Kiso River Cormorant Fishing in Inuyama: Experience 1300 Years of History

For over 1,300 years, local fishermen in Japan have used an unusual technique to catch river fish during the summer. Japanese cormorants called Ukai in Japanese are trained for up to three years by their owners to help them catch fish. Known as Ukai in Japanese, cormorant fishing is a unique traditional method that is rare today and mostly continued as both a tourist attraction and a way to keep old traditions alive. Inuyama is one of the best locations to enjoy watching this fantastic spectacle.

A Brief History of Cormorant Fishing 

Inuyama Ukai
Cormorant fishing night performance

The cormorant fishing technique was brought to Japan from China over 1,300 years ago. Fishers noticed that cormorant birds would catch fish and store them in their throats to bring up later to share with their family or for their own consumption. Thinking that they could help catch river fish like Ayu, fishermen began putting loose strings around the cormorants’ necks. They did it so that small fish were allowed to pass through for the cormorant to feed itself. But the line would trap larger fish in the cormorant’s throat, allowing them to be brought up later for the fisherman. 

Some of the earliest books on Japanese history include information on cormorant fishing. In the 8th and 9th centuries, cormorant fishing was not only a reliable method for fishermen to catch fish; it had also evolved into a popular pastime among the feudal and aristocratic lords. 

One of the most important feudal lords in Japanese history, Oda Nobunaga, supported the cormorant fishermen, granting some of them the title of Usho or “Master Cormorant Fisher“. This remarkable fact immensely helped the development of the fishing industry and the preservation of this form of fishing until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

During the Meiji Period, the system of government changed utterly, and the protective policy of the feudal lords came to an end. Cormorant fishing faced many difficulties. But several years later, in 1890, by order of the Imperial Family, the Emperor named the cormorant fishermen along the nearby Nagara River, Fishermen of the Imperial Agency, making them members of the Imperial Household. Since then, this title has been passed down from parents to children to this day.

From Tradition to a Tourist Attraction and a Living Museum Exhibit

Inuyama view
View of Inuyama castle and Kiso river

Currently, Ukai is preserved in only around 13 locations across Japan. With Inuyama Castle in the background, Inuyama is still one of the most scenic places to enjoy this small part of history. 

While cormorant fishing is sometimes done during the day, the best time to watch is in the evening. At nightfall, the Ukai boats go out with a fire basket hanging out over the boat’s bow to attract fish. One master fisherman and two assistants to help row and steer are located in the small wooden ship. 

Inuyama Ukai
Cormorant fisheman explaining about the cormorant abilities

The Usho (master fisherman) will bring 8-12 cormorants with them, each with one end of a rope tied loosely around their necks. The other end of the strings is loosely held in the Usho’s left hand. As the cormorants glide across the water, the ropes can become twisted, so the Usho uses their right hand to untangle the cords and make sure each cormorant can move freely. Extreme skill is required so that the ropes tied to the cormorants do not get tangled. 

Inuyama Ukai
A cormorant showing its wings to the public

The cormorants dive into the river as the glow of the fire attracts the fish. At that moment, the fisherman pulls the rope and quickly retrieves the fish from the bird’s throat. Each cormorant can hold approximately five or six fish in its mouth at the same time.

As the fishing boats move up and down the Kiso River, you can join in the hunt by boarding a sightseeing boat. Some plans even include dinner on board. You will be treated to a fantastic experience made even more special as you look up at Inuyama Castle towering on the hill beside the river.

Inuyama Ukai
Cormorants trying to catch Ayu fish

How to Access from Nagoya

You can take a Meitetsu Limited Express train or an Express train bound for Shin-Unuma station from Nagoya station. Get off the train at Inuyamayuen station, located one-stop after Inuyama station.

Once you arrive at Inuyamayuen station, exit the station and take the road to the right that parallels the train tracks. The road quickly turns right and crosses the train tracks. Follow the road for another minute or two, and you will reach the cormorant fishing office and dock.

Nagoya Castle and Meijo Park (名古屋城と名城公園)
Best Time: From the end of March to the beginning of April
Number of Sakura trees: 1,000 approx.
Light up: 18:00 – 20:00
Entry Fee: Adults 500 yen, children under 12 years free
Opening Hours: 9:00 – 16:30
Address: 1-1 Honmaru, Naka Ward, Nagoya, Aichi 460-0031
Access: Take the Meijo subway line to the Shiyakusho station. Take exit 7 and it is a 5 minute walk.
Website (Japanese only) | Google Maps

Daytime Ukai Tour (sightseeing only)
Availability: Every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday between June 1st – October 15th
Start Time: 12:30
Cost: Adults – 3,000yen, Elementary Students – 1,500

Daytime Ukai Tour (sightseeing and lunch)
Availability: Every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday between June 1st – October 15th
Start Time: 11:30
Cost: Adults – 5,000yen, Elementary Students – 3,600

Nighttime Ukai Tour (sightseeing only)
Availability: Every day (June – October)
Start Time: June – August 19:00, September and October 18:30
Cost: Adults – 3,000yen, Elementary Students – 1,500

Nighttime Ukai Tour (sightseeing and dinner)
(MUST be booked no later than three days in advance, and reservations are only taken for groups of 2 or more)
Availability: Every day (June – October)
Start Time: June – August 17:45, September and October 17:15
Cost: Adults – 3,000yen, Elementary Students – 1,500 (plus the cost of your chosen dinner which range from 2,500 – 7,000 per person) (drinks are separate)

About the author

Web and Graphic designer living in Aichi Prefecture for more than 10 years. Trying to do the things that she loves and living the life with passion. She is also a travel-food lover and dance lover: her great passion.

Leave a Reply