Cormorant Fishing in Japan
Tokio, July 17th, 1889
Whatever may be the degree of credence rightly permissible to the details of early Japanese chronology and history that are set forth in Japan's most venerable records - relating as they do to the dark ages of oral tradition, anterior to the seventh century of our era - there is no gainsaying that those ancient chronicles shed a very interesting and true light on the manners, customs, and language, as well as on the religious and political beliefs, of the early Japanese.
Prominent in this resepct is the Kojiki, or "Records of Ancient Matters," compiled in A.D. 712, and translated into English a few years ago by that most accomplished scholar, Mr.Basil Hall Chamberlain.
The Kojiki is, in fact, the oldest existing Japanese book.
It is, further, the second historical work of which mention has been preserved.
And it is to it among a very few other ancient volumes, that the student naturally turns, in his investigation of old time Japanese subjects.
In the Kojiki, for example-to come at once to the subject of this letter-the searcher after knowledge about the past of cormorant-fishing in Japan may read that on a certain occasion in the ages before books were written, during a campaign in the land of Yamato, the Emperor Jimmu, of deathless memory, with his centurions and his fighting men, found themselves exhausted and an hungered on the slopes of Mount Inasa.
Whereupon, addressing some fishermen who were working their cormorants along a neighbouring stream, the Heavenly Sovereign sang:
"Ye keepers of cormorants,
the birds of the island,
Come ye now to our rescue!"
Here, then, we have evidence from a book 1,177 years old that the sport of Ugari, or cormorant fishing, was at that epoch at least already established in Japan, while, if the story and the orthodox tradition as to the period of Jimmu Tenno's reign are to be accepted, we must assign to it an antiquity more than twice as great.
In a few parts of the country it is still kept up, notably on the Nagara river at and near Gifu in the province of Mino, where this hoary pursuit has always had a stronghold, and where the seven hamlets bordering on the choicest part of the stream enjoy to the present day the exclusive fishing rights that were conveyed to them early in the 14 th century by the Emperor Daigo, himself on one occasion a beholder of the sport.
All through the middle ages, and, indeed, up to this current Meiji era which has witnessed the death of so many old customs, offerings of dried cormorant-caught trout, or "ayu" (salmo altivalis), from the Nagaragawa were sent yearly to the Court of the Emperor or the Shogun.
For then, as now, the fish from that river enjoyed a high character for flavour and excellence, their fine quality being due, it is supposed, partly to the water and food of their habitat, and partly to the painless method of capture.
In return for these offerings, grants of rice were made to the hamlets aforesaid, and in course of time the special degree of Usho, or Master of Cormorants, came to be established for the 21 greatest living experts in the guild, a step which naturally gave a lively stimulus to the cultivation of the utmost possible skill in the cormorant-fishing art.
Gifu, then, is the place to go to if you care to see in all its perfection one of the oldest extant forms of piscatory craft.
They who go will certainly not be disappointed.
The people of Gifu - a clean country town, situated at the threshold of the Mino mountains, and little known as yet to ordinary tourists - are proud of their beautiful fabrics of silk and crape.
They are proud of their tasteful circular fans; prouder still of their renowned and most gracefully decorated lanterns, framed with rare bamboo from the lower slopes of the famed Mount Kinkwa hard by, and encased in wrinkled bark-made paper, delicate yet durable withal, which sheds a light so soft and soothing as to have earned for them the name of the "air-cooling lantern" from the pretty fancy that they convey no sense of heat to the eye.
But it is on their time honoured Ugari and all its traditions that the Gifu townsfolk especially plume themselves.
Add to this that they are - as what unspoiled Japanese are not? - the very pink of politeness, ever ready with a graceful welcome to visitors bent on doing the wonders of the neighbourhood, and it will be your own fault if you come away without witnessing to your heart's content a spectacle which, though hardly to be called fine or stirring, has at least the merits of picturesqueness, rarity, and most uncommon antiquity.
To see the fishing at all you must be there between May and October, which are the limits of the season.
