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UKAI – the Japanese way of catching fish by the use of cormorant birds

Updated on January 13, 2014

UKAI is Japan's traditional way of catching river fish

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viewing cormorant boats are moored ready for touristseffective ukai fishing is done using light during dark nightsold method of catching fish using trained cormorantsJapanese ukai fishingcormorant bird beaks a fish.
viewing cormorant boats are moored ready for tourists
viewing cormorant boats are moored ready for tourists
effective ukai fishing is done using light during dark nights
effective ukai fishing is done using light during dark nights
old method of catching fish using trained cormorants
old method of catching fish using trained cormorants
Japanese ukai fishing
Japanese ukai fishing
cormorant bird beaks a fish.
cormorant bird beaks a fish.

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Cormorant Fishing- The Japanese Way

UKAI is the Japanese way of catching fish with the use of tamed cormorant birds. The thrill of Ukai in the Nagara which flow from east to west of the city of Gifu and other rivers in Japan truly offer amusements to visiting tourists and locals as well.

Records has it that Ukai fishing dates back 1,300 years and since that time the method had been practiced and handed down from generations to generations until this time. Cormorant birds from eggs to adulthood are tamed and taught by fishermen how to catch river fish. River fish such as sweetfish (Ayu) which abounds in the Nagara River are favorite catch for Ukai fishermen.

Preserved old writings testify to the truth that Ukai has existed long before. Japanese Manyushu, a most ancient collection of poetry that was compiled in the 8th century includes a Japanese poem (waka) about cormorant fishing.

Ukai occupies a special place in the Japanese Imperial Family. Ukai method was used to catch sweetfish for the Emperor. Since 1868. this traditional way of catching fish on the Nagara river has been well-preserved with the backing of the Imperial Household Agency who approves Ukai as its purveyor.

Usho- the fisherman as he is called during actual fishing which is usually done during dark nights, manages the cormorants for effective fishing. Tourists enjoy the actual cormorant fishing activity as well as having a taste of the sweetfish delicacy. Ukai from time to time has been presented before noble families as a treat.

Presently, Ukai fishing is a major tourist attraction . During presentation, the fishermen still wear the traditional clothing used when they performed for the Imperial family

During summer evenings, amidst flashing and lighted torches, fishermen and cormorants got on their wooden boats, each with 10 birds or more with their distinctive calls, row out to the river to catch fish.


Diving, swimming and catching sweetfish in the light of flaming torches, the cormorants entertain the audience.

English comic actor and film director of the silent movies Charlie Chaplin (16 April 1889-25 Dec. 1977) who paid Japan a visit is said to have been entertained to an Ukai activity and was truly pleased with this age-old practice.

Japan Atlas

UKAI or cormorant fishing in Japan

UKAI or catching fish by the use of cormorant birds is a traditional method of river fishing that has been practiced in Japan for some 1300 years. Few fishermen are authorized to perform Ukai because it is controlled by the Imperial Household Agency.

Wild cdormorant may live from 4 to 5 years- but well-fed Ukai cormorants stay from 15 to 20 years (Picture and text courtesy of F. Staud).

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