Where cormorants do the work – and dispel any religious doubts
Whenever the “Deutsche Gesellschaft für Natur- und Völkerkunde Ostasiens” (OAG) offers one of its excursions, one can be sure that it is going to open the door to one of the many gems of Japanese culture and tradition. A very special door-opener of that sort was provided on the last weekend of September, when we were about to (in the truest sense of the word) “dive into” the world of cormorant fishery. In Europe this technique of catching fish may be virtually forgotten (in feudal times it used to be a way for the aristrocracy to express their sports ambitions), in Japan (as well as other regions in East Asia) however, fishing with cormorants lives on and is being further cultivated.
It is said that the Japanese have been practicing cormorant fishery for at least 1,300 year (there are, however, sources that show that it has been practiced even earlier in history). What’s more: On 2 March 2015 the very distinct way of fishing with cormorants, as it is being practiced on the Nagara river in the prefecture of Gifu (Nagaragawa Ukai / 長良川鵜飼 / ながらがわうかい) has been recognised as an “Important Immaterial Cultural Heritage” in Japan and there are also ambitions to have it registered at the UNESCO as an “Immaterial Cultural Heritage”.
Should you lack even the faintest imagination of what “cormorant fishery” might be (and there is no shame in admitting it), it will become clearer, if you know that in Japan in means that wild “Japan cormorants” (phalacrocorax capillatus) are being caught and trained to do the fishing for their owners (the training takes several months). In Japan these “Japan cormorants” are being called “sea cormorants” (海鵜 / ウミウ) – not to be confused with those species that are called “river cormorants” (川鵜 / カワウ) (phalacrocorax carbo), as smaller species that can usually be seen at inland waters.
The Japanese word for cormorant fishery is somewhat euphemistic: it is called “ukai” (鵜飼 / うかい). It contains the Chinese characters for “cormorant” (鵜 / う) and “to keep / to breed” (飼う / かう) which, on the one hand, omits the fact that the birds are not just “kept”, but also forced to work on behalf of their owners, on the other hand also neglects that the Japanese cormorant usually doesn’t breed in captivity.
“Letting the birds work” means: Before they are let down into the river’s waters, a loop is put around the neck of the cormorant which lets the cormorant fisher control the bird and also circumvents that the birds are actually eating the catch themselves. Only smaller fish, not suitable for human nutrition, may pass the cormorants’ throat.
At the Nagara river (長良川 / ながらがわ) in Gifu (岐阜 / ぎふ) the fishermen are particularly proud of their centuries-old tradition of catching fish with the help of cormorants. The fishermen’s knowledge is usually exclusively passed down within their family and also the fishing rights are handed down to the next generation within the family. Furthermore, the “ukai” in Gifu ist protected and supported (by rather remarkable subsidies) by the Imperial Household.
Have a look at a dyed-in-the-wool cormonant fisherman – here at an introductory lecture on his craft.
Even in our days, the traditional working garment of a head fisherman (ushō / 鵜匠 / うしょう) dates back to the Heian era (8th to 12th century A.D.). Let’s have a look at the details of this rather archaic looking outfit, that, no matter how dated it may look, still serves its purpose very well:
- Dark-coloured fisherman’s headgear: Kazaorieboshi: (風折鳥帽子 / かざおりえぼし), which actually originates from formal black caps of imperial officals. Its main purpose is to protect the fisherman’s hair from the fire (further details of this see below)
- Fisherman’s robe: Ryōfuku (漁服 / りょうふく) made of dark cotton
- Chest protector: Muneate (胸あて / むねあて) to protect the fisherman from flying sparks and burns from dropping resin
- Straw skirt: Koshimino (腰蓑 / こしみの) as a protection from humidity and cold
- Ashinaka (足半 / あひなか) „half“ sandals, made of straw that help the fishermen standing firmly on the slippery planks of the boat.
There are always to additional helpers on board every cormorant fisher boat:
- Helmsan: Tomonori (とも乗り / とものり)
- Boat assistant: Nakanori (中乗り / なかのり)
The cormorant fisher boats (鵜舟 / うぶね) on the Nagara river in Gifu are 13 metres long, and their shape somehow reminds on a logboat, even though it’s actually made of planks. The following essential parts of the boat and equipment are indispensable for the “ukai” on the Nagara river:
- Fire basket: Kagari (篝 / かがり)
- Fire rod: Kagaribō (篝棒 / かがりぼう)
- Fire wood: Matsuwariki (松割木 / まつわりき)
- Fishing fire: Kagaribi (篝火 / かがりび)
- Loop for the cormorants’ neck: Tanawa (手縄 / たなわ)
- and, naturally, the braided baskets in which the cormorants are brought to and kept on the boat while not in action.
Unfortunately, I do not have any photo that shows all the details stated above in one single shot. That’s why you will have to do with a rather plain view of a boat at such (at least the fire rod – kagaribō – sticks out in this one):
As traditional “ukai” at the Nagara river takes place at night time, the fish are lured by blazing fires – without the fishermen’s quaint protective headdress there would only be bold “ushō” in Gifu…
What’s most important: This kind of fishery is aiming solely at a very special delicacy: the ayu (鮎 / あゆ) (plecoglossus altivelis). At a first glance this fish may look a bit like a trout. In English the ayu is also called “sweetfish”. And if it is caught by cormorants it is sold for quite astonishing prices – or deliverd to the the Imperial Houshold. The ayu is characterised by its rather tough skin and its extremely tender white meat. Char-grilling it is the most popular way of preparation. Nevertheless, the fish is also used for creating all sorts of palatal indulgences (which you can see on the pictures following below).
As living by strikt Buddhist rules prohibits the people to kill any living creature, true Buddhist cuisine needs to be vegetarian. However, there are exceptions. And one of those exceptions is created by fishery with the help of cormorants. As in this case the fish is killed by a bird – instead of by men/women – even the most hard-boiled buddhist may enjoy this delicacy without any religious doubts. Well, what’s right for Roman Catholics (even though in a modified way) during fasting periods, can’t be wrong for a decent Buddhist…
Even if you are less interested in natural studies and the historic roots of the cormorant fishery, you’ll get your money’s worth on the occasion of a nighly river cruise between mid-May and mid-October (in 2016 river cruises were offered from 11 May to 15 October). Those cruises start with a festive meal served aboard canopied boats for groups from about 15 to 50 people…
And after that, everyone has the opportunity to watch the fishermen, skillfully navigating their cormorants through the waters of the river, catching the ayu, attracted by the blazing fires – and then being pulled into the boat and having their catch removed from their throats.
A rather vivid insight in the world of cormorant fishery can also be gained from a visit to the Ukai-Museum in Gifu with its interactive and its multi-visual exhibits.
Address of the museum:
Nagaragawa Ukai Museum
(Gifu City Nagaragawa Ukai Denshokan)
Gifu City, 〒502-0071
Detailed information related to the nightly river cruises can be found here (unfortunately in Japanese only):