Ukai or cormorant fishing in Nagara River - Gifu Prefecture

Ukai begins with six long, wooden boats that are sent out to the river at dusk, each manned by an "Usho" and two boatmen. Each Usho, a mastery title granted by the Imperial Household Agency, wields amazing techniques to handle 10-12 birds on leashes. The boats are equipped with a hanging fire lantern that blazes during the fishing to attract ayu (sweetfish). Lured to the river's surface and startled by the flames, ayu try to escape in the reflection of the light. The cormorants then dive and catch the ayu with their large beaks. The larger fish caught by the birds can be retrieved later as the cormorants are leashed loosely around their necks.

The Usho encourage their birds with the calls, “ho-ho” while the boatmen tap the edge of the boats to startle the ayu. In addition to this sound, the flowing river, wooden poles the boatmen manipulate through the water, and flames of the braziers creates a distinctive soundscape, ushering guests in the breath taking world transcended today over the period of 1300 years.

Alternatively, dinner cruises are available along the river and are a particularly enjoyable way of experiencing the ukai fishing. Dinner cruises are arranged through the local ryokan and are often part of an overnight package. Dinner cruises depart around 17:30 and travel about 500 meters upriver where they dock while the patrons dine on meals that include grilled sweetfish caught along the river.

Although ukai has been currently performed at several sites throughout Japan, the one held on the Nagara River (Gifu and Seki Cities) has been protected by the Imperial Household Agency as the only "Goryo-ukai" (Imperial Cormorant Fishing) held at its "Goryoba." (Fishing grounds for the Agency)

Along the river there is a famous hot spring area, Nagaragawa (Nagara River Hot Springs), which you should take an advantage if you come to watch ukai!

Must Try Food in Gifu!

1. Sweetfish or Ayu Grilled - The best way to eat Ayu is grilled over an open flame and sprinkled with salt.

2. Kurikinton (Mashed Sweet Potatoes With Sweetened Chestnuts) – Kuri (chestnuts) and kinton (sweet potatoes). Mush them together and you have Kurikinton. If you eat this you will do well monetarily (because it’s gold in color)

3. Keichan – Cabbage, chicken, and onions in a garlic shoyu marinade. It’s often cooked on a Mongolian skillet, just like jingisukan (see Hokkaido).

4. Hobamiso (Ho Tree Leaf Miso) – These leaves have antibacterial properties, which makes them good for keeping food clean. In this dish, though, you have dried ho leaves. On top, you put miso paste mixed with various other ingredients. It’s then heated over a fire and you eat the stuff on top.