About Robert Reavis

I study fish behavior and marine ecology through direct observation while diving. I also teach General Biology, Marine Biology, SCUBA and Scientific Diving at Glendale Community College. This year (2011-2012) I will be in Japan to study Traditional Fisheries and Modern Environmentalism.

Ukai: Cormorant Fishing

Japanese cormorant fishers use wild-caught cormorants (birds) to catch fish and deliver them to their handlers. This unusual fishery has been practiced in several parts of the world, including Japan, China, Europe and Peru. In Japan, cormorant fishing is known as ukai. These fishers have practiced their craft for at least 1,300 years and were noted in the earliest Japanese records (Taihou Ritsuryou no Koseki, Legal Code and Family Records, 702 AD, and the Kojiki, Record of Ancient Matters, 712 AD, see Photo 1).


Photo 1: ‘Gifu no Michi no Eki: Gōdo, Nagaragawa Ukaibune’ (Gifu Road Station: Goudo, Nagara River Cormorant Fishing Boat), by Keisai Eisen, a woodblock print in the ukiyo-e style, from the early 19th century. Image in the public domain, downloaded from Wikipedia.

Today, twelve ukai groups fish the rivers of Japan. Most of these groups are less than 100 years old, renewing ancient fisheries for the purpose of tourism. However, the ukai fishers of Gifu City on the Nagaragawa (Nagara River) have fished continuously for hundreds of years. These fishers received a special title 450 years ago: Kunaichoushikibushoku Ushou – ‘Imperial Household Agency Board of Ceremonies, Cormorant Fishing Master’– usually shortened to ‘Ushou’ (see Photo 2).

Statue in Gifu

Photo 2: This statue of a cormorant and Ushou (Royal Fishing Master) overlooks the Nagara River (Nagaragawa) in Gifu City.

As a student and professor of marine biology, I read about these birds in American textbooks – usually one photo with a sentence or short paragraph. To learn more about cormorant fishers, we visited the ukai of the Ujigawa (Uji River) on the southeast border of Kyoto. Mariko Sawaki-san of the Uji City ukai welcomed us multiple times to watch her fish, and provided much information on cormorant fishing (see Photo 3). She suggested we go to Gifu City for more research. Thanks in part to her introduction, we were granted an interview with Masahiko Sugimoto-Ushou of Gifu City on the Nagara River (see Photo 4). The following report is based on interviews with both of these cormorant fishers and observations of their fishing methods.


Photo 3: Mariko Sawaki-san and the other cormorant fishers of the Uji River (Ujigawa) ready themselves for the opening night of cormorant fishing.


Photo 4: Masahiko Sugimoto-Ushou of Gifu City shows one of his cormorants before a night of fishing on the Nagara River.

Ukai History and Practice

It is unclear how cormorant fishing arose in Japan. According to Sugimoto-Ushou, birds might have been used initially to herd fish into nets. As the fishery evolved, they began to specifically target ayu, a popular type of smelt (aka sweetfish, Osmeriformes, Plecoglossidae Plecoglossus altivelis).

Umiu – Japanese cormorants – (Pelecaniformes, Phalacrocoracidae, Phalicrocorax capillatus, Photo 5) can catch over 100 ayu per hour. By tying a rope around the bird’s neck, fishers can prevent large ayu from being swallowed. Rather, fish are held in the umiu‘s gular pouch (similar to the pouch of their pelican cousins). The birds cough up the fish into the hands of the Ushou. The birds leave distinctive bite marks on the ayu – proof that they were caught by umiu. Importantly, ayu caught by umiu die instantly – ‘ike jime’ (squeeze the life out) – and taste better than ayu caught in nets, which die slowly (Photo 6).


Photo 5: A Japanese cormorant – Umiu – at work. Cormorants are related to pelicans, and can hold fish in their gular pouch. Taxonomy: Aves, Pelecaniformes, Phalacrocoracidae, Phalicrocorax capillatus.

Freshly Caught Ayu

Photo 6: Freshly caught ayu, or sweetfish (Osmeriformes, Plecoglossidae Plecoglossus altivelis). The bite marks provide evidence that the fish were caught by cormorants, and increases the value of the catch.

Thus, ukai provided a unique delicacy. The ayu from Gifu were particularly favored as Mino no Tokusan Buttsu – ‘special food of Mino’. Shogun Oda Nobunaga captured Mino in 1561 and re-named the city Gifu. He built a castle on top of the hill overlooking the Nagara River, and supported many traditional arts and crafts. Shogun Nobunaga gave the cormorant fishers of the Nagara River their royal title of Ushou. This new status allowed them to carry one sword; swords were otherwise forbidden for common people. The first catch of ayu each year was sent to the emperor and the shogun. Later, Emperor Meiji (1852-1912) expanded the number of Ushou along the Nagara River to the current six Uhsou in Gifu City and three others in Seki Town, upstream from Gifu. These Ushou continue to send specially caught ayu to the Emperor (see Photos 7-9).


Photo 7: Ubune (cormorant boats) tied up along the west bank of the Nagara River. The river has been protected since medieval times and supports a healthy population of ayu (sweetfish). The Ushou of Gifu fish these waters from May 11-Oct 15.

Gifu Castle

Photo 8: Gifu Castle overlooks Gifu City and the Nagara River. In 1561 Shogun Oda Nobunaga conquered Mino and renamed it Gifu. He directed the building of this castle and elevated the cormorant fishers of Gifu to Ushou – Fishing Masters of the Royal Household.


Photo 9: The Gifu City Office of Tourism promotes the ukai of Gifu and related characters, such as this city elder dressed as Shogun Oda Nobunaga. He provided color and background information outside the ukai office as tourists gathered for the evening event. He posts information and recent photos with tourists on his website.

The Ushou title is hereditary. Masahiko Sugimoto-Ushou comes from a long line of Ushou, at least 6 generations, and presumably as far back as Shogun Nobanaga. The Nagara River has flooded many times, however, and the local records have been lost. Sugimoto-Ushou gained his title 34 years ago, upon the death of his father.

Cormorant fishers work from narrow, shallow boats – ubune – that can navigate in the fast flowing waters of the Nagara River. These boats, approximately 13 meters (43’) in length, remain relatively unchanged from the past. The primary difference is the addition of motor mounts. Motors easily transport the boats upriver, although they are not used while fishing. Previously, men pulled the boats upriver by foot, walking along the shore, a daily chore that required hours of hard labor; they fished as they moved downriver with the current. Ukai fishing occurs at night, therefore the ubune (boat) carries a kagari – a metal fire basket – that can be swung out over the water. A fire of pinewood lights up the water for the boatmen and illuminates the ayu for the umiu (Photos 10 & 11).

