When you hear the word “cormorant fishing”, many of you would perhaps think of a sight where a cormorant fisher on a Japanese traditional houseboat controls a few cormorants on leash tied to the front of the boat to catch fish…
Cormorant fishing in Fuefuki City is the one and only “Kachiu (walking cormorant fishing)” in Japan. A cormorant and a cormorant fisher go into a river together and fish while walking up the river. The history of cormorant fishing is said to go back to Heian period. Although this fishing method continued to be practiced until Meiji period, more efficient methods later took its place and cormorant fishing eventually came to an end.
However, it made a comeback in 1976. “Fuefuki-gawa Ukai Hozon Kai (Fuefuki River Cormorant Fishing Preservation Association)” was established in 2005 and the members demonstrate Kachiu every summer aiming to convey the history and traditions of 800 years to people in today’s world.
Mr. Yusuke Suda is a young cormorant fisher who belongs to Fuefuki-gawa Ukai Hozon Kai (Fuefuki River Cormorant Fishing Preservation Association). He’s experienced working as a torch carrier in cormorant fishing when he was in high school. He was impressed by his senior cormorant fishers and developed an interest in cormorant fishing. It’s been 11 years since he became a cormorant fisher and he’s now also in charge of teaching local high school students. His primary occupation is fruit farming (peaches and grapes).
No matter where you look, this is something you can’t find anywhere else.
The hustle and bustle of festivals and fireworks that illuminate the night sky are some of the summer traditions you see across Japan. But did you know that there is a summer tradition here in Fuefuki City that you can’t find anywhere else no matter where you look?
“When I was in elementary school, my grandpa took me to watch cormorant fishing, which was my first time.”, says Mr. Yusuke Suda, a member of Fuefuki-gawa Ukai Hozon Kai (Fuefuki River Cormorant Fishing Preservation Association). Mr. Suda is one of the skillful fishers called “Usho”, who fish by handling cormorants.
“When I was in high school and worked as a torch carrier, I watched senior fishers fish with cormorants and they just looked so cool. Through that experience, I saw their skills of handling cormorants and also felt their passion and attitude that they wanted the spectators to enjoy their demonstration, which made me think I want to do this, too.”
When he became a cormorant fisher, the first hurdle for him was to overcome the fear towards cormorants. A cormorant is a large ferocious bird. You would get seriously hurt if you get bitten or pecked by its sharp beak.
“I happened to see someone get bitten…”, says Mr. Suda with a bitter smile. But as long as you’re a cormorant fisher, you won’t get anywhere if you’re not able to come in contact with them.
“When your cormorant catches a fish, you have to get him to spit it out, and you also have to hold him when you’re coming out of the river. I had a difficult time getting used to cormorants.”
However, those cormorants they had got sick and passed away last year.
“We had to cancel everything. We’ve never had a problem like this ever since the association was established. I was so shocked that we couldn’t do what we always expected to be able to do every year and that we couldn’t see cormorants.”
With everything they learned from that incident in their minds, they built a brand new rearing facility for cormorants called “Ukai-ya (Cormorant Fishing House)” this year.
“We have many young cormorants there and some of them are quite difficult to handle. Each of them has a different personality. We put color-coded bands on their legs so that we know what each of them is like in terms of personalities and characteristics. The big difference now compared to before is that those cormorants are tame with us, fishers. Things don’t go well if they’re too cautious, but then again it’d be also a problem if they’re too tame with us to the extent where they don’t follow our directions. So we, cormorant fishers have to find that good balance in our relationships with the cormorants.”, says Mr. Suda.
When we asked him if he likes cormorants, his face lit up.
Preserve the history of 800 years and spread the tradition in the ways fit for our times.
“Cormorant fishing has a history of over 800 years. We are only reenacting what they used to do but I feel that we have a big role thinking from a perspective that we’re conveying the history. I feel proud to be part of it.”
There are currently about 20 members ranging from their 20’s to 50’s in Fuefuki-gawa Ukai Hozon Kai (Fuefuki River Cormorant Fishing Preservation Association). We hear that this association consists of younger generations compared to other groups across Japan.
“While there are many areas where they can’t continue anymore due to the lack of successors, we’re grateful that we have younger generations involved. I feel we need to get even more younger generations’ involvement and train our successors.”
While they look for new members to join as successors, they also work hard on their promotional activities.
“This year, we did a demonstration of Kachiu (walking cormorant fishing) at Sunshine Aquarium in Ikebukuro, Tokyo. The spectators cheered every time a cormorant caught a fish and I think they really enjoyed it. It was a good opportunity to get them to know Fuefuki River’s cormorant fishing as well.”
At this event, the demonstration was done in a doughnut shaped water tank with a transparent floor. Below the water tank, a drinking event was being held at the same time. For those who were at the drinking event below the water tank, it might have been a rare experience where they could see cormorants catch fish as if they were in the water with them.
“It’s easier said than done to convey the history of 800 years to people in today’s world. There are so many people who don’t know the fact that we have cormorant fishing in Yamanashi in the first place. So while respecting the history. I feel it’s necessary to put efforts into this kind of new promotional activities. We want to give the public more opportunities to get to know and experience this tradition.”
At the event, we also set up a pool and provided time and space we call “Mise-u (showing cormorant)” for the spectators, where they can come in contact with cormorants and take photos with them, and it was so popular that there was a long queue.
“We also have ‘Mise-u (showing cormorant)’ when we do a demonstration of cormorant fishing at Fuefuki River. I think this is the only place in Japan where you can come in contact with cormorants.”
It’s easy to quit, but it’s hard to start up.
“I feel something like a sense of mission.” In order to make cormorant fishing one of the tourist attractions of Fuefuki City, “we need to make it something indispensable.”, says Mr. Suda.
“Cormorant Fisher Experience”, which people over the age of 12 (from junior high school age up to adult) can apply for, is very popular every year. This hands-on experience is valued as people can not only learn about Japanese history and experience Fuefuki City’s culture, which is the important cause for this event, but also have a rare opportunity where they can actually get dressed in a cormorant fisher’s costume and try fishing.
“There is no other place in Japan where a cormorant and a cormorant fisher fish working closely as one. In that sense also, we have to continue to work actively not to let the fire go out.”, says Mr. Suda.
A traditional fishing method with a history of over 800 years is brought back to life in a reenactment at Fuefuki River.
If you haven’t seen it, now is the time to come and experience summer at Fuefuki River.