Inuyama and Gifu are two of the main locations for ukai, or night-time fishing with cormorants, a skill developed back in the seventh century; others include Kyoto, Iwakuni and Ōzu in Shikoku. The specially trained, slender-necked birds are used to catch ayu, a sweet freshwater fish, which is in season between May and September. Traditionally dressed fishermen handle up to twelve cormorants on long leashes, which are attached at the birds’ throats with a ring to prevent them from swallowing the fish. The birds dive into the water, hunting the ayu, which are attracted to the light of the fire blazing in the metal braziers hanging from the bows of the narrow fishing boats.
The fast-moving show usually only lasts around thirty minutes, but an ukai jaunt is not just about fishing. Around two hours before the start of the fishing, the audience boards long, canopied boats, decorated with paper lanterns, which sail upriver and then moor to allow a pre-show picnic. Unless you pay extra you’ll have to bring your own food and drink, but sometimes a boat will drift by selling beer, snacks and fireworks – another essential ukai component. Although you can watch the show for free from the riverbank, you won’t experience the thrill of racing alongside the fishing boats, the birds splashing furiously in the reflected light of the pine wood burning in the brazier hanging from the boats’ prows.