Arriving By Boat

Photo 10: Sugimoto-Ushou arrives at the ukai tourist center in his ubune (boat). Note the attached motor, one of the few changes made to these boats since historical times. The motor will be removed for fishing. Also note the bundles of pinewood and metal fire basket – kagari – on the bottom of the boat (see also Photo 15).

Fishing in Gifu

Photo 11: An Ushou at work by the light of his pinewood fire. He holds 12 cormorants (four underwater) by their leashes. The cormorants are visual predators. Firelight reflects from the silvery bellies of ayu, which are startled by the fishers.

A crew of two or three men handles the boat and assists the Ushou. The Tomonori is the primary boat handler, usually situated at the stern of the boat. A second boatman, the Nakanori, works with the Tomonori. These men use long poles and oars to maneuver the boat in the shallow, flowing river. Some boats include a Nakauzukai – ‘middle cormorant handler’ – but he is not a fisher, yet. The Nakauzukai acts as an apprentice and ‘gofer.’ Sugimoto-Ushou began his fishing career as a Nakauzukai when he first worked on a boat with his father. He can perform all the tasks on the boat, but only he fishes with the cormorants (Photo 12).

Fishing the Nagara River

Photo 12: Sugimoto-Ushou fishing the Nagara River. Next to him is one of the two boatmen that maneuver his boat and assist with his work.

Every day before fishing, the Ushou must decide which birds to use. Each Ushou owns and cares for his own birds. Sugimoto-Ushou had 24 birds when we met in July 2011. When he was a boy, the birds were kept in baskets in the doma (entranceway) of his home. They could be very smelly. Now, he keeps the birds in a large enclosure behind his home (still smelly). The birds naturally pair up, but not necessarily as male-female pairs. The birds are not named, but the Ushou knows each bird by its markings, partner and personality. An individual ushou can handle as many as 12 birds at a time (Photos 13-15).

Bird Cage

Photo 13: Inside the cormorant cage behind the home of Sugimoto-Ushou. He keeps 24 birds. The birds can swim in a shallow pool or roost at various levels within the enclosure. Historically, birds were kept within the Ushou’s home in baskets (see Photo 15)

Pair of Cormorants

Photo 14: A pair of cormorants. Japanese cormorants do not breed in captivity, but they do form pairs. Pairs assort regardless of their sex (male-male, male-female, female-female).

Boat and Baskets

Photo 15: Cormorants in baskets in an ubune (cormorant boat). Each basket is divided into two sections. Also note the boatman and motor mount.

Ushou wear special outfits while fishing. Most distinctive is their koshimino, a custom-made skirt of straw. The koshimino is a typical skirt used by many types of fishermen in the past. It sheds water and provides warmth during cool evenings on the river (Photo 16). The Ushou wear a jacket and headscarf – kazaoreboushi – of dark blue (Photo 17). The scarf protects their hair from sparks, and the dark color does not distract the birds at night (they are startled by bright colors). Half-length woven sandals provide stable footing in the wet, unstable bottom of the ubune (boat, see Photo 18).


Photo 16: The straw skirt, or koshimino, of Sugimoto-Ushou. This skirt was custom made by one of his boatmen. It sheds water off the cormorant fisher and provides some warmth on cool evenings.

Ushou Costume

Photo 17: A young Ushou poses in his costume with Marina and Ami. Cormorant fishers wear a dark coat and headscarf to avoid distracting the birds. Each group of cormorant fishers has a distinctive knot in their scarves. Compare this man to the outfit of Sawaki-san of the Uji River (Photo 3).


Photo 18a: The Ushou of Gifu wear half-length sandals that allow better grip on the bottom of the cormorant boat. An Ushou displays his sandal.

Shoes on Feet

Photo 18b: The Ushou of Gifu wear half-length sandals that allow better grip on the bottom of the cormorant boat.

The Ushou of Gifu live in a small neighborhood on the western bank of the Nagara River (Photo 19). Their boats are tied to rings embedded in steps that descend into the river (Photo 20). After selecting their birds and dressing for the evening’s work, the Ushou and their crews load their boats. It takes a few minutes to cross the river to the welcome center (see Photos 21 & 22).

Ushou Sign

Photo 19a: The six Ushou of Gifu live within a few blocks of each other, on the western bank of the Nagara River. The sign in front of Sugimoto-Ushou’s home.

Wood Garage

Photo 19b: Firewood used for cormorant fishing stored next to the Ushou’s home.

Boats Tied

Photo 20: A view from the western bank of the Nagara River, near the homes of the cormorant masters. They tie their boats to rings embedded in the steps. They travel by boat to the tourist center on the opposite shore, just below the bridge. They fish this section of the river, upstream from the bridge.

Boat Arrival

Photo 21: Sugimoto-Ushou walks up the steps of the tourist center, after arriving by boat (see Photo 10, taken a few moments before this Photo).

Gifu Center

Photo 22a: The Gifu City ukai tourist center stands on the eastern bank of the Nagara River. This is a view of the ukai center from the steps to the river.

Front of Gifu Center

Photo 22b: The front of the Gifu City ukai center.

At 5:30 PM one of the Ushou demonstrates his craft (see Photos 17 & 18). The birds are kept in pairs, inside baskets. The Ushou pulls out one bird at a time and prepares it for fishing. He handles the bird by its strong neck, often massaging the neck as he works (Photos 23 & 24).

Bird Massage

Photo 23: Ushou handle cormorants by their strong necks. They frequently massage their necks to calm them.


Photo 24: A cormorant displayed on its basket.

The tanawa – a complex system of ropes – connects the bird to its handler. It includes the kubiyui – a short piece tied around the bird’s neck, the haragake – a longer rope tied around the bird’s body and under its wings, and the long leash held by the Ushou. Historically, baleen was used for sections of these ropes to prevent chafing of the bird or entanglement of the ropes. Today, these sections are coated with plastic. Importantly, the rope around the neck must be tight enough to trap large fish in the birds pouch, but loose enough for small fish to pass through, otherwise the birds become frustrated and stop fishing. Once the rope is attached, a tray of large fish is presented to the cormorant. The cormorant swallows the fish in seconds. The Ushou quickly massages the birds neck and opens it mouth, and the cormorant spits the fish back into the tray (see Photos 25 & 26, and Video 1).

Rope Complex

Photo 25: The complex of ropes that encircle the bird’s body and neck.

Coughing Up Fish

Photo 26: The Ushou opens the cormorant’s mouth so that it will spit out the fish held in its gular pouch.

Tourism makes up a substantial portion of the ukai earnings. Before and during the demonstration, boats are being loaded along the riverbank. Tourists board their boats for the journey upriver to view the ukai. Options include a full package with meals and drinks, or boat only (you can bring your own food and drink). One boat carried dancing girls. Once night falls and all is made ready, the fires are lit in the ukai boats, and a brief show of fireworks herald the start of fishing (Photos 27-29).

