Although there are a few places where ukai or cormorant fishing is still done, that of the Nagara River in Gifu is by far the most famous. It has played a vital role in the city’s history and has evolved from a means to live, to a profitable industry, to a major tourist draw. It runs from May 11 to October 15 of each year.
The use of cormorants for fishing on the Nagara River began over 1,300 years ago, originating as a way for people to feed their families. The advent of other fishing methods and modern transportation reduced the need for cormorant fishing on a large scale but in spite of the industry’s decline, cormorant fishing still continues in the city of Gifu today and serves as an important part of the city’s tourism sector, drawing people from around Japan and around the world.
Although boats can be hired to watch, either privately or in groups, many people enjoy the spectacle for free from the Cormorant Fishing Viewing Zone along the riverside.
Today, there are only a handful of places in Japan where ukai or cormorant fishing, is still practised and the pristine waters of the Nagara river in Gifu is perhaps the most famous. The spectacle is fascinating to watch, being so unlike anything in the West and if you have an opportunity to visit central Japan between May and October, it's highly recommended. While it's true to say that the best views are to be had on the special boats, perhaps ideally done as part of a dinner cruise, the whole experience is also fun to watch from the riverside as many locals do. It's all very photogenic too and the reflection of the burning braziers in the still water of the river, the heads of the cormorants bobbing under to catch the ayu (sweetfish) and the skill of the boatmen and bird handlers all combine to create a magical spectacle.Reviewed by Robin