Wednesday, July 30, 2008

day 212 - Ukai (cormorant fishing) at Arashiyama

Soon after sunset the fisherman light their firebaskets upstream from the dam...

The spectators' boats are also man-powered, so there are no outboards to spoil the atmosphere.

The team moves as one.


Back in your basket and home to bed...

The Japanese have been using cormorants to fish for around 1300 years. There are written records of ukai here in Arashiyama going back at least 1000. The practice has largely disappeared, but recent cultural tourism by both locals and foreigners has rekindled interest and kept it economically viable. Both Lyn and I remember reading about the technique when we were kids, but we never dreamed that one day we'd actually witness it!
The fishermen train the common sea cormorant to work on a lead and harness. The birds dive into the river from the prow of the long boat and quickly retrieve the ayu (sweetfish). The small ones go straight down the gullet, but the larger ones are restricted by a ring at the base of the bird's long neck. The leader of the fishing team has to manage the six or more leashes to pull in the catch, get the bird to disgorge the fish and quickly get the cormorant back into the river without getting its line tangled with all the others.
The fish are attracted to the boat  by charcoal fires burning in metal baskets at the bow. The fishermen also drum on the side of the craft and chant. Does this attract the fish? Wakarimasen. But it certainly adds to the primal spectacle.
The birds are treated well. Wild cormorants may only last five years, but trained ones are well-housed, have no predators and are well-fed. They form a special bond with their owner - often being regarded as one of the family - and the partnership often exceeds twenty years... 

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