Larissa Corriveau made her debut earlier this month as Japan's first cormorant fisher of foreign nationality, with her trainer hoping she will help introduce the world to the ancient Japanese tradition of manipulating birds to catch river fish.
On the first day of the annual cormorant fishing season this year on Oi River in Kyoto's Arashiyama area, Corriveau, who holds dual German/Canadian citizenship, smiled at tourists and other onlookers after winning their applause for successfully handling four cormorants and getting a dozen fish out of them by squeezing their throats.
"It was difficult to control the cormorants because the water level was high, but I was able to hold on thanks to the cheering," the 28-year-old novice said later, speaking in Japanese.
The method, known as "ukai" in Japan, is also practiced in China. Although it is no longer an economically viable way of fishing, it prospers in Japan as a tourist industry.
Dressed in traditional attire, fishers set out at night on a riverboat equipped with lighted torches, skillfully leading trained cormorants.
A leash is attached to the lower part of each cormorant's neck to control the birds and prevent them from completely swallowing the catch.
The most famous cormorant fishing area in Japan is on Nagara River in Gifu Prefecture in central Japan, where the custom dates back some 1,300 years and is conducted with the support of the Imperial Household Agency.
The fishing method can also be seen in Kyoto's Arashiyama, a popular tourist destination, where the practice began in the ninth century as an event for the entertainment of the emperor and court aristocrats.
Corriveau came to Japan in 2011 to study Japanese culture at Ritsumeikan University's graduate school in the country's ancient capital of Kyoto. Having completed her studies, she began working at a rickshaw shop in January last year and is now assisting foreign tourists.
She came to know about cormorant fishing last summer when she was translating into English her company's Facebook messages that introduced the fascinations of Kyoto.
"I found it interesting to catch fish using another creature," she said.
From June 8 this year, Corriveau began learning the fishing from seasoned practitioners. Getting used to the specialized vocabulary was especially difficult for her, but she repeatedly asked for the words and expressions to be explained to her until she understood them, she said.
She felt at a loss when cormorants flapped their wings fiercely because she treated them roughly, being too focused on trying to make the birds disgorge their catch. But after many failures, she gradually became able to handle them smoothly.
This year's cormorant fishing season in Arashiyama began on July 1 and will continue through Sept. 23. Corriveau will participate on an irregular basis.
Tourists can watch the birds and their handlers at work from a "yakatabune" houseboat, experiencing what used to be a fancy pastime for feudal lords and the rich. The service is provided by Arashiyama Tusen, a yakatabune operator that helped Corriveau become a cormorant fisher, with fees for adults starting from 1,800 yen ($16).
"It is my pleasure to delight customers," Corriveau said.