As the sun sets over Aichi’s Kiso River, three boats cast off from the shore of Inuyama. Lit only by a fired lantern, they paddle into the darkness, continuing a tradition over 1,300 years old. With an imposing skyline and an ancient castle as a backdrop, the boats – like fireflies – make their way carefully along the river. The sound of birds, paddles, and voices break the stillness of the night air – this is cormorant fishing at its best.
Then, suddenly, there is excitement! Birds splash furiously and fishermen start shouting. A catch! The thrill is intense as a bird with five fish in his mouth is hauled back into the boat. And then, in an instant, it is over. Silence falls once more, paddles recommence their labor… and the ancient hunt continues.
Cormorant fishing is a unique art that can be traced back to the 720s. It remains today, the same as it has always been. Each boat has a fishing master, an apprentice, and a pilot. The crew works in unison to look after their boat, bird, and catch – although the fishing master is in charge and has ultimate responsibility for the catch.
It takes many years of careful training to become a fishing master. On the hunt, the master takes with him 10 birds, which he has bred and trained from hatchlings. Each bird has its own personality, and the master knows them like his children. The fishing technique involves a rope being attached to the bird to prevent it from eating the catch, and the birds diving into the water to snatch up fish. The practice might sound harsh, but these birds are well looked after and this tradition is both respected and regulated. Masters are certified and are usually direct descendants of previous masters.
The famous Japanese poet, Matsuo Basho, wrote his feelings about this event, “Exciting to see, but soon after comes sadness – the cormorant boats.”
The Kiso River spans several prefectures including Nagano, Aichi, and Gifu. While Gifu is renowned for the ancient art of cormorant fishing, Inuyama in Aichi is also steeped in this tradition. However, only masters from Seki and those along the Nagara River can obtain the title of “Royal Household Fisherman.”
Historically, both Gifu and Inuyama were famous for commercial catches using cormorants. But nowadays, only the former is used as a commercial cormorant fishing center, while the latter’s boats just go out for tourists.
Cormorant fishing in Inuyama is available for public viewing during the summer and late spring period and during the early autumn period. You can choose to go on a day boat or a night one. I recommend a night tour when the fishing is more exciting and traditional. The fire at night is used to help the boats through the darkness, searching for shadows of fish. On average, each bird can hold six fish in its mouth, which makes their catch a truly remarkable experience.
For tourists, you have the comfort of a viewing boat which follows the masters as they hunt for their fish. Tourist boats hold around 20 people – all of whom have great views of the proceedings. Viewing boats are quiet and are allowed to come close to the fishing boats – so close, in fact, that you feel as if you are actually part of this ancient tradition.
On the Kiso River, you get a great view of Inuyama Castle. It is an original (unlike the castle in Nagoya), and is claimed to be the oldest in Japan as its original construction was completed in 1440. Perched on a hill, it makes for a pleasant walk and view from the top, and a spectacular sight from the river.
The castle was the center of power for the Naruse clan and is now considered a National Treasure. The Naruse family retained control over the castle until 2004 when it was handed to the local government for prosperity.
There are two key shrines associated with Inuyama Castle.
1. Haritsuna Shrine
The first is the traditional-looking Haritsuna (or Needle Bridge) Shrine. It is a beautiful shrine with several mini shrines to explore. Its rustic layout adds to a sense of simplicity not often associated with castle shrines.
The shrine itself is relatively new. There was an older shrine in the same location but was moved to Inuyama’s monkey park area in 1537, and this new structure was built in 1606.
2. Sankouinari Shrine
The second, Sankouinari Shrine, has a more colorful style. Also located next to the castle, it is adorned with red glowing hearts. There is a real atmosphere of love and romance when walking through this shrine.
Along the route, you will pass heart-shaped emas (wooden plaques) and love letters secured on prayer trees. Princess Hime is the deity here, and the shrine is said to symbolize the courtship of the Great Shinto Sarutahiko Okami.
Along with these symbols of love, the shrine also holds some wonderful architecture and several minor shrines dedicated to good harvest, commerce, fishery, and fulfillment. But the Himeki Shrine (Omiya women) remains the main drawcard. When I was there, I saw both singles and couples enjoying the walkways and atmosphere.
Inuyama is well worth a visit for any tourist. Filled with surprises and a convenient 30 minutes from Nagoya, it is a town that combines cultural traditions with scenic beauty. The ancient art of the fishermen, the magnetic flow of the river, its hilltop castle and historic shrines all make Inuyama a must-see! The art of cormorant fishing is a dying one – so be sure to experience it before it is no more.