He led me to a bridge, carrying in his arms with him certain dive-droppers or water-fowls, bound to perches and about every one of their necks he tied a thread, lest they should eat the fish as fast as they took them. He loosened the dive-droppers from the pole, and within less than the space of one hour, caught as many fish as filled three baskets; which being full, my host untied the threads from about their necks, and entering the second time into the river they fed themselves with fish, and being satisfied, they returned and allowed themselves to be bound to their perches, as they were before.
So wrote the Franciscan monk Friar Oderic, as he wandered barefoot across Asia in 1321. Little, it seems, has changed. Arashiyama may be but twenty minutes from Kyoto, yet I felt I’d strayed into an enchanted world long gone. The night was warm, filled with the chirping of crickets and frogs. Against the darkness of the surrounding hills, lights twinkled from restaurants hiding on the other side of the bay. Coloured lights lit the narrow streets, and lanterns hung amongst the trees leading down to the water.
A Noble Tradition
Once a fishing village, Arashiyama is some twenty minutes from Kyoto, yet tonight I strayed into an enchanted world long gone. Boarding an empty bus on the outskirts of Kyoto, I wound through out-lying suburbs already closed for the night. Light from the occasional shop fell onto the street, or from tiny restaurants barely large enough to feed half a dozen locals.
Finally the lights of Arashiyama appeared. The town seemed asleep; against the darkness of the surrounding hills, lights twinkled from restaurants hiding on the other side of the bay.
In half-darkness I crossed the Togersu-kyo, or Moon Bridge, as a fat orange moon climbed into view. Still in a state of disbelief, I walked closer, expecting to pass some Omiyabito (or court nobles) sitting by the shore, as they did every summer during the Heian Era (794 to 1185 AD). Their arrival to watch the cormorant fishing marked the start of summer. Small balls of fire floated across the bay: the fishing had begun.
Marco Polo wrote of ukai (or cormorant fishing) when in China, but it is first mentioned in a chronicle dating from the Sui Dynasty (A.D. 581-618):
In Japan they suspend small rings from the necks of cormorants, and have them dive into the water to catch fish. In one day they can catch over a hundred.
Barely visible in the darkness, small wooden boats (or ubune ) floated close to the shore-line, much as they have done for the last thirteen hundred years. Ukai fishermen still bear the official title “Imperial Cormorant Fishing Master, Board of Ceremonies and Rituals, Imperial Household Agency”. This was granted to them by Oda Nobunaga, one of the most powerful feudal warlords of the 16th century.
Most ubune carry three fishermen; the usho, (or leader), who handles the cormorants as they dive for fish; the nakanori (or middle rider), who collects the fish from the birds, and the tomonori (or companion rider), who guides the boat. All still wear traditional clothing, including a dark kimono, a straw skirt to repel water, and a dark linen cloth wrapped around their heads to protect from sparks.
Barely visible in the darkness, small wooden boats floated close to shore, much as they have done for the last thirteen hundred years. The flat-bottomed ubune are designed to glide easily over the shallow bay. A metal brazier hung over the front, and even from the shore I could hear the sizzle and snap of the burning wood. The flames lit up the water, attracting the fish.
Each cormorant wears a small metal ring about its neck, to prevent it from swallowing larger fish. A leash is attached to this collar, and once a fish is caught, the bird is guided back into the boat and the fish removed from its beak. (With some dozen cormorants per boat, it takes remarkable skill on behalf of the usho to prevent these leashes from becoming one wet, tangled mess.) When their job is done, the cormorants rest on the sides of the boat, their wings silhouetted against the light of the brazier as they stretch them to dry.
Arashiyama By Night
Once darkness falls and the moon rises, the boats spend the evening passing back and forth across the bay. Performed now largely to catch the tourist dollar rather than to feed a family, some half-dozen tourist barges were moored in the middle of the bay. The fishermen guided the ubune past them with great theatrical display, and the sounds of applause and cheers floated across the water. Yet the spectacle can be watched just as easily from the graceful arch of the Moon Bridge, or from the water’s edge itself. Standing on a pier is akin to watching a performance from behind the curtains of a grand stage. When they returned, the usho happily posed for photos in between caring for their cormorants at evening’s end.
Before returning to Kyoto and reality, I dined at one of the many restaurants lining the shore. I only had the evening here, but Arashiyama is well worth visiting by day, especially in cherry blossom time or when the hills are covered in autumn foliage. Plus there are the famed groves of bamboo. I was never short of unusual things to do in Japan.
Matsuo Basho (1644 – 1694 AD) remains the most famous poet of the Edo Period, and today is revered in Japan for his haiku. On seeing the cormorant fishing he wrote:
Exciting to see
But soon after comes sadness
The cormorant boats.
The Literary Traveller
A classic of Japanese literature, The Tale of the Genji dates from the peak of the Heian Period. It was written in the 11th C by a Japanese noble woman, Murasaki Shikibu, who was also a lady-in-waiting. Depicting the lifestyle of the upper echelons of the Japanese feudal system, The Tale of the Genji is also considered the first psychological novel.
The work revolves around the life of the Shining Genji, son of the emperor, and his favourite concubine Lady Kiritsubo. The novel revolves largely around the art of seduction – Genji marries his first wife at the age of twelve. The high-born seem to do little else than write poetry tot heir lovers, and even emperors are often ignorant of their true fathers. It was an era when style and aesthetics were more highly rated than morally and substance. To be beautiful, or poetic, or excel at calligraphy, was seen as a reflection of inner goodness, both in this life and previous ones.
In The Tale of the Genji Shikibu captures the life of 11th C Japan while describing humanity in all its shades and vulnerabilities, so even ten centuries later a reader still falls under her spell.
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