traced back more than 1300 years ago.  It was mentioned in the Chronicles of Japan (Nihon Shoki) which was originally published 720 AD and the Records of Ancient Matters (Kojiki) which was originally published in 712AD. Due to its long history and its traditional value to Japan, the Ukai in Nagara River is designated as an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property of Japan.
One of the usho explaining what the ukai is

Boarding time

Not only is the Ukai and important cultural event, but it is also one of the main tourist magnets of Gifu City. Thousands of local and foreign tourists visit the city during the cormorant fishing season (May 11- October 15) to witness the thousand-year tradition. Among those who had witnessed the ukai was the great comedian Charlie Chaplin who witnessed it not only once but twice in his lifetime. 
The usho shows how they get the fish caught by the cormorants

Like the Ukai, the usho is a very important part of Japan's rich tradition and history. Currently, there are only six usho in Gifu. They hold a special title bestowed upon them by the Royal Household Agency. These cormorant fishermen are called "Cormorant Fishing Masters of the Board of the Ceremonies of the Imperial Household Agency". This special title can be inherited by their children when they follow in their parent's footsteps. 
Heading to our designated location
Check out the boat formation
Lunch at Nagara River's bank
Watched some traditional dance presentation while waiting for the fishing boats
Waiting for the Ukai to start


My family and I got to witness the Ukai during our 2018 Japan Adventure. We were lucky enough to be accompanied by our Japanese family who tried to explain how the ukai goes. More than that, we were also blessed to have a tour boat operator who fluently explained deeper what happens in an Ukai in English. I managed to interview him after he gave the basic information about the Ukai. He was more than happy to share more about cormorant fishing and here are some good to know information that I got from him:
Our boat operator explained the ukai to our group thoroughly

  • Fireworks signal the start of the Ukai. Hotels do their part by turning off or dimming their lights so that the fish would see only light from the torches which are used to flush them when they are sleeping behind big stones. 
  • The usho uses only wild sea cormorants which they catch while they were young. A young cormorant has brown feathers while mature ones have black. The cormorants are then trained for 2 years before being added to the group.
  • The bonfire on the boats is called karikadori. It actually helps the cormorant catch fish as the light from the bonfire reflects on the scales of the ayu or river trout making it easy for the cormorants to catch them while they are escaping upstream. 
  • Ayu caught by the cormorant is more expensive than those caught by man because according to some food connoisseurs it tastes better due to the fact that the fish had "instant death" which means it was subjected to lesser stress than when it was struggling in a net or fishing line. A fish caught by a cormorant is also distinguishable by the beak marks on it that is very hard to replicate.
  • A cormorant can catch and store as many as 6-8 Ayu (depending on its size and the fish's size) in its neck. These would then be regurgitated by the bird when the usho pulls the leash on the bird's neck. 
Here are some photos of the ukai:



What I like about the Ukai is it was presented in a sort of ritualistic fashion. It's not the typical fisherman goes fishing and the tourist boats follow incessantly. It's like watching an opera while at the front row seat. Every action of the usho and his crew are well calculated and artistic. It emits an aura of greatness passed from generations of usho to the present. This leaves one at awe.

The final phase of the event
For those who are interested to witness an Ukai first-hand, here are some things you should know:

  • Cormorant Fishing Season is from May 11-October 15.
  • It is closed around the time of the harvest moon and may also be canceled due to river conditions.
  • Cormorant fishing time is 7:45PM-8:30 PM. Boarding time is 5:45PM. The fishing masters will describe cormorant fishing at the Ukai viewing boat. However, the time provided here is subject to change depending on the seasons and events.
Rates:
Get your ticket at the ticketing office near the Juhachiro (ryokan) 

Weekdays: 3,100 yen for adults and 1,700 yen for children 3 years old and above.
Weekends and holidays: 3,400 yen for adults and 1,700 for children 3 years old and above.

Getting there:

From Tokyo, ride a train to Nagoya and then transfer to another train heading to Gifu City. Board down at the Gifu Station and then ride a bus going to Nagarabashi bus stop. From there, you have to walk for about a minute to the Gifu City Cormorant Fishing Viewing Boat Office. 

You then have to buy a ticket there and wait for the boarding time.

Ratings:
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Comments

  1. This is incredibly sad as not only are they killing fish, they are also enslaving birds.

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    1. Well we have different views on different things. For me I see it as having a pet cat who killed a mouse except we don't sell the mouse for a huge amount of money.

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  2. I’ve never been fishing. This looks a wonderful place to visit, whether you catch anything or not.

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    Replies
    1. In this festival trained Usho are the ones catching fish using their ukai. We just watched.

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  3. Now that's really unique. Haven't heard of that way of catching fish before.

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  4. Oh yes, I have heard about this culture. It's amazing to see different cultures around the world.

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    Replies
    1. That's true Anagha. =) I love Japan for its numerous cultural stuff.

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  5. WOW that is really cool! I have never heard of this before but I like it! haha

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  6. Wow! Pictures looks refreshing. Loved it!

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  7. I had no idea about this fishing technique! It sounds like a wonderful experience to watch Ukai Cormorant fishing!

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  8. looks so pretty i also wants to visit such like of places

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  9. What a remarkable experience and one worth exploring. Next time I visit Japan, I will make sure to get a ticket for this unique opportunity.

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  10. Awesome post! Thanks for sharing!

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  11. I am glad you got to experience and see ukai. I haven't yet but maybe I should take my sister to here.

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    Replies
    1. You should take your sister to Gifu City. The city offers a lot of things to see, do, and eat.

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  12. Learning about other cultural traditions is fascinating. Appreciation is important and what keeps culture alive. Thanks for sharing

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    Replies
    1. I agree with you Jenn. We should appreciate the different cultures around us and not put our own modern day standards into it.

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  13. This is definitely something I would do. It looks so fun and engaging

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    Replies
    1. Yes please. You should visit Gifu City and check out this unique cultural activity.

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  14. I really love how interesting the culture is! Would love to visit one day!

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    Replies
    1. Looking forward to see your own Ukai moment. =)

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  15. What a cool experience. You got to see a whole other way to fish. Very interesting.

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    Replies
    1. That true. =) I didn't know that one could fish this way hahaha.

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  16. What a beautiful traditional practice. Japan is on my travel list and I'd love to see this fishing spectacle

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    Replies
    1. That's great. =) I'm praying that you get to see the Ukai soon. =)

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  17. Wow what an amazing experience! This looks like it would be so neat to participate in.

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    Replies
    1. Yes, watching the ukai is really an amazing experience. =) You should include it in your bucketlist.

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  18. I think this would be cool to witness. I used to enjoy fishing a lot when I was little.

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  19. It sounds amazing. happy to read

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  20. I hadn't hear about Ukai and loved reading about the culture and traditions around it. Thanks for sharing! Good to see that you and your family had a good time.

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  21. totally adding this to our travel list

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  22. A fascinating way to catch fish. I grew up with cormorants all around but had no idea!

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    Replies
    1. Maybe you should train one and start your very own Ukai in your neighborhood. =)

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