• 09 . 06 . 05
  • Cormorant fishing is a tradition in Gifu, so a bunch of Gaijin headed out to see what it was like.

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Great Balls Of Fire

Ukai fishing is a very traditional local activity and something for which Gifu and the Nagara River is apparently famous. However (as with many accessible activities), despite the season lasting a good few months and the river being about 800m from my house, I somehow failed to go last year. Thankfully, other people aren’t as lame, so tonight I joined a big group of gaijin and headed down to the river side. It’s only really worth going after dark because they don’t start until then. Part of the reason may be to do with the giant balls of fire at the ends of the fishing boats. Not too much of a spectacle in the daylight, I wouldn’t have thought.

Ukai is Japanese for cormorant, and these birds are what are used instead of fishing rods and bait. The birds are tied on a short leash to the front of the boat, close to the fireball. The heat from the flames forces them to duck under the water to keep cool and once there, they have the chance to catch the fish. To prevent them from swallowing the catch, the cormorants have metal rings around their necks, and the fishermen jerk the chains back, forcing them to regurgitate the fish onto the deck. Due to the brilliance of bird beak design it seems, the fish remarkably remain intact, without even the slightest blemish.

I can’t imagine that this is a particularly comfortable experience for the birds, or even the most efficient way to fish, but it’s traditional, it brings lots of visitors (mostly Japanese) and it certainly is a cool sight. With the birds half swimming, half flying, it looks like they’re pulling the boat, like James And The Giant Peach. The fireball illuminating the area and reflecting off the black water also makes for a pretty good show.

As this is a traditional event, the spectators were mostly dressed in kimonos and sat in boats moored to the edge of the river. I’m actually really glad we didn’t go on one of those as there are seats cut into the river bank and you can see perfectly from there. And you don’t have to pay ¥3000 for the privilege. We probably should have left earlier than we did as the whole thing really comes to an abrupt halt when it’s over. But we stayed and skimmed stones and were able to see the birds back in their baskets. Pretty small baskets actually, for so many birds. We also got to see the workers carrying back the traditional petrol-driven outboard motors once the viewing masses had gone. I wasn’t so naive that I’d thought they were actually punting along, but still… It didn’t so much destroy the magic as remind me that lots of the historical things here are displays and the Japanese have no problem with streamlining tradition if necessary.

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