To see it to full advantage, you should choose a time, when the river is free from turbidity, and when there is no moonlight-the darker the night the better.
Further, if you are wise, you will take care to see it after the manner of the country, and in the company of a pleasant party of Japanese.
That is how I saw it a month ago, and what I saw I now proceed to tell.
It was but a short drive from our inn at Gifu to the river-side tea-house that served as the real starting point of the expedition.
Embarking there after nightfall in a roomy pleasure-barge, we set off on an up-stream voyage in which our craft was alternately poled and towed over the shoals and rapids of the wide and shallow Nagaragawa.
Outside, the night was darkness itself, and profoundly still.
Only with difficulty could we make out the huge profile of Kinkasan, rising black and gloomy from the east margin of the stream.
Not a star was to be seen, nor any light at all save the soft flashes of occasional fireflies, or the twinkling of some stray passer's lantern on the distant bridge of Gifu.
Inside, on the contrary, there was neither silence nor darkness.
The cabin or deck-house of the Korio Maru is, in truth, a pretty little Japanese room, with its accompaniments of sliding doors, clean soft mats, decorated ceiling, and beautiful woods - the whole brightly lit up by a many coloured galaxy of "air-cooling" lanterns.
On the mats sit a cheery party, talking and joking with all the happy abandon of Japanese out for a holiday, drinking tea it hardly need be said, and smoking their diminutive pipes the while.
Aft of our saloon is a tiny kitchen, from which, as time wears on, attendants bring relays of tea and fruits and sweetmeats, and finally sundry bottles of hot sake, followed by a great jubako, or provision-box, of gilded lacquer, with its trays upon trays of dainty eatables, among which last are spatch-cocked eels, piping hot, and cooked as only a Japanese can cook them.
After, perhaps, an hour of struggle up stream, the barge is brought to rest at a convenient place in mid-channel, there to await the arrival of the cormorant-fishers we have come to see.
Presently the first sign is detected - a spot of hazy red glow, shining over the trees from a reach two or three miles above us.
Hereupon, our chief boatman erects his private signal, a mighty paper lantern of a red and white basket pattern.
Steadily the glow spreads and deepens, until, as the last intervening point is cleared, we descry its cause - a constellation of shifting, flickering lights, drifting down the dark river towards us.
By degrees these develop into balls of fire, seven in number, casting as many long coruscations of light before them, from their reflection in the waters of the stream.
Then sounds are heard, sounds of much beating, shouting, and splashing.
Next appear the forms of boats and the swarthy figures of men, thrown up with weird, Rembrandt-like effects against the inky blackness of the night; and in the water round about the boats are numbers of cormorants, behaving to all appearance in the maddest fashion.
The fires, we now see, are great cages of blazing pine-knots suspended over the bow of each boat, darting forth flames and sparks, and for ever dropping embers which fall with loud hissing into the stream.
Nearer still they come.
The men have seen our signal, and are manouvring so as to surround us; which being done, we find ourselves in the midst of all the uproar and excitement of cormorant-fishing a la Japonaise.
Now to describe the sport.
There are, to begin with, four men in each of the seven boats, one of whom, at the stern, has no duty but that of managing his craft.
In the bow stands the Master, distinguished by the peculiar hat of his rank, and handling no fewer than twelve trained birds with the surpassing skill and coolness that have earned for the sportsmen of Gifu their unrivalled pre-eminence.
Amidship is another fisher of the second grade, who handles four birds only.
Between them is the fourth man, called kako, from the bamboo striking-instrument of that name with which he makes the clatter necessary for keeping the birds up to their work; he also encourages them by shouts and cries, looks after spare apparatus, &c. and is ready to give aid if required.
Each cormorant wears at the base of its neck a metal ring, drawn tight enough to prevent marketable fish from passing below it, but at the same time loose enough - for it is never removed - to admit the smaller prey which serves as food.
Round the body is a cord, having attached to it at the middle of the back a short strip of stiffish whalebone, by which the great awkward bird may be conveniently lowered into the water, or lifted out, when at work: and to this whalebone is looped a thin rein of spruce fibre, twelve feet long, and so far wanting in pliancy as to minimise the chances of entanglement.
