Usho - Japanese fisherwoman on torch-lit boat with cormorants on leash <br> during traditional Cormorant Fishing - Ukai, Uji, Japan
'Ukai - the finest art Japan has to offer'
- Charlie Chaplin -

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photographs of

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 event including:

1) Kawabiraki - River opening ceremony
2) Preparation of the birds
3) Preparation of the fishermen
4) and fishing itself.

Unsorted list of all photographs of Ukai are here and here.

Photography by Frantisek Staud


1) Kawabiraki - River opening ceremony

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.
 Ukai - Cormorant Fishing in Arashiyama, Kyoto <br> Shinto priests during a religious ceremony to open fishing season near Togetsukyo Bridge, Japan
 Usho (Ukai fishing professionals) - in traditional costumes during a river opening ceremony (Kawabiraki) <br> Togetsukyo Bridge, Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan
 Ukai - Cormorant Fishing in Arashiyama, Kyoto <br> Shinto priests during a river opening ceremony (Kawabiraki) near Togetsukyo Bridge, Japan
 Japanese fisherman preparing sightseeing boats for Ukai - Cormorant Fishing in Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan
 Fishermen - Usho - in straw aprons lighting torch to open fishing season <br> Ukai - Cormorant Fishing in Arashiyama near Togetsukyo Bridge, Kyoto, Japan
 Ukai - Cormorant Fishing<br> Fishermen - Usho - during a Shinto ceremony to open fishing season on Katsuragawa River, <br> Arashiyama, Kyoto Japan

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.

 Japanese fishermen loading fishing boat with cormorants in bamboo baskets <br> shortly before Ukai, traditional Cormorant Fishing, Iwakuni, Japan
 Cormorant in bamboo basket shortly before Ukai <br> traditional Cormorant Fishing, Uji, Japan
 Japanese fishermen loading fishing boat with cormorants in bamboo baskets <br> shortly before Ukai, traditional Cormorant Fishing, Uji, Japan
 Usho fishermen attaching harness around cormorant neck to get ready for Ukai - Cormorant Fishing <br> Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan
 Silhouette of cormorant against boat torch <br> Ukai - Cormorant Fishing, Uji, Japan
 Usho fishermen preparing cormorants to get ready for Ukai - Cormorant Fishing <br> Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan
 Japanese girl with her cormorant waiting for dark <br> to start traditional Cormorant Fishing (Ukai), Uji, Japan
 Fisherman <br> Ukai - Cormorant Fishing in Arashiyama near Togetsukyo Bridge <br> Kyoto, Japan
 Mariko Sawaki, one of only three fisherwomen in Japan, posing with her cormorant <br> Ukai - Cormorant Fishing, Uji, Japan
 Cormorant drying its wings <br> Ukai - Cormorant Fishing, Uji, Japan
 Cormorant eating sweetfish (ayu) <br> Ukai - Cormorant Fishing, Uji, Japan
 Usho fishermen tying cormorants to a rope before going for Ukai - Cormorant Fishing <br> Uji, Japan
 Usho fishermen attaching leash around cormorant neck to get ready for Ukai - Cormorant Fishing <br> Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan
 Usho fishermen attaching leash around cormorant neck to get ready for Ukai - Cormorant Fishing <br> Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan
 Japanese fishermen attach harness around cormorantís neck for Ukai <br> traditional Cormorant Fishing, Uji, Japan
 Usho fishermen preparing cormorants for Ukai - Cormorant Fishing <br> Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan
 Usho fishermen preparing cormorants for Ukai - Cormorant Fishing <br> Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan
 Usho fisherman preparing cormorant for Ukai - Cormorant Fishing <br> Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan

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).