Tourist Boats

27a. Dozens of tourist boats line the riverbank at the ukai center. Boats hold from 20-50 passengers. Down-river view of tourist boats.

Tourist Boats

Photo 27b: Gifu ukai flags adorn the walkway to the riverbank.

Tourist Boats

Photo 27c: More tourist boats are kept in a protected channel under the bridge.

Tourist Boats

Photo 27d: The colorful boat at the end of the channel carried dancing girls.

Tourist Boat Departing

Photo 28: A boat departs upriver to the viewing area.

Beached Tourist Boats

Photo 29: Tourist boats beached along the Nagara River before the start of cormorant fishing. The Ushou will demonstrate their skills in the main channel of the river, in front of the tourist boats.

The Nagara River is a wild river, protected by government edicts. The stretch in Gifu is relatively shallow, typically no more than 3-4 meters (10-13’) deep during the ukai fishing season. The water is clean and clear. The bottom consists of smooth, round rocks that provide shelter for the ayu as they sleep. These are ideal conditions for ayu, and for ukai (Photo 30).

River Water

Photo 30: The clear water and round-pebbled bottom of the Nagara River.

As soon as the Ushou releases his birds, they begin to fish. The boatmen bang on the side of their boat to stimulate the birds and startle the ayu. The ayu – disoriented and half asleep – flush from the rocks. As they right themselves in the moving water, the light of the fire reflects off their silvery bellies, and the cormorants gobble them up. The Ushou, holding 10-12 leashes in his left hand, pulls in one bird at a time. He tucks the bird under his right arm and massages the bird’s throat. The bird’s head and beak are held in the Ushou’s left hand to direct the coughed up fish into the boat. In a few seconds, the bird is back in the water and the Ushou pulls in the next one. The Ushou spends much of his effort to keep his birds fanned out, to avoid entanglements of their leashes (see Photos 31-34, Video 2).

Gifu Fishing

Photo 31: Ukai on the Nagara River, Gifu City. The Ushou holds each bird by its leash. The fire lights up the water and the sleeping ayu (sweetfish).

Gifu Fishing

Photo 32: The Ushou constantly adjusts the dozen leashes of his birds to prevent entanglements.

Gifu Fishing

Photo 33: Two umiu (Japanese cormorants) come close to the tourist boat as the Ushou makes a pass.

Gifu Fishing

Photo 34: Another close-up of fishing cormorants. Note the plastic coatings on their leashes.

At the end of the event, the six Ushou bring their boats side-by-side and head down the river in a spectacular finish. Their collective noise awakens any remaining fish for the birds to catch. This style – sogarami – was once reserved for royal spectators, but has become a regular finish to a night of cormorant fishing in Gifu (see Photo 35).


Photo 35: The Gifu Ushou end the nights fishing with a display of Sogarami: all six boats work together, side by side, as they make a final pass going down the river.

Afterward, the Ushou beach their boats nearby the tourists and untie their birds. The birds sit on the gunnels of the boats and spread their wings to dry, while the crew stores their leashes. A tray of freshly caught ayu are displayed. They will be sold in the local resorts for the next day’s lunch and dinner (see Photos 36-38).


Photo 36: The birds rest on the side of their boats after fishing, while the Ushou begins to unleash a bird.

Bird Into Basket

Photo 37: The Ushou returns a cormorant to its basket.


Photo 38: A sample of the nights catch, ayu (sweetfish). Note the bite marks on the fish.

We visited Gifu twice to watch these fishers, once in July and again in October. It rained on our first visit (July 27, 2011). The runoff muddied the waters and raised the river – difficult conditions for ukai, and difficult to watch and photograph. We were fortunate to be able to interview Sugimoto-Ushou the next morning. Later that day he went to the Goryou jyo – ‘honorable fishing place’ – a stretch of the river reserved for imperial fishing. Ushou only fish here eight times per year. Sugimoto-Ushou explained in English, “I send ayu to Emperor tonight” (see Photo 39).

Sign No Ushou

Photo 39: Sign at the Gifu City ukai center on July 28, 2011. I took this picture after my interview with Sugimoto-Ushou. There were no Ushou available for the demonstration that day, because they were catching fish for the Emperor.

Capture and Care of the Cormorants

Japanese Cormorants do not breed in captivity. For centuries, umiu have been captured near Hitachi City, along the coast of Ibaraki Prefecture. Only a few men have permission to take these birds (similar to the royal cormorant fishers). They supply birds for all the ukai of Japan, with the exception of Wakayama Prefecture, where they capture their own birds.

The cormorants stop in Ibaraki in the spring and fall on their migrations. Men work from blinds made of straw. They tether a tame cormorant nearby, on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea. The tethered bird attracts young cormorants, which are readily snared when they land next to the ‘lure’. This method works best to capture young, naïve birds (1-3 years old), which are easily identified by their lighter plumage (Photo 40). Fortunately, young birds are preferred. These birds are initially quarantined, and later blindfolded for the journey to their new homes. Birds must be ordered a year in advance.

Young Umiu

Photo 40: Young cormorants have light brown plumage speckled with white. Mature adults are nearly black (compare to Photos 14 and 41).

Wild-caught cormorants know how to fish, but must learn to tolerate their human handlers. Younger birds tame more easily. Also, they more readily accept the existing pecking order of their new group. Japanese refer to the relationship between senpai – the elder, or one who came first, and the kohai – the one who came later. Similar relationships develop between the cormorants. Importantly, the young bird will learn from its senior partner how to work with a human on a leash. It may take 2-3 years before a new bird is ready to work. Over time, dominance relationships can change. However, when selecting birds for fishing, the Ushou must be careful to place only paired birds into the same basket. Otherwise, they may fight to the death (Photo 41).

Pair of Cormorants

Photo 41: A pair of cormorants. The younger bird, on the right, defers to his senior partner. The senior bird helps integrate the younger bird into the life of captivity.

Cormorant fishers take great care of their birds. Wild birds only live a few years. Cormorants used for ukai often live 15 years or more. It takes patience to tame the birds, and intimate knowledge of each bird and its partner to decide who will fish each night. The hands and arms of both Sugimoto-Ushou and Sawaki-san were covered in scars from the bird’s bites, and burns caused by sparks from the fires used while fishing (see Photos 42 & 43).


Photo 42: Sugimoto-Ushou in his living room. He describes the history of the ukai fishery with pictures from an old book. Note the scars on his left arm. His birds interact with him with their beaks. Also, sparks from the fire onboard burn through to his skin.


Photo 43: A closer view of Sugimoto-Ushou’s left arm and hand, with scars from bird bites and burns from sparks.

