For the first time in three years, the traditional cormorant fishing season began on its usual start date on the Nagara River in Gifu, Japan. “Ukai” is a tradition which dates as far back as 1,300 years. Unfortunately, the ceremonial practice of Ukai which is traditionally held nightly from mid-May to mid-October in Gifu had been canceled by the Covid-19 virus.
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Fisherman’s Best Friend?
Ukai is an ancient practice in which fisherman employ cormorants to catch river fish. Since the Sengoku period in Japan, this practice has been recognized and protected by the Japanese government. The Nagara river is home to six “usho,” or “cormorant fishing masters.” These masters have inherited their knowledge from their parents who have passed down this ceremonial fishing method across generations of fisherman.
Ukai is a protected practice which was even endorsed by the Shogunate during the early seventeenth century. Although Ukai occurs at several other locations in Japan, the Gifu Ukai fisherman are the only ones who have been recognized as “imperial masters.” To this day, the imperial family receives Ukai-caught fish from Gifu each year.
Ukai fishermen can handle as many as a dozen cormorants at once. The birds are kept on loose leashes which allow them to move freely but prevent them from swallowing the larger fish they catch. On the Nagara river, six boats are sent out when night falls. Aboard these boats are the six “usho.” Each boat is equipped with a flaming lantern which both attracts and stuns the river’s sweetfish, or “ayu.” Then, as many as twelve cormorants per master begin retrieving the ayu at once. Once a cormorant has snagged a fish, the fisherman retrieves it and the cormorant sets out again.
The Ukai tradition is popular amongst tourists who throng the river banks to watch the birds do their work. Covered boats also offer tourists a closer look at the action, as well as a chance to eat the sweetfish that the cormorants have caught.
Ukai in the Time of Covid
Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic put a two year halt on the traditional beginning of Ukai season. Subsequently, the almost nightly voyages of the Ukai boats were greatly reduced during the height of the pandemic. It is almost certainly due to the pandemic and the reduced presence of the boats that the past two years of Ukai season have had record low attendance. The 2021 season saw just under 14,000 tour boat passengers. This number is the lowest ever recorded since the record-keeping began in the 1960s.
Fortunately, the 2022 season promises to make up for the two year slowdown in Ukai festivities. After 1,300 years of Ukai fishing on the Nagara river, the usho are still performing their ancestral art alongside their feathered helpers. If that does not bolster one’s faith in humanity’s ability to withstand whatever the future holds, then I’m sure that nothing will.
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