Cormorant-fishing (ukai) in Shikoku: witnessing a rare tradition

Article updated on May 11, 2020
Text & photos: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

The setting sun colours the isles of the Inland Sea as we drive along the northern coastline of the off-the-beaten-path island of Shikoku in Japan. The close-by village of Ozu is one of the rare places where the ancient tradition of cormorant fishing still takes place, on the Hijikawa River. This way of fishing, called ukai in Japanese, dates back approximately to the 8th century: skilled fishermen use trained cormorants to fish for them. There are only four or five places in the world, including three in Japan where this ancient tradition can still be witnessed, and it happens only during a few summer months.

Arriving shortly after dusk, our heartbeats increase when two boats with torches appear on the river out of the dark: ukai is in progress!

We walk along the river banks briskly to keep up with the pace of the bonfire. The boats are manned by three men, including the master cormorant fisherman standing at the torch, who can be recognised by his traditional cloth (a koshi-mino which is a kind of skirt made of straw). He is skilfully handling about a dozen cormorants on leashes which enthusiastically dive to catch fish by the side of the boat. They eagerly swallow the small ones that are attracted by the light of the bonfire, and the big ones get stuck in their throats as the rope around their necks prevent them from gulping them down. The master demands the bird to come on board to deliver the catch.

The fishing is about the end, and the small boat lands. Silently, we observe how the cormorants wiggle on shore to be carefully put in a big basket one by one before being driven away while fishermen put off their torches and gather their catches.

This fishing technique may seem cruel and is controversial, especially as it is no more a mean of making a living, but of keeping a tradition alive. We witnessed the cormorants being treated with great care by their masters, and learnt that they are raised, trained, and treated like family members, with a life expectancy much longer than in the wild.

Travel tips:

  • Check out this interactive map (quick tutorial) for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles (zoom out) about the area!

Like it? Pin it!

Ukai cormorant fishing in Japan. Japanese man in a wooden boat with cormorants on both sides.

For everything about Japan, click here!

You may also be interested in:

White text Japen food series about sushi with close-up of sushi. Rocky summit of the sacred Ishizuchi san in Shikoku in the clouds. A hiker climbs the chains. Old vine bridge over a roaring river and green forest around in Japan.Wild salmon jumping up against a waterfall during its migration, Japan. Emptpy street of the old Japense town Tsumago with traditional Japanese houses in the mountains. Several images depicting Japanese pilgrims with white clotes, stone buddhas, a vine bridge and a mountain road with traditional houses in Japan.Text about the differences between temples & shrines. The back of a pilgrim, a candle blowing. Japanese floats and people dressed up for their summer festivals. People playing the drums. Japanese man in a kimono walking on wet asphalt along traditional Japanese houses in Kurokawa, Three wooden bridges covered in moss in an oasis of greenery at the temple of Kokedera, Kyoto, Japan. Old Japanese woman with white apron cooking a large bowl of soup in the early morning, Japan. Buddha statue engraved in a rock with scent sticks in front of it and a red text on a white box saying: The Usuki Stone Buddhas, Japan's National Treasure

 

One thought on “Cormorant-fishing (ukai) in Shikoku: witnessing a rare tradition

  1. Pingback: Japan food series – Yakitori | Best regards from far,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s