KYOTO – Larissa Corriveau made her debut earlier this month as the nation’s first foreign cormorant fisher, with her trainer hoping she will help introduce the world to the ancient Japanese tradition of using the birds to catch river fish.
On the first day of the annual cormorant fishing season this year on the Oi River in Kyoto’s Arashiyama area, Corriveau, who holds dual German-Canadian citizenship, smiled at tourists and other onlookers after being applauded for successfully handling four cormorants and getting a dozen fish out of them by squeezing their throats.
“It was difficult to control the cormorants because the water level was high, but I was able to hold on thanks to the cheering,” the 28-year-old novice said later, speaking in Japanese.
The method, known as ukai in Japanese, is also practiced in China. Although it is no longer an economically viable way of fishing, it prospers in a few places in Japan as a tourist attraction.
Dressed in traditional attire, fishers work at night on boats equipped with lighted fires in baskets, skillfully leading trained cormorants.
A leash is attached to the lower part of each cormorant’s neck to control the birds and also to prevent them from completely swallowing the fish they catch.
The most famous cormorant fishing area in Japan is on the Nagara River in Gifu Prefecture, where the custom dates back some 1,300 years and is conducted with the support of the Imperial Household Agency.
This way of fishing can also be seen in Kyoto’s Arashiyama, a popular tourist destination, where the practice began in the ninth century as an event to entertain the emperor and court aristocrats.
Corriveau came to Japan in 2011 to study Japanese culture at Ritsumeikan University’s graduate school in Kyoto. Having completed her studies, she began working at a rickshaw shop in January last year and is now assisting foreign tourists.
She learned about cormorant fishing last summer while translating her company’s Facebook messages, which expounded on the fascinations of Kyoto, into English.
“I found it interesting to catch fish using another creature,” she said.
From June 8 this year, Corriveau began learning the art of using cormorants for fishing from seasoned practitioners. Getting used to the specialized vocabulary was especially difficult, but she repeatedly asked for the words and expressions to be explained to her until she understood them, she said.
She felt at a loss when the cormorants would flap their wings strongly in protest when she treated them roughly, being too focused on trying to make the birds disgorge their catch. But after many failures, she gradually became able to handle them smoothly.
This year, the cormorant fishing season in Arashiyama began on July 1 and will end on Sept. 23. Corriveau will participate on an irregular basis.
Tourists can watch the birds and their handlers at work from a houseboat, experiencing what used to be a fancy pastime for feudal lords and the rich. The service is provided by Arashiyama Tsusen, a yakatabune (roofed pleasure boat) operator that helped Corriveau become a cormorant fisher, with fees for adults starting from ¥1,800.
“It is my pleasure to delight customers,” Corriveau said.
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