Cormorant Fishing (Ukai) in Arashiyama
View this traditional fish-catching method in Kyoto: let the birds do the legwork.
The method of ukai is a traditional fishing technique using aquatic birds that was imported to Japan from China more than 1,500 years ago. While it was once widely practiced, today it has taken the shape of a tourist attraction, and a very good one at that. (Although, as locals will tell you it is still a legitimately used fishing method.)
The event is held annually in Arashiyama (not far from Kyoto city center) from July to September and takes place at night on the river. Visitors are taken on boats up and down the stream where they can view up-close how the fishermen use aquatic birds called cormorants to catch fish.
From the boats, the fishermen have the cormorants reach the water, and, when the bird catches a fish, it is quickly reeled in via a rope tied around its neck. The noose serves the double purpose of making it impossible for the bird to swallow the bigger fish. Once the bird is back on the boat, the fisherman forces it to spit the fish out and then sends it back in the water.
The event represents one of the oldest Japanese ichthyic traditions.
The fishing boats are very simple wooden vessels with a large pyre hanging from their bow. They are manned by two fishermen, dressed in traditional Japanese garments. The event represents one of the oldest Japanese ichthyic traditions and is enriched by folkloristic showmanship on the part of the fishermen who loudly cheer the birds, as well as engage the visitors, who, often join in.
The whole experience is unique and easily enjoyable. The atmosphere, with the burning fires in the distance and the dim city lights around the river to accompany you, is surreal and romantic. Restaurant-boats will serve the customers and it is not rare to see parties with the traditional maiko (an apprentice of a “geiko,” similar to a geisha) performing on other boats.