cormorant fishing

On Saturday night, Lauren & I went and watched the cormorant fishing in Gifu City.  I had never heard of the cormorant, let alone of cormorant fishing, before I came to this part of Japan.  So, for those of you both equally uninformed and too lazy to click on the helpful link I provided above:

The cormorant is a bird that eats fish.  Cormorant fishing (or ukai) essentially involves taking ten to twelve cormorants, tying leashes around their necks (both so they can’t get away and so they can’t swallow), and taking them out at night on a small boat with a big fire hanging from it.  The cormorants swim around looking for fish, and when they catch one they drop it in the boat (because the leashes prevent them from swallowing).  It is far more complicated (and dangerous) than the traditional pole-worm scenario, and it is both absurd and fascinating to watch. 

Usonboat To watch it, we bought seats on one of the many spectator boats that go out every night during the summer.  Despite the fact that Charlie Chaplin was apparently a big fan of cormorant fishing, we were the only white people on the river that night.  The boats all motor down to where the fishing takes place and park, and all the passengers eat and drink and light fireworks until the fishing starts.

Cormorantfishing Eventually, the fires of the fishing boats slowly approach from up-river, and the spectator boats motor out to meet them.  Each fishing boat has three people on it–a fisherman who holds the leashes and "directs" the cormorants, a guy who feeds the fire and keeps the boat moving, and a guy in the back who steers.  I assumed that given the inherent danger and complexity of this form of fishing that it would produce above average results, but I was surprised at how rare it was to actually see a bird come up with a fish.  Perhaps they were having an off night.  Nevertheless, it was dramatic to watch, if difficult to capture in a photograph–video worked marginally better.

Fishingboats When we got back to the docks and off the boat, there was a middle-aged salaryman who had gotten so drunk that he was being pushed around on a dolly, much to the amusement of his (apparent) colleagues.  He actually seemed amused with himself–he wore a huge grin as one of his friends labored to push him up a hill.  It was funny, and it reminded me of how while I have often felt separated by language here in Asia, laughter has always been something that has made me feel connected to people in a strange way.  A drunk middle-aged man being pushed around on a dolly is funny to people from any culture, except maybe some parts of the Middle East. 

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