About Ukai

The History of Ukai (Cormorant Fishing)

Ukai is a unique fishing method using cormorant birds (called u [pronounced "ooh"] in Japanese) to catch sweetfish (ayu). The Ukai fishing method has a history of some 1300 years, with a description of Ukai fishing on the Nagara River appearing in an ancient history book compiled in 702.

In ancient times, Ukai was generously protected by local and then national governmental agencies, who gave the Ukai fishermen extensive authoritative control over activities on the Nagara River.

Through the Edo Period (1603-1868), there were at any time a maximum of twenty one Cormorant Fishing Masters (usho) working the river. However, when the fishermen lost official patronage with the Meiji Restoration of 1868, many usho retired from the activity. In 1890 (Meiji 23), however, Ukai won back its official patronage, this time under the authority of the Imperial Household Agency.

Ubune (Cormorant Fishing Boat)

An usho catches fish with the help of ten to twelve cormorants, operating from an ubune (Cormorant fishing boat).
The ubune has a crew of three: the usho, a nakanori (assistant), and a tomonori (helmsman).

Ubune (Cormorant Fishing Boat)
  • Ubune ... A 13 meter-long cormorant fishing boat with a crew of three: the usho, nakanori, and tomonori.
  • kagari-bi ... The fire which supplies light both to work by, and to attract fish.
  • Kagari ... An iron basket which holds the kagari-bi
  • Kagari-bou ... A pole from which the kagari hangs.
  • Matsu-wari-ki ... Split pine wood used for fuel for the kagari-bi.
  • Tanawa ... Leashes for the cormorants; the usho handles as many as ten to twelve birds at a time.
  • Tomonori ... The person who steers the boat.
  • Nakanori ... The person assisting the usho and tomonori.

The Costume of the usho (Cormorant Fishing Master)

The Costume of the usho
  • Kazaori-eboshi ... A cap for protecting hair from the fire
  • Ryou-fuku ... Black or dark blue shirt made of cotton
  • Mune-ate ... A vest for protection from fire and pine tar
  • Koshi-mino ... An apron made of straw to keep the usho dry and warm
  • Ashi-naka ... Straw sandals. They are half the usual length of Japanese straw sandals, with the heel exposed to prevent slipping on boat decks slick with fish oil.

U (Cormorant Birds)

U (Cormorant Birds)

Wild Japanese Cormorants are trained for Ukai fishing. The birds are 80 to 90 cm tall. They are active migrating birds, gifted with high abilities to learn and adapt to new environments.
As he will depend on the birds for his livelihood, the usho takes good care of them every day. It takes 2 or 3 years to train the birds for fishing.

The sweetfish (ayu in Japanese) is a freshwater fish which lives in the clear streams of rivers. Sweetfish freshly caught by cormorants are highly prized delicacies.

U-Ayu (sweetfish caught by cormorants)

U-Ayu (sweetfish caught by cormorants)

Traces of beak marks on the bodies of the fish from the birds that caught them are regarded as signs of high quality.