Sugimoto-Ushou learned his craft from men that used to walk the boats upriver. They made more of their living from the fish they caught, rather than tourists. It was hard physical work, and they were strict. In his grandfather’s era, the birds were taken upriver for days at a time in the winter, the offseason for ukai. The cormorants could feed themselves freely in the river, returning to sleep in their baskets on the boat. Men would stay with them during the day, but return home each night by bike to sleep in their own beds. Boys were left to sleep on the boats and watch after the birds. This winter style of feeding was called egai. Today, Sugimoto-Ushou takes his birds to the river in winter to feed themselves, but he uses a motor on his boat for travel (Photo 44).

Sugimoto & Me

Photo 44: Sugimoto-Ushou and myself, standing outside his cormorant cage.

Sustainability and Modern Ukai

The Nagara River is one of the last rivers to sustain an active ukai fishery. Its natural quality and historical protection have preserved this nearly-wild river for the ayu that mature and spawn here. The young develop downstream in Ise Bay, and then return in the spring. Ukai fishing begins May 11th each year and ends October 15th. They compete with a net fishery for ayu, which begins at the same time, but continues later in the fall. A limited number of Ushou and a relatively large mesh size on the ayu nets protect the population from being over fished (see Photos 45 & 46).

Nagara River Nets

Photo 45: A view of the ayu nets on the Nagara River. This picture was taken from the bridge that spans the river, immediately below the ukai fishing area. Many pieces of white cloth are placed in a line across the river to divert ayu to the western side (see Photo 45).

Nagara River Nets

Photo 46: Ayu are caught in nets within these ‘pockets’ of a larger barrier made from white cloth. The cloth does not physically trap the ayu, but the fish do avoid it. Ayu that swim along the far western bank can escape downriver.

Still, the Nagara River ukai depends more on tourism than the sale of fish. According to Sugimoto-Ushou, it has been this way from the time of Shogun Nobunaga. In those days, it was the attention and support of the shogun that kept the fishery viable. After the Meiji Restoration, it was the Emperor who provided critical support. Since the 1950’s, the local government and development of modern tourism have been the primary source of funding, although Ushou continue to receive imperial support. The Ushou of Gifu learned long ago to adapt to the current business conditions, and their various supporters. This lesson is passed down from generation to generation. During our October 7, 2011 visit, 36 boats of tourists (capacity 20-50 people per boat) paid an average of $40 or more to watch the ukai (estimated gross receipts $35,000-50,000). Sugimoto-Ushou has a young son. He expects his son will take over his title when he passes on (Photo 47).

Father & Son

Photo 47: A photograph and newspaper article about Sugimoto-Ushou and his young son. The Ushou position is hereditary. His son may take the position when his father retires or dies.

Historically, ukai fisheries were active on many rivers throughout Japan. Most of these fisheries ended in the Heian Period (794-1185). The cormorant fishers of the Ujigawa (Uji River) were made famous at this time by Lady Murasaki in her classic, ‘The Tale of Genji’, Japan’s first novel (see Photo 48).

Lady Murasaki

Photo 48: Statue of Lady Murasaki holding her novel, ‘The Tale of Genji’. This statue sits on the bank of the Ujigawa (Uji River), just downriver from the Uji ukai. Uji City is situated on the southeast border of Kyoto City, the ancient capital. ‘The Tale of Genji’ describes the life of the imperial court, written 1,000 years ago. Several chapters take place in Uji, including a mention of cormorant fishing.

Like many of the current ukai fisheries, cormorant fishing in Uji died out for nearly 1,000 years. During the Taishou Period (1912-1926) a group of local boatmen were looking for more business. One of them knew the Ushou of Seki City on the Nagara River. They studied with these fishers, and brought their techniques back to Uji (Photo 49). They restarted cormorant fishing to attract more tourists. Uji City’s tourism office provides support.

Uji River

Photo 49: Wild cormorants wade in the Uji River (Ujigawa). The Uji River supported an ukai fishery 1,000 years ago. A portion of the river is channeled around the island (right side of the image), and ukai can be practiced here today.

Today, these fishers work a protected stretch of the Uji River (Photo 50). They hire out their boats to tourists, who can enjoy an evening on the river with food, drink and the spectacle of cormorant fishing. Dinners can be ordered from the small restaurants that line the riverbank. The restaurants coordinate with the boatmen to deliver their meals on board (see Photo 51).

Uji Day Boat

Photo 50: Tourists enjoy lunch on the water. At night, ukai will be demonstrated on this section of the Uji River. Note the boatman’s purple jacket with cormorant pattern and the small restaurants that line the river.

Boats Lined on Uji River

Photo 51: Boats lined up along the Uji River. These boats are available for tours on the river, particularly for evening tours to observe the ukai. Boat rentals are made at the ukai office on the bank of the river (center, next to stairs).

We first visited Uji City on June 12, 2009, the day before the season opened. At the ukai office, we met Matsusaka-sensei – the head (‘teacher’) cormorant fisher; his grandfather studied with the Ushou of Seki City (Photo 52). He invited us to return the next night and join the media boat. Also, he invited us to interview his protégé and current lead cormorant fisher, Mariko Sawaki-san (Photo 53).


Photo 52: Matsusaka-sensei, head of the Uji River ukai, standing in front of their cormorant cage.



Photo 53: Sawaki-san, cormorant fisher of the Uji River, dresses on the riverbank, opening night, 2009.

At dusk on June 13th, Shinto priests performed a Shin Shiki (‘god ceremony’) from a boat on the Uji River. Local officials and the ukai fishers joined them onboard (Photo 54). At the conclusion of the ceremony, the ukai began. They lit their fires and released the cormorants. The boatmen banged on their boats to stimulate the birds and startle the fish. The birds came close enough to splash us, and our cameras. The fishers showed off the ayu as the cormorants spit them out. The Uji River is no longer rich in ayu, however, so they stock this section of the river. The fish caught here are given back to the cormorants at the end of the show (Photos 55-61 and Video 3).

Shin Shiki

Photo 54: Shinto priests perform a Shin Shiki (god ceremony) on the opening night of ukai on the Uji River, June 13, 2009. One priest throws salt in the river; salt purifies. Another priest waves pure white paper over the water. The cormorant fishers are standing in the boat, on the left side of the photo.

Uji Fire

Photo 55: Mariko Sawaki-san and her two boatmen have lit the fire onboard in preparation for the night’s fishing.

Uji Bird Release

Photo 56: Sawaki-san releases cormorants from their basket. They began to hunt within seconds of hitting the water.

Uji Fishing

Photo 57: Sawaki-san handles six cormorants (umiu) – three are visible on the surface, the others are fishing. A second boat behind her carries another female cormorant fisher with two boatmen.

Uji Fishing

Photo 58: The cormorants fish beneath the light of the pinewood fire suspended from the ubune (boat).

