Ukai or cormorant fishing is a unique part of Japanese culture and a centuries-old tradition; every summer you can watch it at the Kintaikyo Bridge in Iwakuni.
We love spending time at the Kintaikyo Bridge. We are usually there during the day enjoying ice cream and throwing rocks in the water. One of the most spectacular ways to experience the iconic bridge is viewing the traditional cormorant fishing up close during the warmer months of the year!
What is Cormorant Fishing?
At least 1300 years ago, the Japanese were fishing using cormorants. The trained birds have leashes and collars that prevent large fish from going down their throat; birds and fishermen go out at night use a blazing torch to help the birds’ keen senses. A master fisherman will stand on a long wooden boat while it is being propelled by two other men, and hold about a dozen different cormorants with the leashes. The birds dive underwater, swallowing smaller fish and catching larger ones in their throats. The master fisherman then pull the birds aboard and help them release its catch.
Every cormorant in Japan is registered. The Japanese government needs to be informed of their death as well, just as you would a person!
Where can you watch cormorant fishing?
There are several cities throughout Japan that still practice Ukai today, albeit now for tourism:
- Fuefuki, Yamanashi Prefecture
- Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture
- Gifu & Seki, Gifu Prefecture
- Inuyama, Aichi Prefecture
- Uji, Kyoto Prefecture
- Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture
- Arida, Wakayama Prefecture
- Miyoshi, Hiroshima Prefecture
- Asakura, Fukuoka Prefecture
- Hita, Oita Prefecture
- Ozu, Ehime Prefecture
- Masuda, Shimane Prefecture
China, Greece, and North Macedonia also have cormorant fishing.
Experience Cormorant Fishing in Iwakuni
We walked across the Kintaikyo Bridge, just before the fishing took place and it really set the mood. The boats docked and prepared for launch; bonfires on the beach were already lit. After we checked in, the staff directed us to our boat for the evening – there were about 5 boats that would be watching the festivities that night.
Royce and Jeannie were super excited. They liked climbing around the boat but sat well as soon as the boat launched.
We first rode up the Nishiki River. It takes about 45 minutes and is relaxing to take in views of the Kintai Castle and the surrounding area. Afterwards, we went back to shore for a quick break before the fun began.
The excitement built as we got back on the boat; the sun had pretty well gone down and now the lamps inside the boat and the bonfires were the only lights we had other than the flashes from cameras from the side of the road.
Our boat was in the lead as we slowed to set up for the show. One boat after another lined up end-to-end with the others. Then we waited. All of a sudden from upriver we saw a boat approaching with a large torch hanging off the front of it. The master fisherman in a grass skirt held on to several leashes leading to the cormorants in the water. The other two men on the boat used the poles to propel the boat forward with incredible speed. They sped down the array of boats, did a U-turn and went back up the other side. Following behind the first fishing boat was another, and they both circled close to the line of boats several times. After that, we went back toward the Kintai bridge where they again stopped and lined up the boats while the cormorant boats circled us.
We couldn’t help but cheer for the cormorants, or maybe the master fisherman; either way, it was like a horse race with clapping and cheering and excitement as the birds would dive under and come up with a fish in their throats.
Watching cormorant fishing is dramatic under the dark sky, with blazing torches and the large birds flying in and out of the water. The Kintaikyo in the background provides a perfect backdrop. Royce and Jeannie were awed by the experience, but no more than we were!
Plan your Ukai trip:
To make reservations for cormorant fishing in Iwakuni call 0827-28-2877.
From June 1 to September 10th you can watch Ukai in the Nishiki River at the Kintaikyo Bridge. It lasts about 2 hours from 19:00 – 21:00. You can watch it from the shore, the Kintaikyo Bridge, the 114 bridge or up close from a boat. The price was ¥2000 for an adult and ¥500 per child, and totally worth it!
If you want to witness more of Japanese culture check out the Taiko Drum Festival in Shodoshima.