ukai in iwakuniAaron Pylinski | Community Writer
Ukai or cormorant fishing is a 1300-year-old Japanese tradition where fishers use trained cormorant’s to catch fish. This type of traditional fishing is found in only 13 cities in Japan and lucky for us, we can view it on the Nishiki River at the Kintai Bridge
What is a cormorant? The Japanese cormorant or umi-u is native to Japan. It’s a rather ugly looking seabird with a black body, white throat and cheeks, and a yellow bill. It is one of the only species of cormorant that has been domesticated for fishing. With a face like that, you need to find something useful for it to do. Honestly, I can’t see the Japanese cormorant gracing the cover of Bird Watcher’s Digest any time soon. I can only imagine what the hawks and falcons say behind its back. Enough beating up on the cormorant and its lack of aesthetic appeal. What it lacks in looks it more than makes up for in usefulness. Training begins at age two and usually takes about two years to get the full training regimen. Once formal training is over, there are an extra eight years of on the job training where bird and a master handler, or usho develop a bond and decide who is going to be the big spoon and who is going to be the little spoon.
When the pecking order and training are complete, the cormorant is placed on a fishing team. These teams consist of the usho, seven to eight birds, and two boatmen (one who may second as an assistant handler). The birds are kept in baskets until they’re ready to be put into action. They are tethered to the boat and handler with a cord around their neck set loose enough for them to breathe, but tight enough to keep from swallowing larger fish.
Torches light the water surface, and this signals the fishing teams and spectators that the birds are about to get to work. These metal baskets house pinewood fuel used to burn hot and bright as a way to attract the fish. Once the torches are alight, the boats set into place and the cormorants dive into action.
The bird’s target is the ayu, or sweetfish so called because of its relatively sweet taste. It is also called the “year fish” because of its relatively short lifespan of a year. It is said that the fish tastes even sweeter when caught by the cormorant if it is consumed almost right after it’s been caught.
The ukai season ends in September, and if the rains cause unsafe river conditions, viewing is canceled. That said, take advantage of ukai as soon as you can. This is something that isn’t generally viewed outside of Southeast Asia and is indeed a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Traditional Usho Clothing:
The traditional grass skirt that the usho wears is called the Koshinomi. This skirt looks similar to a hula skirt and is designed to protect the usho from the water.
You can go home to your buddies back in the states who are bragging about that largemouth bass they hooked on a super expensive rod and reel and tell them you watched an usho use an umi-u that’s uglier than a foot catch an ayu and puke it up for human consumption. De-lish!
Want to get front row seats for a sporting perspective? Summer excursion boats are available at the Kintai Bridge from June 1 - September 10. The boat ride usually lasts about two hours from 7-9 PM. Seating on the boat is limited and fills up fast.