Uji Fishing

Photo 59: Sawaki-san pulls in a cormorant to retrieve its catch of fish.

Uji Fishing

Photo 60: Sawaki-san holds the bird on her right and uses her left hand to open the bird’s mouth. The bird spits up its catch.

Uji Fishing

Photo 61: Cormorant fishing continued into the night, the more typical time ukai. Note the boats of tourists. Tourism provides support for the ukai of the Uji River.

Because this first night of fishing began early, it was easy to see the actions of birds and handlers. Also, this narrow section of river allows spectators to view the ukai from either shore and from two bridges. The ukai brought their boats alongside the press boat and tour boats. It provides a very intimate view of cormorant fishing (see Photos 62 & 63).

Uji Fishing Bridge

Photo 62: A view of the Uji River ukai from the bridge that spans the downstream section of this channel. Cormorant fishing on the Uji River is an intimate experience, although best viewed from a boat

Uji After Fish

Photo 63: Sawaki-san poses for pictures after a night of cormorant fishing.

We returned a few days later to interview Mariko Sawaki-san. Sawaki-san represents a new type of cormorant fisher. She is the first woman cormorant fisher on the Uji River, and one of only four women cormorant fishers in Japan. Also, she did not inherit her position. Rather, she has had a life-long interest in animals and animal-human interactions. Her interests in ukai and the changing business environment brought her to this new position.

Sawaki-san works full time in the Uji City Tourism office, two blocks from the ukai office (Photo 64). Her ukai work keeps her extra busy for the 100 day summer season. However, the short season presents a problem to the fishery. The boatmen hold most of the jobs in the industry and they need work all year round. They take tourists for rides on the river both day and night, but business is much slower outside the ukai season.

Sawaki-san & I

Photo 64: Standing with Mariko Sawaki-san, cormorant fisher, in her Uji City Tourism office. She works for the tourism board throughout the year, and as a cormorant fisher for 100 evenings in the summer.

We returned later that summer with our family to watch the ukai on a more typical evening (Photo 65). Eleven tourist boats of various sizes were available for hire. We rented a boat for ten, the smallest size available. The ukai of Uji use two boats for fishing, with two female fishers. On this night, the women took turns fishing from the same boat. At the start of the evening they poled upriver, just below a small dam. The tourist boats followed. Here, the two women and Matsusaka-sensei demonstrated the tying of the birds and other aspects of their craft (Photos 66-71).

Yasui Family

Photo 65: Our family standing on the bridge over the Uji River, on a night of ukai.


Photo 66: The Ukai demonstration on the Uji River was conducted on the cormorant boat (ubune). Here, Sawaki-san displays the rope complex used to tie cormorants.

Roping Bird

Photo 67: Matsusaka-sensei pulls a cormorant out of its basket, ready to be roped up. Cormorant fishers handle their birds by the neck, and massage the neck frequently.

Tying Bird

Photo 68: Matsusaka-sensei massages the bird’s neck while the rope is being tied around it’s neck and body.

Rope Tied to Bird

Photo 69: Close-up of the cormorant with it’s rope attached. Note the dark leash hanging down from the bird. A plastic coating covers the leash next to the bird’s body. Historically, baleen (from whales) was used for this section.

Bird Into Basket

Photo 70: The tied bird is placed back in its basket until the fishing begins.

Sawaki & Bird

Photo 71: Sawaki-san poses with a cormorant.

The fishing was enjoyed by all. They Uji fishers hold six birds at a time. They do not catch fish for sale, and fewer birds are easier to handle. Their boat takes turns moving amongst the tourists, providing excellent views. They fished for more than 30 minutes (see Photos 72-75).


Photo 72: Ukai on the Uji River. Each fisher holds six birds.

Spits Out Catch

Photo 73: A cormorant spits out its catch into the hands of Sawaki-san.

Birds Close

Photo 74: Ukai on the Uji River is an intimate experience. The boatmen keep tourists very close to the action.

Reiko & Birds

Photo 75: Reiko leans over the edge of our boat, enjoying a night of ukai.

We returned to Uji in October 2011 and spoke with Sawaki-san and Matsusaka –sensei. Their business has improved over the last two years, despite the nuclear disaster in Fukushima. One of their birds escaped last year and did not return. They have 15 birds now. We watched the birds being fed that day at 2PM (Photo 76). They eat frozen fish throughout the year, and are fattened up in the winter. They lose weight over the summer, when they are kept hungry.

Sawaki-san Frozen Fish

Photo 76: Sawaki-san pulls out frozen fish for her cormorants. The fish are thawed and fed to the birds each day at 2:00 PM during the off-season.

It was interesting to compare the two styles of ukai. Fishing a wild river for ayu to sell is quite different from demonstrating this ancient fishery for tourists. However, the basic techniques are the same. The Gifu ukai is more dramatic on a wild river with more boats, fishers and birds. On the other hand, we were able to get closer to the ukai in Uji and could observe more of the event. We are grateful to Sugimoto-Ushou for speaking to us, and showing us his craft in the free-flowing Nagaragawa. We are indebted to Sawaki-san and Matsusaka-sensei for their hospitality, many interviews and fishing demonstrations. The expertise and dedication of these cormorant fishers will maintain the ukai tradition for at least one more generation.

Note: Torrential rains hit Uji August 14th, flooding the river and some of its streets. A man and woman are missing, as well as one of the ukai boats.


Ama Harvest Hijiki: Ijika Town

Ama – ‘women of the sea’ – harvest food from the coastal waters of Japan and Korea. Men – otoko ama – dive for shellfish in some places of Japan (otoko ama  – male ama). However, the largest concentration of ama work the coastlines of Toba and Shima, and these ama are mostly women (see Photos 1 & 2).


Photo 1: Murals of ama divers line the road into Ijika Town. This mural highlights both the ama (women, lower left) and the fishermen of Ijika (on boat with nets, right).


Photo 2: This mural in Ijika Town shows a single ama with her isonomi (prying tool) in hand as she approaches three awabi (abalone).

Ama catch a variety of food, depending on season. Awabi – abalone – is the most valuable, at $100 per kg ($45 per pound). Sazae – top snails – make up the bulk of the catch, but are not as profitable. Other prey include ise-ebi (spiny lobster), tako (octopus), uni (sea urchin) and namako (sea cucumber), and wakame (a brown seaweed).

Each day before diving, ama gather together in their ama goya – small huts with an open fire. They chat and relax while warming themselves, and then go together to sea. They may enter directly from the shore, or go further offshore by boat. Once they enter the water, however, they are on their own. Each diver hunts her section of the reef and competes for the biggest catch – important economically, as well as for status within the community. At the end of the day’s diving they return together to their ama goya to relax and warm up (Photo 3).

