'Ukai - the finest art Japan has to offer' - Charlie Chaplin -
Ukai - Traditional Cormorant Fishing in Japan
Ukai, or cormorant fishing, is a traditional method of river fishing
that has been practiced in Japan for some 1300 years. This method involves
fishermen using cormorant birds on leashes to catch sweetfish (such
as the Ayu). Ukai is not as widespread as it once was, because it is
no longer an economically viable form of fishing. Nowadays, there are
only a few people authorized to perform ukai, and it is protected under
the Imperial Household Agency. Positions are usually inherited and passed
on within each family.
The photographs bellow were taken during my several trips to Japan
in Uji, Iwakuni and Arashiyama. I was lucky enough to cover the whole
River opening ceremonies are held every year as a memorial
service for the fish caught in the river and to offer prayers for the safety
of the yakatabune river boats at the start of the fishing season.
2) Getting ready - preparing cormorants for fishing
Ukai usually uses sea cormorants from the coast of Ibaraki Prefecture.
The life span of a wild cormorant is approximately 4 to 5 years, but the cormorants
used in Ukai are well fed and cared for and are treated like family by the
fishing masters. Their life span is 15 to 20 years.
3) Getting ready - preparing fishermen
The Usho fishermen still wear the same traditional clothing
as that which was worn by their ancestors - a dark cotton kimono, Kazaore-eboshi
(headdresses to fend off sparks) and Koshimino (straw apron that repels water).
4) Lights, Camera, Action! Ukai starts!
Ukai fishing is done from small flat bottomed boats called Ubune.
The boats are designed to be able to navigate through the shallow waters of
the rivers where the fish are easier to catch. Ukai fishing requires a team,
usually comprised of 3 members. The leader of the team is known as 'Usho'.
The Usho guides and handles the cormorant birds as they catch the fish. He
is accompanied in the boat by two other men, the "nakanori" (middle
rider) and the "tomonori" (companion rider) who pick up the fish
that are caught, paddle the boat and guide the rudder-oar.
As they begin their fishing run, the fishermen attract the
fish by lighting bright burning fires in the metal baskets suspended from
the front of their boat. The cormorant birds are then sent out into the water
to catch the fish. Each bird is on a leash, and it requires particular skill
by the Usho to prevent the leashes from becoming entangled as the birds dive
repeatedly for their catch. The leash is connected to a small metal ring that
is attached around the cormorant's neck. Every time a cormorant manages to
catch a fish, the Usho pulls them back into the boat and forces them to disgorge