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Cormorant Fishing on Nagara River

By TANG Thi Huong. Posted on October 30, 2015

It was a hot summer day that I went to the Nagara River in Gifu Prefecture to watch ukai, a traditional fishing technique which utilizes cormorants (a type of bird) to catch fish. The river's peaceful scenery and cool breeze were absolutely a great escape from Nagoya's 37-degree summer. You can also enjoy the beauty of the famous Mt. Kinka, which lies near the river.

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Ukai (cormorant fishing) dates back to as far as 1,300 years ago. There are a couple of other places in Japan where you can see ukai, but ukai on the Nagara River is the most well-known! There are currently six fishing master families practicing ukai on the Nagara River. 

Performances take place every night between May 11 to October 15 during ayu (a type of freshwater fish) season.

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Well-trained cormorants (u) are controlled by skillful fisherman (usho) to catch ayu fish. A rope is tightened around the cormorant’s throat so that they can only hold fish in their mouth but cannot swallow them! The cormorants are said to hold up to six fish in their mouths at one time.

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Before watching the ukai ceremony at night, we visited the Ukai Museum where ukai is explained in detail. Later on, we realized it had helped us understand the actual ukai much better.

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We also went to an usho’s house, where an usho gave a short explanation with a living cormorant! The cormorant is really an amazing creature! Really, really powerful!

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I boarded an ukai watching boat at about 6:15 pm and sailed to the place which ukai would later take place.

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Nighttime descends upon the river as we enjoy a very tasty meal with o-sake and good conversation on board. Don't miss the salt-grilled ayu!

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The fireworks signaled the start of ukai that night! Our viewing boat moved along the river with the ukai boat, allowing us to have the best view! We could see the skilfull figures of usho in the bright light of the kagaribi (the fire in front of the boat), and we could hear the sound of the water, the cormorants moving to and fro, and the squeaking wooden boat (ubune) Everything was so thrilling! It was amazing how an usho can control 10-12 cormorants at one time without messing up all those ropes! Both usho and the cormorants were so professional in what they were doing! They are true artists!

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At the end of the ukai night, six ukai boats sailed side-by-side, creating the climax of the night!

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The experience was awesome! I now understand why Charlie Chaplin, after seeing ukai on the Nagara River for the first time, went back to see it again!



TANG Thi Huong

Currently working for a travel agency in Nagoya. She loves traveling. She believes traveling makes her life BEAUTIFUL.

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