The Cormorants of Arashiyama

 

St Francis, an inspiration to so many
St Francis, an inspiration to so many

               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 Odoric as he wandered barefoot across Asia in 1321. (Having already been to the Balkans in 1296, and preached to the Mongols in southern Russia, Friar Odoric left Padua in 1318 on a journey which leaves modern travellers breathless with envy. Amongst the many places he visited, he sailed from Venice to Constantinople, across the Black Sea to preach in Armenia and Persia, through Persepolis and down to the Persian Gulf, where he sailed to India. From there he passed through Sumatra, Java, and onto Canton before passing into Greater China. He finally returned to his native Italy around 1329, dying a few years later. He was beatified in 1755 by Benedict XIV.)

Little, it seems, has changed. A fat orange moon climbed into view as we crossed the Togersu-kyo, or Moon Bridge. Against the darkness of the surrounding hills, coloured lights lit the narrow streets lights, and lanterns hung amongst the trees down by the water. Small balls of fire floated across the bay: the fishing had begun.

Ukai fishing, Japan
Ukai fishing, Japan

The tranquility of nearby Kyoto
The tranquility of nearby Kyoto

Once a fishing village, Arashiyama is some twenty minutes from Kyoto, yet tonight I strayed into an enchanted world long gone. I boarded an empty bus on the outskirts of Kyoto, which 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 Moon Bridge just as the cormorant boats set off across the bay. Still in a

Arashiyama is close to the sights of Kyoto
Arashiyama is close to the sights of Kyoto

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.

Marco Polo witnessed ukai (or cormorant fishing) 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.

Ukai fishermen still bear the official title “Imperial Cormorant Fishing Master, Board of Ceremonies and Rituals, Imperial Household Agency”, granted to them by Oda Nobunaga, one of the most powerful feudal warlords of the 16th century. Most boats 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. They still wear the traditional dark kimono, a straw skirt to repel water, and a linen cloth wrapped around their heads to protect them from sparks.

Sparks across the water
Sparks across the water

Barely visible in the darkness, three small wooden boats floated close to shore, much as they have done for the last thirteen hundred years. These ubune are designed with flat-bottoms, allowing them to glide easily over the shallow bay. A metal brazier hung over the front, the flames lighting up the water. I could hear the sizzle and snap of the burning wood.

The light from the brazier attracts 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 with some dozen cormorants per boat, it takes remarkable skill on behalf of the usho to prevent these leashes from becoming entangled. With a splash the cormorants tumbled into the water. Once a fish was caught, the bird was guided back into the boat and the fish removed from its beak. When enough fish had been collected, the birds rested on the sides of the boat, silhouetted against the light of the brazier as they stretched their wings to dry.

The light of the brazier is used to attract fish
The light of the brazier is used to attract fish

Once darkness falls and the moon rises, the boats spend the evening passing back and forth across the bay. Some half-dozen tourist barges lay 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 from which the boats are launched is akin to watching a performance from behind the curtains of a grand stage. When they return, the usho happily pose for photos in between caring for their cormorants.

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.

 

(c) A. Harrison

 

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