I ‘m just your average fish, so cormorants are a pretty scary prospect — even at the best of times.
They can fly; they can swim; they have a beak that can dispatch me with one vicious snap behind my eyes and an elastic neck where they can stow me until they get hungry.
And that’s the best of times.
The worst of times is when I’m asleep at the bottom of a river on a moonless night when a pack of them appear out of nowhere with flaming torches turning night into day, diving like a squadron of submersible Stukas and chomping at everything in their way. One moment I’m dreaming fishy dreams, the next I’m blinded by light and then dead as a doornail with my nose in the digestive juices.
And that’s not all. A few minutes later I’m unceremoniously regurgitated into the hands of a waiting fisherman who parades my prone carcass for the photographic pleasure of assembled tourists.
The name of my terror is, of course, “cormorant fishing” or ukai in Japanese — a technique in which leashed birds are used to catch the likes of me.
Now, I’m not really a fish — not by the furthest stretch of the imagination. Still, it was with fishlike trepidation that I headed for the Kisogawa River at Inuyama in Aichi Prefecture, one of 11 places where ukai is now practiced for the amusement of tourists. My fear stemmed not from being eaten, but from a long-held distaste for the idea of wild animals being kept in captivity and a general dislike of fishing — ukai seemed to combine the worst of both worlds. I did, however, harbor a fascination with cormorants — I’ve always loved watching them diving and bobbing in the water — and I wondered: When confronted with this ancient practice, which of my emotions would win out?
Surprisingly, there was almost no contest. Sure, when I arrived at the little pier (near Inuyama Yuen amusement park) where the cormorant boats were moored, the sight of those glorious birds crouching in firmly closed baskets sent my heart sinking, but the moment the 59-year-old supervisor Takayoshi Muto explained that “skinship is the most important thing in looking after the birds,” things started looking up.
Skinship? It’s not even in the Microsoft Word English-language dictionary — and he used the English term: sukinshippu!
At the same time, one of his apprentices pulled a bird from its basket, and began massaging its neck like you might a dog.
“Contact with humans makes the birds more comfortable and the neck massage makes them healthier,” he said.
Next, they showed me how the leashes are attached. These serve two purposes: the first being to stop the birds escaping, and the second being to — cringe — stop fish of a certain size from passing from their necks into their stomachs.
The apprentice attached the leash — which was actually like a safety harness made of string and plastic ties — looping it from the top of the back under each wing and also around the neck.
“With this, the really small fish can get through, but anything bigger than about 10 cm long will collect in their necks,” explained Muto.
He said about six 20-cm fish would fit inside a cormorant’s throat. The haul could include ayu (sweetfish), catfish, carp, even eel, said Muto. “The fisherman has to watch his birds and keep track of how many fish each of them has caught. When they’ve got enough, he pulls them in.”
The apprentice pulled out a fish and threw it to the cormorant. In a quick, uninterrupted movement it caught it in its beak, spun it around and swallowed it head first.
“Feel the neck,” the apprentice instructed me, holding the bird’s head up straight.
The oily feathers were almost like fur, and I could feel not only the fish inside, but also the elasticity in the neck — almost like a deflated rubber balloon.
Muto explained that the birds are caught in the wild by a licensed animal-catcher. The local Inuyama City government, for whom Muto works, is authorized by the Environment Agency to keep the birds, and it trains them for ukai.
There is evidence of ukai being practiced commercially around what is now Nagoya — in the region formerly known as Mino — as long as 1,300 years ago. On the Kisogawa River, the trade was grounded by construction of a series of dams in the 1960s. Inuyama City put the remaining fishermen onto the public payroll to preserve their practices for tourists. (Ukai is also practiced on the Nagaragawa River, a bit further north in Gifu Prefecture, where it is now sponsored by the Imperial Family.)
“The young birds are the most unruly,” laughed Muto, “but they are the best at catching fish.”
The older ones, he explained, come to realize they will be fed after the ukai is over — regardless of how many fish they catch on their own.
In captivity, cormorants live for about 20 years (in the wild about four), but they are only made to work until they are injured or reach about 15 years of age. After that they get to stay at “home” while the other cormorants go out for ukai — “home” being a “very big” enclosure operated by the city nearby.
“The worst injuries are broken legs or wings,” said Muto. “Sometimes that happens if the fisherman bumps them against the edge of the boat.”
At Kisogawa, ukai demonstrations are held once every day and once every night between May 11 and Oct. 15. Daytime trips, in which bento (boxed lunches) are served on-board the small viewing boats, are popular with tour groups needing to get their charges to hotels or train stations by the evening. But it is the evening trips (which can also be combined with bento dinners) that really show ukai in all its glory.
My night tour ended up being one of the most exhilarating 60 minutes of my life. As the 5-meter cormorant boat is carried down the river by the current (with viewing boats in pursuit on either side), about six birds are let out on 3-meter leashes. Like dogs out for a run, they fan out and begin scanning the water below them.
But it’s dark, you say? Well yes, and apparently birds at night are so blind that the Japanese word for “night blindness” is torime, or “bird eyes.”
To counter this, the fishermen hang giant, flaming torches low over the water directly above the birds. This not only allows the birds to see their prey but stirs the unsuspecting fish from their sleep.
The thrill of watching ukai at Kisogawa is that it all happens so close to the viewing boats. You can literally feel the heat of the flames, see the birds straining at their leads (it looks like they’re pulling the boat) and even lean over the edge and see them careening underwater after fish. Soon each flash of silver visible in their beaks after they surface is greeted with cheers from the viewers.
It was utterly addictive and only now, when I think back on the experience, does the extent of my own transformation become clear: Far from feeling queasy — or fishlike — I was seduced by what can only be called the thrill of the hunt.
Prices for ukai tours vary depending on the time of year, the day of the week and whether you opt for an onboard meal. Until Oct. 15, a weekend tour, minus meal, lasting about an hour, is ¥2,500. Further details at www.kisogawa-kankou.com or on (0568) 61-0057.