The setting sun colours the islands of the Inland Sea as we drive along the northern Shikoku coastline towards the ferry terminal. It is our last day on Shikoku after a week of adventures. On our way to the ferry, we drive via Ozu to try to get a glimpse of cormorant fishing on the Hijikawa river. This traditional way of fishing, called ukai in Japan, dates back approximately to the 8th century: skilled fishermen use trained cormorants (big sea birds) to fish for them. It seems that 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. 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.
We slow down when we realise the small boats are about to land only a few meters from us. 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.
This fishing technique may seem cruel and is controversial, especially as it is no more a mean of making a living, but of keeping this 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. Actually, their life expectancy seems to be longer than the ones in the wild.
Marcella & Claire
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