There are several reasons to visit the town of Inuyama in Aichi prefecture: the castle designated as the National Treasure, the Urakuen with its National Treasure teahouse and the nearby museum or theme parks like Meiji Mura and Little World. But for me the best reason to visit Inuyama, is to witness the Ukai fishing, a traditional fishing method using cormorants that apparently dates back to some 1300 years.
Inuyama man-hole cover
The fishing takes place in summer, from June 1st until October 15th, especially in the evening trips, at Inuyama, or the lunchtime trip on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. This makes it easier to see what is going on, but lacks the atmosphere of the night time fishing when the blazing lanterns reflect in the water, silhouetting the fishermen in their traditional costumes.
Visitors travel on-board covered boats that follow and ride alongside the fishing boats. The fishing boats consist of a steersman at the rear, an assistant for the fisherman and the fisherman himself. At the front of the boat swings an iron basket of burning pinewood, which illuminates the fishing. Standing close to it is the fisherman holding a bunch of strings to which his cormorants are attached.
The cormorants are trained over a period of time to catch the ‘ayu’, the small sweet fish in the river, and then regurgitate them for the fisherman. The flax strings around their necks prevent them from swallowing the fish and so becoming full and incapable of further fishing.
The training of the birds involves cutting the feathers at the tip of the wing so they can’t fly away and filing the beaks so they don’t injure the fishermen. They then have to be taught to land on the railing of the boat before learning to fish with other birds.
Gifu cormorant fisherman
The fishermen — there are four at Inuyama including a woman — wear a special outfit consisting of a straw skirt which protects them from water and keeps them warm, shortened half size straw sandals to prevent them slipping on fish oil, a black or navy cotton top with a special bib over it to keep off sparks from the fire and resin from the burning pine, and a black or navy hat, also to protect their heads from the fire burning in the basket nearby.
The fishermen expertly handle the cormorants on strings, pulling them out of the water for a split second for the birds to deliver their catch, and then depositing them back to work again.
The fishing trips at Inuyama begin with an explanation of the fishing procedure (in Japanese). The lunchtime cruises offer the trip with a lunch box, which is eaten first, and then the boat returns to the shore before the fishing starts. The evening cruise is shorter, as it focuses on the fishing itself.
If you plan to visit Inuyama to see the Ukai fishing, it is worth booking ahead of time. It gets full very quickly on weekends and holidays. There are not as many tourist boats accompanying the fishermen at Inuyama as there are at Gifu, where you can also watch the fishing.
If you cannot get a ticket for the cruises, you can still see fishermen from the shore. There is a concrete path along the river with tiered steps, and many Japanese families picnic there, especially at weekends in order to watch the spectacle. In the evenings the fishing boats that are out (and it may not be all four) will line up in a row to drive the fish into the shallows. The line of boats with their blazing baskets lighting up the river makes a splendid photograph of a traditional Japanese activity.
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