The Nagara River is situated near Mount Kinka in Gifu Prefecture. We could see the river with colourful boats set at the bank forming a mesmerising scenery, viewed from the observation deck of Gifu Castle atop Mount Kinka. The cormorant fishing festival at Nagara River in Gifu is one of the famous and important summer festivals of the region. It is held during the summer months starting from May 11th to October 15th.
The festival is held every night in summer except on New Moon days and during heavy rains. At this fishing festival an unusual fishing method is used. Here the cormorant birds are used to catch the fish. These birds catch only a special type of Japanese sweet fish known as Ayu from the river. This type of fishing is known as the Ukai. This fishing method and the festival has been conducted in Gifu for the last 1300 years. It was given special recognition by the samurai Oda Nobunaga, who ruled Gifu. He gave special position to the cormorant fishermen and designated them as Usho. This position is transferred through generations.
By evening, everyone is ready for the fishing. The birds are carried in small cages to the river bank and a string is tied at the cord attached to the neck of each bird. Until the fishing begins, there are inaugural traditional dance programs conducted on special boats that sail up and down along the river. Ladies in kimono dance inside these boats. The fishing starts only after 8.30 pm, after a small firework display.
There are six different fishing boats with a fisherman and two boatsmen on each boat. The fishermen take position at the front of the boat with the cormorants tied at the other end of the strings, while the boatmen standing at the bow and stern use long wooden poles to control the movement of the boat. They generally have a fire lantern hanging in front of the boat. The fisherman himself takes care of and controls the fire in the lantern. In the darkness of the night, the movement of these special wooden boats with the hanging lanterns is a great sight. The fishermen are experienced and trained persons who manage the entire process with utmost élan. They wear black yukata with caps and skirts made of rice straw.
These men have ten or more cormorant birds tied at the end of the strings. They carefully let the birds move in front of their boats. These cormorant birds used for the fishing purpose are grown and trained especially for this festival. The fishermen and the birds have a quaint attachment that helps them in their joint effort during the fishing festival. The cormorants swim around and dive in the river to catch the fish in the light of the flame. The fishermen have to be very keen during this time. Once any of the birds catch a fish, the fisherman will lift the respective cormorant from the water and take out the fish from the mouth without letting it swallow the fish. Though, there are special structures tied around the neck of these birds to prevent them from swallowing the fishes.
This fishing method was followed by the ancient Japanese fishermen. Even though it was done as a means of leading life in ancient Japan, currently it is a means to attract visitors and encourage tourism in Gifu prefecture during the summer season. Visitors can watch the fishing from banks of the Nagara River. Gifu City issues special tickets for viewing boats which take visitors to the river, so that the entire event can be observed more closely. These boats are lined up at the river bank by around 6.30 pm and food and drinks are supplied inside the boats. The fishermen live at the banks of the Nagara River itself where they have special cages to take care and train their cormorant birds.
There are shops all along the river bank selling food and drinks, fireworks, souvenirs, and more. Many people enjoy setting their own fireworks at the river bank before the fishing starts. As the river is not so wide, the fishing can be viewed clearly from the banks. Yet, almost everyone seems interested to enjoy it in the special viewing boats. This fishing festival of Gifu is really a different experience to be enjoyed in the hot summer of Japan.