"Ukai" is a fishing method in which trained Japanese cormorants catch and retrieve river fish in a symbiotic relationship with a fisherman, but trapping the birds themselves is just as important to keeping the tradition alive.

In cormorant fishing that dates back 1,300 years, master fishermen called "usho" in long wooden boats lead out a dozen or so cormorants tethered with ropes. The birds swim alongside and dive underwater to capture fish, which they hold in their prodigious pouch-like gullets.

Photo taken in 2022 shows cormorants at Ishihama Beach in Hitachi, Ibaraki Prefecture. (Photo courtesy of the Hitachi Tourism and Products Association)(Kyodo)

The cormorants have a precise length of rope tied around their necks, allowing them to swallow smaller fish while stopping them from ingesting big ones.

There are two types of cormorant fishing: "kachi" (walking) cormorant fishing in which the master fisherman enters the river and manipulates the cormorants while on foot, and "fune" (boat) cormorant fishing where he controls the birds while in a river craft.

In fune fishing, the master fisherman lights a large fire on the boat to lure ayu sweetfish and provide light to steer by. The fire also illuminates the water to guide the birds while they are hunting.

Hitachi, a city in Ibaraki Prefecture, northeast of Tokyo, is the only place in the country where the migratory birds are caught.

However, only three people, including one apprentice, remain who possess the skills to capture cormorants for the fishermen.

To keep the cormorant fishing tradition alive, the trio open their trapping aviary at Ishihama Beach to tourists to showcase reenactments of the precision required to lure the animals.

They demonstrate the techniques they employ to catch the birds who descend upon the area twice a year, in the April-June and October-December migratory seasons when the cormorants are moving to breed in the north and winter in the south.

"We don't do cormorant fishing here. We catch cormorants and send them to cormorant fishing sites around the nation," said Taku Shinoki, 52, a new cormorant hunter who in late February was giving a tour of the thatched enclosure in which the birds are kept.

Roughly 80 centimeters from beak to tail, Japanese cormorants breed in Hokkaido and Russia's Kuril Islands, known as the Northern Territories in Japan, among other places in the north before wintering in regions to the south such as Honshu and Kyushu.

During the migratory seasons, the birds are caught for 11 cormorant fishing sites throughout Japan, including the Nagara River in Gifu -- the most famous cormorant fishing site -- and Arashiyama in Kyoto. The aviary is open for sightseeing free of charge for the rest of the year.

The enclosure is located on a 15-meter precipice along the shore where the men patiently wait for the birds to land.

Other cormorants are used as decoys on the cliff outside the hut, and when wild cormorants swoop down to perch, the hunters try to snare them around their ankles using a long pole with a U-shaped hook at the tip before dragging them under the enclosure.

"It's quick work," veteran cormorant hunter Katsunori Shibata, 53, said with a laugh. "Their bills are as sharp as razors. I've been bitten and ended up covered in blood."

They aim to capture young birds up to about 2 years old and weighing more than 2.5 kilograms. But they usually snare three times the roughly 40 birds requested per year via Hitachi city authorities because birds that do not meet the requirements have to be released.

Veterinarians vaccinate and examine the partially yellow-billed black-bodied birds, and after 10 days of observation, they are dispatched to the various cormorant fisheries.

According to Hitachi, there were about five cormorant trapping businesses on the Ishihama coast after World War II, but by the late 1970s, the number had fallen to one, as wave erosion caused the trapping areas to collapse. Businesses have also suffered from a lack of successors.

Taku Shinoki reenacts capturing cormorants in the aviary used as an enclosure for the birds in Hitachi, Ibaraki Prefecture, in February 2024. (Kyodo)

Shibata and Atsuhiro Otaka, 72, had been a two-man team until December when Shinoki was hired.

During the cormorant trapping season, they hide out in the hut before sunrise, but depending on the weather and wind direction, the birds may not fly in for a week or more. Shibata works part-time as a farmer while Shinoki is employed at a supermarket.

During his first season in training, Shinoki watched the veteran trappers very closely.

The key is being able to place the pole outside at just the right moment without being noticed by the cormorants, and once they have been dragged inside the hut, the challenge is to quickly wrap their bills with rope to prevent them from getting out of control.

"It's fascinating to see what will happen when you're dealing with a wild animal," said Shinoki, adding that there are many tricks of the trade he aspires to learn from the two veterans.

On weekends, nearly 100 tourists visit the area, and efforts are being made to raise awareness about cormorant trapping. In the fall, they also hold cormorant fishing reenactments.

"We want to let more people know about the cormorant trapping business and increase its value as a tourist attraction," Shinoki said.

Cormorant fishing is as intricate as capturing the birds in the first place, requiring the skills of the usho master fishermen. Presently, there are only nine elite usho performing on the Nagara River, all of whom have been designated as Imperial Household Agency employees.

The master fishermen use "tenawa" (hand-held ropes) tied to the cormorants. The usho will hold as many as 12 ropes in his left hand at a time, which often become tangled when the cormorants move. Thus, the usho must untangle the ropes using his right hand before placing them back into his left.

On the Nagara River, cormorant fishing sightseeing cruises priced at 3,500 yen for adults and 1,800 yen for children are conducted, allowing tourists to get an on-the-water look at the fish-catching birds.

The season runs from May 11 to Oct. 15, except for a day off on Sept. 17 and when the master fishermen cannot bring their boats out due to high water levels.

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