when and where to see fall foliage (Japanese version only):

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Cormorant Fishing on the Nagara River

The rainy season started in Kyusyu and it snowed in Hokkaido yesterday.

Cormorant Fishing(鵜飼, ukai) on the Nagara River in Gifu Prefecture is being held from May 11th to October 15th except for the night of the mid-autumn harvest moon and the times when the water level in the river is high.

Now six cormorant fishing masters called usho(鵜匠) working on the Nagara River belong to the Imperial Household Agency.  A usho wears a traditional costume including eboshi (a type of headgear worn by court nobles), a straw skirt and a chest protector to protect his body from fishing fire while fishing.
The sweetfishes caught in the fisheries belonging to the agency are presented to the Imperial Palace, Meiji Jingu Shrine and Ise Jingu Shrine eight times a year.

In Japan, many visitors go and see the sights of the fishing on houseboats and the fishing starts at around 19:30.

HD映像 岐阜の夏の風物詩 長良川鵜飼
( A summer scene in Gifu City, Cormorant Fishing on the Nagara River)

According to The Book of Sui(隋書) which was the official history of the Chinese Sui Dynasty, a Chinese envoy saw a strange fishing method of using cormorant birds to catch fishes in 600 in Japan.

The fishing method appears in the Kojiki and the Nihonshoki, two ancient chronicles written in the eighth century.

Aristocrats in the eighth century enjoyed this fishing as a sport. They caught sweetfishes with fishing fire in one hand and leashes linked to cormorants in the other while dipping his body in the water at night. Cormorant fishing masters went along with them.

「年のはに 鮎し走らば 辟田川 鵜八つ潜けて 川瀬尋ねむ」 大伴家持
"When sweetfishes begin to swim around in the Sakita River, I'm going to have some cormorants dive while wading in shallow water," by Otomo no Yakamochi(c.718–785) in "A Collection of a Myriad Leaves"(万葉集, Man-yo-shu).

In the south area of Gifu Prefecture, the practice of using cormorant birds to catch fishes dates back some 1,300 years. This traditional fishing method has been handed down from father to son.
The powers of the day took cormorant fishing under their wings.

After watching cormorant fishing on the Nagara River,  Matsuo Basho(松尾芭蕉) composed the following haiku poem based on a Noh play named Ukai(鵜飼).

「おもしろうて やがてかなしき 鵜舟かな」 松尾芭蕉
"I enjoyed, but gradually I came to be saddened, to see scenes of cormorant fishing," by Matsuo Basho(1644-1694)

Let me give you a brief outline of the play.
Two monks visit Isawa(石和) in Kai Province (now Yamanashi Prefecture) and stay the night at a small temple by the Fuefuki River(笛吹川). The ghost of a cormorant fishing master appears to the monks. The master was killed because he did cormorant fishing during closed season. The ghost demonstrates his fishing skill by request from the monks, and they are intoxicated with his demonstration.

However, when the morning comes, he have to get back to the other world. He is reluctant to leave this world. They learned that his spirit still haunts this world and hold a memorial service for him. So his spirit goes to the Land of Bliss.

We can see cormorant fishing while wading in the Fuefuki River at Isawa Onsen in Yamanashi Prefecture from late July to late August.

石和鵜飼(cormorant fishing  in Isawa)

There is another fishing method of using cormorant birds in China.
There are differences between Japanese and Chinese cormorant fishing. Japanese fishing masters use Japanese Cormorants on leashes to catch sweetfishes. Meanwhile, off-leash Great Cormorants are used to catch various kinds of fishes in China.
A theory says that the fishing method developed independently of each other in China and Japan.
In both Japan and China, Cormorant Fishing is held for sightseeing now.

In most areas, the open season on sweetfish will start on June 1st. Many anglers pull in sweetfishes while dipping their bodies in the water up to their hips. I heard that wild sweetfish have a flavor of watermelon. It's catch was small, so it's expensive. Now it's available by Internet mail order.

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