Ama Goya

Photo 3: Ama share candy and conversation as they wait outside their ama goya (hut) on the waterfront. They wear full wetsuits with farmer’s hats. Rubber tubing around their waste provides a place to secure their kama (sickle); weights are attached to this rubber belt when diving. A rope around their waste suspends a mesh bag to hold hijiki.

An exception to this pattern is the annual harvest of hijiki (Phaeophyta, Sargassum fusiforme). This brown seaweed grows low in the intertidal zone. Once a year, during the lowest tides of spring, ama work together to harvest hijiki along their shores. The harvest is sold as a unit and the profits shared by all. It is a major event of the year. They hold the event on weekends so that family members, even those that moved to cities, can return to help with the harvest. Ama own the rights (gyoken) to harvest their shores, and only ama can actually cut the seaweed. Their husbands, brothers, sons and grandsons help bag the seaweed and transport it back to port. Sisters, daughters, in-laws, etc. help lay out the seaweed to dry (see Photo 4).

Hijiki Pavement

Photo 4a: The morning’s harvest of hijiki is spread out to dry. The women shown here are relatives of ama. They help process the hijiki while the ama continue their harvest.

Hijiki Close-Up

Photo 4b: A close-up view of drying hijiki, Sargassum fusiforme.

We made plans to observe the annual hijiki harvest at three different ama towns. The exact date of the harvest depends on the weather as well as the tides. Two tentative dates were cancelled due to rain and rough water. Rain prevents drying, and the freshwater breaks down the seaweed’s tissues. Rough water produces strong waves, a significant danger when working the shore.

Fortunately, we were able to visit the ama of Ijika Town, Toba City, as they harvested hijiki (see Photo 5). They planned their harvest for the first weekend of May. A ‘supermoon’** that Sunday (May 6th) created the lowest tides of the year. It rained on Saturday, so there was no harvest that day. Early Sunday morning we called from our home in Kyoto. Our friend and colleague in Ijika, Mr. Tatsuya Sato, reported that it was cloudy, but not raining. The ama gathered in their ama goya (huts) at 7:00 AM. They left for the beach at 9:00 AM to catch the low tide.

Ijika Overview

Photo 5a: Views of Ijika Town. Typical of ama towns in Toba and Shima, these villages hug the coastline, with their homes tucked into the hills above the sea. View from the highway on the ridge above Ijika.

Ijika View

Photo 5b: View from the road into Ijika, just below the two murals (Photos 1 & 2).

We arrived in town just before noon. The parking lot by the port was covered in cut hijiki, and ama relatives were busy spreading more on the ground (see Video 1 and Photo 4). A transport boat had just unloaded its hijiki and was heading back for more (Photo 6). That boat took us to the beach where ama were at work. A skiff came out to meet the boat with another load of seaweed. Once the seaweed was transferred onboard, the skiff took us to the rocky headland where a group of 19 ama and 13 men were hard at work (Photos 7-9).

Boat at Port

Photo 6: Mr. Tatsuya Sato stands on deck a boat that has just unloaded hijiki. We took this boat back to the beach to observe the harvest.

Loading Hijiki

Photo 7: As soon as the boat returns to the beach, a waiting skiff unloads its bags of hijiki.


Photo 8: Ama of Ijika Town harvest hijiki near the border with Uramura Town. Eighteen women cut seaweed. Thirteen men help bag the seaweed and pass it on to the two skiffs.


Photo 9: Hijiki grows at sea level. Ama wait until the lowest tides of spring to harvest the seaweed. They use a small sickle (kama) to cut the seaweed, and then place it in their net bags, or pile it up on shore. Male relatives gather up the cut hijiki into larger bags for transport back to town.

Ama were variously sitting or standing on the rocks; others stood in the water up to their necks. They used kama – a type of sickle – to cut hijiki from the rocks. They cut a few pieces of seaweed with each stroke, pieces of 30-90 cm in length (about 1-3 feet). The cut seaweed was placed in a net basket tied at the waste, or placed in a pile to be picked up by the men (Photos 10-13, Video 2).


Photo 10: These ama stand in the water as they harvest hijiki. They grab the seaweed with one hand, and cut it close to the rock surface with their kama (sickle).


Photo 11: Ama harvest each patch of hijiki, wading or swimming to seaweed covered rocks.


Photo 12:A harvested patch of hijiki looks something like a mown lawn. Compare the foreground of this picture to the seaweed in Photo 10.


Photo 13: As hijiki is harvested from this outcrop, the bags pile up. Men will finish bagging seaweed after the ama have moved on.

The group we watched had begun work at the northern edge of Ijika, on its border with Uramura Town (location of the Toba Seafolk Museum). The women worked close together, slowly moving between patches of seaweed. After completing one section, they moved southward toward the center of Ijika (Photo 14 & Video 3).

Photo 14a: These four ama have finished their work on this stretch of beach.

Photo 14b: They wade and swim around the point to reach the next patch of hijiki.

Photo 14c: One of the skiffs follows the ama as they move down the beach.

Men gathered up the cut hijiki from the ama into larger bags. They piled the bags where the skiffs could come in for pick up. Skiffs had to carefully navigate their way between the rocks, using anchors and poles to avoid damage. Once in place, the men created a chain to pass the bags from the shore onto the skiffs. Occasionally a bag missed its target and had to be retrieved from the water. The skiff took its load to the larger boat, which in turn took the harvest back to port where it could be dried (Photos 15 & 16).

Bag Brigade

Photo 15: Filled bags of seaweed are passed from man to man, and tossed into a skiff.

Loaded Skiff

Photo 16: A filled skiff prepares to depart. The man in the back of the skiff uses both an anchor with long line and a pole to keep his boat off the rocks.

The shoreline of Toba consists of rocky headlands separated by cobble beaches. The ama worked each rocky section, and then hiked along the cobble beach to the next headland. As they passed, the shore looked as if it had received a haircut – with 10-15 cm (4-6 inches) of hijiki still attached to rocks above the waterline (Photo 17 & Video 4).

Hijiki Haircut

Photo 17: The harvest of this headland is nearly complete. Most of the ama have moved down the beach. The men will follow after getting the bagged seaweed onto a skiff. Note the short pieces of seaweed left behind. The seaweed will regrow and be harvested again the next spring.

It was fairly calm at noon – cloudy, with patches of blue sky and sun breaks. By 1 p.m., however, the wind began to pick up and with it came more clouds. The ama climbed over a large headland to avoid the building storm and waves. They would come back to this spot the next day, weather permitting. They eventually came to a section of shore protected from the wind and waves, and went back to their work. We could see the port from here (Photo 18).

Harvest From Ijika

Photo 18: Harvesting hijiki within view of Ijika Town. Ama moved to this location to avoid the wind and rain of a coming squall.