 Usho (Japanese fisherman) opens fire for Ukai, traditional Cormorant Fishing <br> Iwakuni, Japan
 Usho - Japanese fisherman, Iwakuni, Japan
 Usho (Ukai fishing professionals) onboard a torch-lit boat (Ubune) <br> Ukai - Cormorant Fishing in Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan
 Usho fishermen putting on Kazaore eboshi (traditional costume) before Ukai <br> Cormorant Fishing in Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan
 Usho fishermen putting on Kazaore eboshi (traditional costume) before Ukai <br> Cormorant Fishing in Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan
 Usho fishermen putting on Koshimino (traditional straw apron) before Ukai <br> Cormorant Fishing in Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan
 Usho (Ukai fishing professionals) waiting on traditional boats (Ubune) for dark to start fishing <br> Ukai - Cormorant Fishing in Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan
 Usho (Ukai fishing professionals) waiting on traditional boats (Ubune) for dark to start fishing <br> Ukai - Cormorant Fishing in Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan
 Usho (Ukai fishing professionals) waiting on traditional boats (Ubune) for dark to start fishing <br> Ukai - Cormorant Fishing in Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan
 Japanese fisherman resting on his boat before Ukai, traditional Cormorant Fishing, Uji, Japan
 Cormorant image on fishermanís kimono, Iwakuni, Japan
 Cormorant depiction on a paper lantern <br> Ukai - Cormorant Fishing in Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan

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 the fish.

 Usho fisherman with leashed cormorants onboard a torch-lit boat <br> shows off his skills of Ukai - Cormorant Fishing <br> Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan
 Usho (Japanese fisherman) on torch-lit boat performing cormorant fishing under Kintai-kyo Bridge in Iwakuni, Japan
 Usho fisherman with leashed cormorants onboard a torch-lit boat <br> shows off his skills of Ukai - Cormorant Fishing <br> Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan
 Usho - Japanese fisherwoman recovering sweetfish from cormorantís neck during Ukai <br> traditional Cormorant Fishing, Uji, Japan
 Usho - Japanese fisherman on torch-lit boat with leashed cormorants <br> during traditional Cormorant Fishing - Ukai, Uji, Japan
 Usho - Japanese fisherman on torch-lit boat with leashed cormorants <br> during traditional Cormorant Fishing - Ukai, Uji, Japan
 Usho - Japanese fisherman on torch-lit boat with leashed cormorants <br> during traditional Cormorant Fishing - Ukai, Uji, Japan
 Usho - Japanese fisherwoman on torch-lit boat with leashed cormorants <br> during traditional Cormorant Fishing - Ukai, Uji, Japan
 Usho - Japanese fisherwoman on torch-lit boat with leashed cormorants <br> during traditional Cormorant Fishing - Ukai, Uji, Japan
 Usho - Japanese fisherman in traditional costume on torch-lit boat with leashed cormorants <br> during traditional Cormorant Fishing - Ukai, Uji, Japan
 Usho - Japanese fisherwoman forcing her cormorant to disgorge fish <br> Cormorant Fishing - Ukai, Uji, Japan
 Usho - Japanese fisherman on torch-lit boat (Ubune) with cormorants on leash <br> shows his skills of traditional Cormorant Fishing - Ukai, Uji, Japan
 Cormorant drying its wings on boat <br> Ukai - Cormorant Fishing in Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan
 Cormorants resting on boats before another dive for sweetfish <br> Ukai - Cormorant Fishing in Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan
 Visitors on sightseeing boat watching Ukai <br> Cormorant Fishing in Uji, Japan
 Usho (Japanese fisherman) on torch-lit boat with cormorants on leash <br> shows his skills of traditional Cormorant Fishing <br> Iwakuni, Japan

5) When everything is said and done

 Mariko Sawaki, one of only three fisherwomen in Japan <br> Ukai - Cormorant Fishing, Uji, Japan
 Usho fishermen unleash their cormorants after night fishing <br> Ukai - Cormorant Fishing in Uji, Japan
 Fisherman returns his cormorant back to basket after night fishing <br> Ukai - Cormorant Fishing in Uji, Japan
 Usho (Japanese fishermen) returning their cormorants in bamboo baskets <br> after Ukai - cormorant fishing Iwakuni, Japan

All images are copyrighted by Frantisek Staud
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