Forgotten Kyoto - Cormorant Fishing in Arashiyama

Images of Kyoto

A cormorant fishing boat, or ubune (c) A Harrison
A cormorant fishing boat, or ubune (c) A Harrison
The classical beauty of Japan (c) A Harrison
The classical beauty of Japan (c) A Harrison
Arashiyama is a short trip from the attractions of Kyoto (c) A Harrison
Arashiyama is a short trip from the attractions of Kyoto (c) A Harrison
The ultra modern Kyoto station contrasts with its classical past (c) A Harrison
The ultra modern Kyoto station contrasts with its classical past (c) A Harrison

How to get to Arashiyama from Kyoto

i) By Train:

Japan Railways: From Kyoto Station, take the Sagano line to Sago-Arashiyama, approx. 15 min, the a 5 min walk into town

Keifulu railways: from Omiya St in Central Kyoto, approx. 20 mion

Hankyo railways: Kawaramachi or Karasuma Stations, in Central Kyoto

ii) By Bus:

From Kyoto Station: No 28, 71, 72, 73

From Downtown: No 28, 11, 93


Night Fishing With the Ukai

He led me to a bridge, carrying in his arms with him certain dive-droppers or water-fowls, bound to perches and about every one of their necks he tied a thread, lest they should eat the fish as fast as they took them. He loosened the dive-droppers from the pole, and within less than the space of one hour, caught as many fish as filled three baskets; which being full, my host untied the threads from about their necks, and entering the second time into the river they fed themselves with fish, and being satisfied, they returned and allowed themselves to be bound to their perches, as they were before.

So wrote the Franciscan monk Friar Oderic, as he wandered barefoot across Asia in 1321. Little, it seems, has changed. Arashiyama may be but twenty minutes from Kyoto, yet I felt I'd strayed into an enchanted world long gone. The night was warm, filled with the chirping of crickets and frogs. Against the darkness of the surrounding hills, lights twinkled from restaurants hiding on the other side of the bay. Coloured lights lit the narrow streets, and lanterns hung amongst the trees leading down to the water.

I ventured closer, expecting to pass some Omiyabito (or court nobles) chatting amongst themselves as they sat by the shore, as they did during in the Heian Era (794 to 1185 AD). Their arrival to watch the cormorant fishing signaled the official start of summer. A fat orange moon climbed into view as I crossed the Togersu-kyo, or Moon Bridge. Small balls of fire floated across the bay: the fishing had begun.

A Noble Tradition


Marco Polo wrote of ukai (or cormorant fishing) when in China, but it is first mentioned in a chronicle dating from the Sui Dynasty (A.D. 581-618):

In Japan they suspend small rings from the necks of cormorants, and have them dive into the water to catch fish. In one day they can catch over a hundred.

Barely visible in the darkness, small wooden boats (or ubune ) floated close to the shore-line, much as they have done for the last thirteen hundred years. Ukai fishermen still bear the official title “Imperial Cormorant Fishing Master, Board of Ceremonies and Rituals, Imperial Household Agency”. This was granted to them by Oda Nobunaga, one of the most powerful feudal warlords of the 16th century.

Most ubune carry three fishermen; the usho , (or leader), who handles the cormorants as they dive for fish; the nakanori (or middle rider), who collects the fish from the birds, and the tomonori (or companion rider), who guides the boat. All still wear traditional clothing, including a dark kimono, a straw skirt to repel water, and a dark linen cloth wrapped around their heads to protect from sparks.

Images of Arashiyama

A restaurant in Arashiyama (c) A Harrison
A restaurant in Arashiyama (c) A Harrison
Art work is hidden in the most unlikely places (c) A Harrison
Art work is hidden in the most unlikely places (c) A Harrison | Source
Peace in the hills above Arashiyama (c) A Harrison
Peace in the hills above Arashiyama (c) A Harrison
The brazier light attracts the fish (c) A Harrison
The brazier light attracts the fish (c) A Harrison

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The Dying Art of Cormorant Fishing

The flat-bottomed ubune are designed to glide easily over the shallow bay. A metal brazier hung over the front, and even from the shore I could hear the sizzle and snap of the burning wood. The flames lit up the water, attracting the fish. Each cormorant wears a small metal ring about its neck, to prevent it from swallowing larger fish. A leash is attached to this collar, and once a fish is caught, the bird is guided back into the boat and the fish removed from its beak. (With some dozen cormorants per boat, it takes remarkable skill on behalf of the usho to prevent these leashes from becoming one wet, tangled mess.) When their job is done, the cormorants rest on the sides of the boat, their wings silhouetted against the light of the brazier as they stretch them to dry.

Arashiyama By Night

Once darkness falls and the moon rises, the boats spend the evening passing back and forth across the bay. Performed now largely to catch the tourist dollar rather than to feed a family, some half-dozen tourist barges were moored in the middle of the bay. The fishermen guided the ubune past them with great theatrical display, and the sounds of applause and cheers floated across the water. Yet the spectacle can be watched just as easily from the graceful arch of the Moon Bridge, or from the water’s edge itself. Standing on a pier is akin to watching a performance from behind the curtains of a grand stage. When they returned, the usho happily posed for photos in between caring for their cormorants at evening’s end.

Matsuo Basho (1644 - 1694 AD) remains the most famous poet of the Edo Period, and today is revered in Japan for his haiku. On seeing the cormorant fishing he wrote:

Exciting to see

But soon after comes sadness

The cormorant boats.

(c) Anne Harrison

Travel Literature

The Art of Haiku: Its History through Poems and Paintings by Japanese Masters
The Art of Haiku: Its History through Poems and Paintings by Japanese Masters

A detailed history of an exquisite art form, whose beauty lies oin its deceptive simplicity

 

© 2011 Anne Harrison

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Comments 5 comments

Jonn Christie 90 profile image

Jonn Christie 90 2 years ago from Australia

This is the first time that i have seen this page i think i once saw a documentary on it on Animal Planet and i recall that they live on the banks of the Yangtze River and fish with the cormorants.

However i didn't know they also did that in Japan as well so i just learnt something new so thank very much for posting this very informative hub Anne i bet you cant wait to go back to Japan it just looks amazing.


Anne Harrison profile image

Anne Harrison 2 years ago from Australia Author

Thank you John - Japan is an amazing place. In some ways so modern, but at the same time so ancient and mysterious.


Jonn Christie 90 profile image

Jonn Christie 90 2 years ago from Australia

Your Welcome and the best part of any journey is the discovering and learning the mysterious side of places and people to use Matt Damon's quote in We Bought A Zoo its an adventure


robie2 profile image

robie2 11 months ago from Central New Jersey

What a wonderful adventure you took me on in this Hub. Thank you so much. I had vaguely heard of cormorant fishing, but had no idea of how it was done, or where, for that matter. Fascinating information, beautifully written and with great photographs make this a memorable armchair voyage.


Anne Harrison profile image

Anne Harrison 11 months ago from Australia Author

Thank you so much, robie2, - I didn't realise the practice still existed until I stumbled across it. So glad you enjoyed my hub

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