They continued to work as the rain began to fall around 1:30 p.m. We left shortly afterward, and hiked back to town, a ten-minute walk. The ama followed us a few minutes later. Back at the port, all of the hijiki had been gathered up and covered by tarps to protect it from the rain. The ama piled into pickup trucks, and the harvest was over for that day (Photos 19-22).

Ama Return

Photo 19: The storm arrived and stopped the harvest for the day. The ama and their helpers walk back to town. Note the white caps building behind them.

No Littering Sign

Photo 20: Signs on the road back to Ijika Town use ama in a campaign to stop littering.

Covered Hijiki

Photo 21: Back in Ijika Town, the hijiki that had been drying was covered up to protect it from the coming rain.

Ama Trucks

Photo 22: Their work done for the day, ama pile into pickup trucks and head home.

We spent the night within sight of the port, at the home of Mr. Tatsuya Sato (a young biologist, generous host and excellent cook). At 5:08 a.m. the town’s loudspeakers woke us up with the day’s work plan: meet at 5:30 to dry the seaweed from yesterday; depart at 9 a.m. to cut more hijiki. The early morning event was for all: ama and their relatives. They needed to get yesterday’s hijiki out to dry to prevent spoilage. By 6:00 the port’s parking lots were covered in hijiki and one group started to cover the top of the breakwater (see Photos 23-25 and Photo 38).

Early Morning at Port

Photo 23: The next morning was calm, and everyone worked rapidly to put the seaweed out to dry. By 5:45 AM nearly all the parking surfaces in town were covered in hijiki.

Hijiki Dump

Photo 24: A dump truck unloads hijiki to be placed on the top of the seawall that protects the port. Note the seaweed on the parking lot in the background (same lot as Photo 4).

Hijiki Bags

Photo 25: Men carry bags of hijiki onto the seawall, where it will be spread to dry.

We followed the same group from the day before as they drove to a quiet back road outside of town. Dump trucks brought bags of seaweed for distribution along the road, and everyone spread it as quickly as possible. At one point, they had to stop and uncover a lane of pavement to allow a car to ‘escape’. Once the car passed, they quickly filled the space with hijiki and moved on (Photos 26-29).

Hijiki Road

Photo 26: Hijiki covers a country road outside of Ijika Town. Note the women moving hijiki from the left side of the road. They had to make room for a car parked in the lot to the left.

Trapped Car

Photo 27: The ‘trapped’ car departs, leaving the road to the ama and their seaweed.

Hijiki Recover

Photo 28: Once the car departed, ama and their relatives quickly cover the road.

Covered Road

Photo 29: The entire road was covered by 7:00 AM.

Reiko spoke with one of the ama while we were waiting. She was 68 years old, one of the younger ama in Ijika. Like many of them, her mother was also ama. However, her daughter had not joined her as an ama. All of the ama of Ijika are over 60; most are in their 70’s. They are concerned about the future of ama in Ijika.

By 7 a.m. they had completed the section of road to where it connects with the road that leads to the Toba Sea-Folk Museum in Uramura (the neighboring town, Photo 30). We headed back to town for breakfast. Sato-san prepared another seafood feast.

Seafolk Sign

Photo 30: Posing with Mr. Tatsuya Sato at the end of ‘Hijiki Road’. The connecting road leads to the Toba Sea-Folk Museum in the neighboring Uramura Town.

At 9 a.m. ama were gathered around their ama goya, chatting, showing off some potted plants, and getting ready for the day’s harvest (Photo 31). The ama of Ijika are divided into four groups, each works their own section of Ijika’s reefs. However, as part of the shared harvest, the four groups rotate these areas each year on the weekend when they cut hijiki. We had been with the minami (south) group the day before. This year, it was their turn to harvest the northern section of Ijika. Yesterday, they had gone by boat to the northern edge of town and worked their way back to town. Today, other groups headed south by boat, but the minami group walked back to where they had stopped yesterday (Photos 32 & 33). We walked with them to the end of the road. By 9:30 they had climbed down the stairs to the beach, and sat down to wait for low tide. Some of the men travelled with them; others came by boat with the bags ready for harvest. We said our goodbyes and returned to Kyoto (see Photos 34-38).

Ama & Plants

Photo 31: Ama look at some potted plants outside of their ama goya before the start of the day’s harvest.

Ama & Boat

Photo 32: This group of ama takes a boat to reach their section of beach.

Ama Upstairs

Photo 33: The minami (south) group of ama head back to the beach where they stopped work yesterday.

Ama Above Beach

Photo 34: Ama observe ocean conditions from above the beach.

Descend to Beach

Photo 35: Ama descend from the seawall to the beach.

Men & Boat

Photo 36: A group of men arrive with stacks of bags ready to be filled with hijiki.

Waiting for Tide

Photo 37: Ama wait on the beach for the tide to go out.

Ijika Overview

Photo 38: View of Ijika from the highway above the town. Note the seaweed covering the seawall and the parking lot of the port.

The hijiki harvested this weekend was dried over the next few days. It was boiled and then dried again before being sold to retail markets, about one month later. Consumers buy hijiki in its dried form. It can be eaten as dried flakes mixed with other items (e.g. sesame seeds, dried fish) and sprinkled over rice; these mixtures are known as furikake. Another common usage is to soak dried hijiki in water, and then fry it with carrots, oage (a type of fried tofu), konyaku (processed yam) and other foods as a side dish. Alternatively, it can be cooked with rice along with carrots, etc. in a rice cooker (see Photos 39 & 40).

Hijiki Side Dish

Photo 39: A common hijiki dish. Dried hijiki was soaked in water and then fried with carrots, oage (a type of fried tofu), konyaku (processed yam), edimame (soybeans) and chicken.

Hijiki Rice

Photo 40: A rice dish cooked with hijiki, carrots, oage (a type of fried tofu), konyaku (processed yam) and chicken.

Many types of seaweed pick up arsenic from the waters where they grow. Most of this arsenic is in an organic form not considered dangerous in the typical quantities used by consumers. Hijiki, however, contains relatively large concentrations of inorganic arsenic, a carcinogen. Some western governments, particularly members of the UK, have cautioned against its consumption. Most Japanese health experts have suggested that hijiki is safe for the typical Japanese household, given common serving size and frequency of use. None of the people we knew in Kyoto were aware of this concern. However, a 2008 paper by Nakamura et al concluded that its contribution to cancer “. . . may not be negligible.”***

Special thanks to Mr. Tatsuya Sato for sharing his knowledge and home. We are grateful to the many ama of Ijika Town who allowed us to observe their harvest (Photo 41).

Photo 41: An ama of Ijika Town and Mr. Tatsuya Sato head to the port for the start of the day’s hijiki harvest. The mural of an ama diver borders the road behind them (with blue highlights, Photo 2).

