Cormorant fishing began in Japan by the Kofun period at least, ancient earthenware discovered in Kofu shows

Courtesy of the Yamanashi Prefectural Government

Courtesy of the Yamanashi Prefectural Government

The ancient art of cormorant fishing is called ukai and is still practised in 13 cities in Japan today. Usho fishing masters are charged with procuring ayu fishes specially for the Imperial Royal Household.  Cormorant fishing is known to be a traditional fishing method in East Asia since the 3rd century, while the practice apears to have emerged in Europe in medieval times from Venice, in Europe, cormorant fishing is a practice restricted to a leisure activity of the royal courts and the aristocracy (see Marcus Beike’s “The history of cormorant fishing in Europe”). In Japan, engravings of cormorants and fish on earthenware excavated from 9th c. Kofu now informs us that cormorant fishing began much earlier than thought. In China, cormorant fishing is said to be dying out (Business Insider, Dec 2013).

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Drawings reveal evidence of early cormorant fishing (The Yomiuri Shimbun, June 12, 2015)

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KOFU — A piece of ninth-century earthenware excavated in Kofu at the ruins of an ancient village has been found to feature a drawing that may show cormorant fishing, the Yamanashi Prefectural Museum has announced. According to the Fuefuki-based museum, the earthenware — found in the Sotochudai ruins, which date back to a span of time from the Kofun period (ca 300-ca 710) to the Heian period (eighth-12th century) — shows pictures of cormorants believed to be diving into the water and catching a fish. It is said that local people usually fished with the assistance of cormorants in the Fuefukigawa river near the village ruins during the Kamakura period in the late 12th century to the early 14th century. A curator at the museum said the earthenware indicates that fishing using the birds had already started in the region before the Kamakura period. Excavated in 1993, the disc-shaped earthenware with a handgrip-like piece on the central part is about 16 centimeters in diameter, and researchers believe that it was used as the lid of a vessel for eating. Pictures on the reverse display up to nine cormorants, with lines carved using an implement with a spatulate tip. Fishermen are not seen in the drawing, but examination conducted by experts in April this year indicated the possibility that it describes the sequence of a cormorant’s actions in fishing — diving into water, catching a fish, returning to the water’s surface and so on. Nowadays, people in the Isawa district of Fuefuki engage in cormorant fishing in the summer. The unearthed lid will be on display at the museum through July 6.

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Read more about the origin of cormorant fishing here.  The practice though both once widespread in both China and Japan, is recorded as an early practice of Japan’s by the Chinese in the Book of Sui (See Wikipedia article on Cormorant fishing.)

According to Amino Yoshihiko, see “Rethinking Japanese History” at pp. 36-37, cormorant fishing arrived in Japan together with rice agriculturalists around 300 B.C.E.

Where to see cormorant fishing in Japan today

Gifu Nagaragawa Ukai Cormorant fishing. It will be held every day during the period except on the night of the full moon (Sept. 28 this year) or when the water is excessively muddy. Fee is ¥3,100 (weekdays) or ¥3,400 (Sat., Sun. and national holidays), without meal. For reservation, please call 058-262-0104 (Gifu City Ukai Kanransen Jimusho), or reserve through major travel agencies, like JTB.

Schedule & Key events:
● daily (except Sept. 28)
7:15 p.m.-8:30 p.m. (Boarding time: 6:15 p.m.)

Location: Nagara River, Gifu, Gifu

Access:
JR Tokaido Honsen Line to Gifu Station. From there, take bus to Nagara-bashi Bus Stop (15 min.)

Festival information compiled in cooperation with the Tourist Information Center of the Japan National Tourist Organization. (10th floor, Tokyo Kotsu Kaikan Bldg., 2-10-1, Yurakucho, Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo; (03) 3201-3331). Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily.

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