When the fishing ground is reached, the master lowers his twelve birds one by one into the stream, and gathers their reins into his left hand, manipulating the latter thereafter with his right as occasion requires; number two does the same, with his four birds; the kako starts in with his volleys of noise; and forthwith the cormorants set to at their work in the heartiest and jolliest way, diving and ducking with wonderful swiftness as the astonished fish come flocking toward the blaze of light.
The master is now the busiest of men.
He must handle his twelve strings so deftly that, let the birds dash hither and thither as they will, there shall be no impediment or fouling.
He must have his eyes everywhere, and his hands following his eyes.
Specially must he watch for the moment when any of his flock is gorged, - a fact generally made known by the bird itself, which then swims about in a foolish, helpless way, with its head and swollen neck erect.
Thereupon the master shortening in on that bird, lifts it aboard, forces its bill open with his left hand, which still holds the rest of the lines, squeezes out the fish with his right, and starts the creature off on a fresh foray - all this with such admirable dexterity and quickness that the eleven birds still bustling about have scarce time to get things into a tangle, and in another moment the whole team is again perfectly in hand.
As for the cormorants, they are trained when quite young, being caught in winter with bird-lime on the coasts of the neighbouring Owari Gulf, at their first emigration southward from the summer haunts of the species, on the northern seaboard of Japan.
Once trained, they work well upto 15, often up to 19 or 20, years of age; and, though their keep in winter bears hardly on the masters, they are very precious and profitable hunters during the five months' season, and well deserve the great care that is lavished upon them.
From four to eight good-sized fish, for example, is the fair result of a single excursion for one bird, which corresponds with an average of about 150 fish per cormorant per hour, or 450 for the three hours occupied in drifting down the whole course.
Every bird in a flock has and knows its number; and one of the funniest things about them is the quick-witted jealousy with which they invariably insist, by all that cormorant-language and pantomimic protest can do, on due observance of the recognised rights belonging to their individual numbers.
Number one, or "ichi," is the doyen of the corps, the senior in years as well as rank.
His colleagues, according to their age, come after him in numerical order.
Ichi is the last to be put into the water and the first to be taken out, the first to be fed, and the last to enter the baskets in which, when work is over, the birds are carried from the boats to their domicile.
Ichi, when aboard, has the post of honour at the eyes of the boat.
He is a solemn grizzled old fellow, with a pompous, noli me tangere air that is almost worthy of a Lord Mayor.
The rest have place after him, in succession of rank, alternately on either side of the gunwale.
If, haply, the lawful order of precedence be at any time violated, if, for instance, No. 5 be put into the water before No. 6, or No.4 be placed above No.2, the rumpus that forthwith arises in that family is a sight to see and a sound to hear. But all this while we have been drifting down, with the boats about us, to the lower end of the course, and again, abreast of Gifu, where the whole squadron is beached.
As each cormorant is now taken out of the water, the master can tell by its weight whether it has secured enough supper while engaged in the hunt; failing which, he makes the deficiency good by feeding it with the inferior fish.
At length all are ranged in their due order, facing outwards, on the gunwale of each boat.
And the sight of that array of great ungainly sea birds - shaking themselves, flapping their wings, gaw-gawing, making their toilets, clearing their throats, looking about them with a stare of stupid solemnity, and now and then indulging in old - maidish little tiffs with their neighbours - is quite the strangest of its class I have ever seen, except perhaps the wonderful penguinry of the Falkland Islands, whereat a certain French philosopher is said to have even wept.
Finally, the cormorants are sent off to bed, and we ourselves follow suit.
There is a chorus of grateful "sayonaras" from those politest of fishermen, accompanied by a tub of choice ayu, as, after bestowing a modest gratuity on our entertainers, we are carried ashore on the boatsmen's backs, and thence on wheels to the sign of "The Jewel Well", to our mosquito-curtains and dreams of Ugari.
The Times - Aug.21th
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