7 secrets of cormorant fishing on the Nagara River in Gifu

7 secrets of cormorant fishing on the Nagara River in Gifu
Have you ever seen cormorant fishing? It is a breathtaking sight to see fishermen controlling the birds, and to smell of fire burning right in front of you from a tour boat.
This time, I would like to introduce some secrets to enjoying cormorant fishing, that you should know before you go.
While cormorant fishing is practiced in various places throughout Japan, here I would like to give the spotlight to the most famous cormorant fishing spot at the Nagara River in Gifu.

First of all, what is cormorant fishing?

Before we get to the secrets, I would like to explain what cormorant fishing is. It is a traditional fishing method used to catch freshwater fish including Ayu (sweetfish) by using trained brids called cormorants.

First, the fishermen take a boat out to the river and light torches. The fire surprises the fish, causing them to jump out of the water, and then the cormorants catch these fish. Normally, cormorants swallow fish whole, but they are prevented from doing this by fastening a rope around their neck. This way, the fishermen can get the cormorants to spit out the fish.
cormorant fishing
Cormorant fishing is currently practiced in 11 places of Japan. Out of these places, the Nagara River has the longest history and tradition of 1,300 years.
This fishing method is now widely known as "living art". It was praised by many people in the past, including a famous Japanese poet named Matsuo Basho, and even the world famous entertainer, Charlie Chaplin.

7 little-known secrets of cormorant fishing at the Nagara River in Gifu

1.There are only 6 cormorant fishermen at the Nagara River, and it is a heriditary job.

cormorant fishing
▲The 6 fishermen during a memorial for the cormorants.
At the moment, there are 6 cormorant fishermen who work at the Nagara River. Becoming a fisherman is not something anyone can do. It is a hereditary job, and only one male from each family of the fiserhmen can become one.
So if a fisehrman retires for reasons including sickness or death, his son takes over his position.

2.The cormorant fishermen of the Nagara River are government officials

cormorant fishing
▲A young cormorant fisherman "Hideji Sugiyama"
Out of the 11 places in Japan where cormorant fishing is practiced, only the fishermen of the Nagara River are government officials.

The Nagara River Cormorant fishing has a long history. The fishermen first began working for the court as government officials when the Ritsuryo system was in place.
Eventually during the Meiji Restoration, Japan faced a wave of westernization and it was feared that cormorant fishermen would disappear. However, Gifu valued their connections with the Imperial Household, and they made a private hunting ground for the Imperial Family on the Nagara River Basin. They asked for an official post for the fishermen in return.

As a result, three hunting grounds were set up on the Nagara River, and the fishermen who work there became government officials.
Even now there is a traditional event that is held 8 times per year at the Nagara River Cormorant Fishing, where the fishermen gift the Imperial Family some Ayu.

3.The cormorants can swallow small Ayu

cormorant fishing
▲Cormorants with a rope fastened around their neck. This is done with an important technique by the fishermen.
Many people say they feel pitiful for the comorants because they work so earnestly to catch fish only to have it taken away from them. Actually, they are only unable to swallow large fish, and they can swallow smaller fish.

What makes this possible is the fishermen's skill. The ropes are fastened around their necks in a special way so that the birds can fill their empty stomach with fish.

4.The fish that the cormorants catch are extremely fresh

cormorant fishing
▲The moment of catching fish. The Ayu with teeth marks are delicious!
The Ayu fish that grow in the Nagara River, on of the top 100 waters, are world famous. It is even praised among gourmets.

The fish that the cormorants caught are especially fresh and fatty because the Ayu die instantly from shock when they are captured. The Ayu with teeth marks are scarce and high-grade.

5.The Ayu caught by cormorants are rarely on the market

cormorant fishing
▲You can bring your own drinks and food onto the tour boats. Make sure to buy food or make reservations prior to visiting.
Many people come to the boat tour in hopes of being able to eat fresh Ayu.
However, the fish that the cormorants catch are luxury. They are rarely on the market, but you can find some at a few hotels and restaurants. If you are interested, check the homepage.

6.The cormorants become qualified hunters after 3 years of training

cormorant fishing
When a cormorant is first brought to a fisherman's place, it usually goes wild because they are not used to humans.
For this reason, first they are kept separate from the other cormorants, and spend a lot of time with the fishermen to slowly get used to their new enviromnment.
After this, when fishing season comes, the birds are brought to the river and are taught how to catch fish. It takes two to three years for a cormorant to become a qualified hunter.

On the other hand, the fishermen who handle the cormorants need training as well. Every fisherman slowly gains their skills by copying their father's moves and techniques while helping out on the boat.
cormorant fishing
▲A fisherman and his assistant
In addition, a fisherman gets closer to becoming qualified by actually fishing with the cormorants who have different personalities and health conditions. .
A trustful relationship is built between a fisherman and the cormorants through this daily training.

7.The retired cormorants live at the fishermen's houses

cormorant fishing
A strong connection is uilt between the cormorants and fishermen from living and working hard together to catch fish every day.
The cormorants are like family to the fishermen. After years pass and the cormorants are not able to hunt due to aging, they continue to live with the fishermen at their homes.
The strong bond between the cormorants and the fishermen is what holds up the cormorant fishing show. Maybe this is why it is always impressive.

It is cormorant fishing season right now! Make a reservation for the tour boat on the net.

cormorant fishing
The cormorant fishing show is held every day from May 11th to October 15th※1.
If you would like to see it, it is recommended to ride the tour boat where you can see the spectacular performance right up close. At a reasonable cost, it is 3,400yen for adults. Be sure to fully enjoy the traditional cormorant fishing with your very own eyes.

※1 The fishing may be cancelled for fisherman's days off or for other reasons including flooding.
【Make reservations here】https://www.ukai-gifucity.jp/Ukai/price.html
【Address】1-2 Minatomachi, Gifu-shi, Gifu
【Open】Every year from May 11th to October 15th (The tour is from 6:15pm to when the fishing is finished.
【Closed】Open throughout (May be cancelled due to fisherman's days off or flooding)
【Fee】Adults 3,400yen, Children 1,700yen
【Access】Take the Gifu Bus for Gifu Park, Nagarabashi, Takatomi or the loop-line in the counter clockwise direction from JR Gifu Station or Meitetsu Gifu Staiton. It is one minute by foot from the Nagarabashi Bus Stop.

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