** A ‘supermoon’ or ‘perigee moon’ refers to a full moon or new moon coinciding with the moon’s perigee, when it is closest to Earth. Supermoons appear larger, and cause greater tidal exchanges, both higher high tides and lower low tides. This year the full moon occurred one minute after perigee on May 6th  (Japan time).

*** Nakamura Y, Narukawa T, Yoshinaga J. 2008. Cancer risk to Japanese population from the consumption of inorganic arsenic in cooked hijiki. J. Agric. Food Chem. 56: 2536-2540

Taiji Town, Whale Town

Taiji Town earned its fame as a whale town more than 400 years ago. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Taiji whalers adopted, and then adapted, American and Norwegian whaling technology. Eventually, men of Taiji went to the Southern Ocean to join the modern fleets of industrial whalers. The Japanese whalers dominated this fishery by 1937. Since the end of industrial whaling, Taiji whalers once again focused on local whales. Their current hunt for dolphins has brought the town international attention and controversy (e.g. the 2009 Academy Award-winning documentary, ‘The Cove’; see Photos 1 & 2). Continue reading

Sayonara Kyoto: From Winter into Spring

Kyoto enjoys beautiful fall colors and spring cherry blossoms. It is equally infamous for its mushi atsui (sticky hot) summers and cold winters. The winter of 2012 was unusually cold. It felt particularly cold after 15 winters in Arizona. Moreover, our Kyoto home is a modified machiya (traditional Kyoto home) – 150 years old, drafty and without central heating. How wonderful to have a soaking tub! Every night we took our turns washing ourselves under the shower, and then relaxing in the tub. The heat of the tub (42oC, 107.6oF) stayed with us for much of the evening. We slept under layers of blankets and on top of an electric pad.

The rest of the days and nights were cold. A space heater warmed our combined kitchen and living room. We huddled next to small heaters in other rooms where we read or worked on computers. The whole time seemed sluggish and a bit frozen. We mostly stayed close to home in January, with work at the nearby Miyako Ecology Center, translation of the Toba Sea-Folk Museum signs and flyers, and a few trips to Biwako (Lake Biwa) to visit family and the museum/aquarium complex (Photo 1).

Biwako Snow

Photo 1: Lake Biwa (Biwako) from the shore at Lake Biwa Museum, January 4, 2012. The museum includes kid-friendly activity stations and an aquarium of lake organisms.

It snowed frequently this winter, but in small flurries. Only once, February 18th, did it really ‘stick’. We took a long walk that day through Yasaka Jinja (shrine of the Gion district), Maruyama Park and neighboring temples, on our way to see a children’s movie at Kyoto International Community House (Photos 2-4). Unfortunately for Marina and Ami, I misread the flyer; the movie was in Osaka (a different city). We had an extra round of hot cocoa instead.

Snow Yasaka

Photo 2: Snow on Yasaka Jinja, the shrine in Gion District.

Snow Kids

Photo 3: Marina holds a pile of snow in Maruyama Park, with Ami and Reiko.

Snow Cherry Tree

Photo 4: The most famous cherry tree in Kyoto, in Maruyama Park, covered in snow.

The local Sosui canal that flows from Lake Biwa (Biwako) to the sea at Osaka, was drained and cleaned over the winter (Photo 5). We missed the herons and egrets that used to feed from the canal. It was filled again in March, but the herons have yet to return.

Cleaning Sosui

Photo 5: The Sosui canal, at Keihan’s Fuji no Mori train station. The entire canal was drained in early winter. This section near our home was cleaned on January 24th. It was another few weeks before the canal was refilled.

Kite day was celebrated January 15th at Fukakusa Shougakkou, the girl’s elementary school. Prizes were given and two giant kites were flown with the help of dozens of kids and adults (see Photos 6-8 and Video1).

Kite Day

Photo 6: Kite Day at Fukakusa Shougakkou (elementary school); Ayaka-chan (#113, Ami’s classmate), Ami and Marina hold their kites. Reiko stands behind.

Giant Kite

Photo 7: This giant kite displays the year (2012) and a dragon. 2012 is the year of the dragon. On the lower edge of the kite is the school’s name – Fukakusa Shougakkou. Flown at the school’s Kite Day, January 15, 2012.

Giant Kite

Photo 8: Kite Day was sponsored by Fukakusa Gakku Hoken Kyougikai (Fukakusa School District Health Group), a non-profit organization. The group’s name appears on the top of the kite along with the ‘Do You Kyoto’ icon and other images.

Most traditional events at this cold time focus on the coming of spring. The end of the calendar year was celebrated with finishing the old and celebrating the new.

Setsubun, held the evening of February 3rd, similarly chases out the old and makes way for the new. Our girls celebrated Setsubun at Fuji no Mori Jinja, our local shrine. The shrine lit its fires to burn old papers and charms, as it had at the New Year. Unique to Setsubun are the evil oni (ogres). Children shouted and threw special beans at oni to keep these bad spirits away (see Photo 9 and Video 2). Setsubun overlaps the celebration of Groundhog Day and related holidays in western culture, a mid-point between the winter solstice and spring equinox (currently recognized as the start of winter and spring, respectively). According to the traditional Japanese lunar calendar, Setsubun marked the end of winter and the end of the year, with February 4th celebrated as the first day of spring and the New Year.


Photo 9: An oni (ogre, evil spirit) surrounded by smoke on the main stage of Fuji no Mori Jinja, part of the Setsubun event. Children throw beans at the oni to keep evil away from the start of spring and the new year (based on the traditional lunar calendar).

The day before Setsubun we travelled to the site of Rashoumon – the ancient southern gate of Heian-kyo – Kyoto’s name when it became the capital in 794. Rashoumon itself is long gone, but its memory remains due to a famous story and film adaptation by Akira Kurosawa. As ancient Heian-kyo began to deteriorate, the southern gate was used as a place to leave dead bodies. It seemed appropriate to visit while it was still winter. February 2nd was a frozen morning with light snow. The nearby To-ji (temple) from the same era houses one of Kyoto’s pagodas (see Photos 10 & 11).


Photo 10: This stone marker identifies the location of the ancient Rashomoun – southern gate – built when the capital was moved to Kyoto (Heian-kyo) in 794. We visited on a frozen morning with light snow, February 2, 2012.

To-ji Temple

Photo 11: To-ji (East Temple) and its pagoda lie just east of Rashoumon. A companion temple was built on the western side of Rashoumon (Sai-ji, West Temple), but no longer exists. Note the pieces of ice on the surface of the moat.

Plum blossoms began to open in February –the first hint of spring’s arrival. Kitano Tenman-gu – a shrine from the Heian Period – has orchards of special plum trees, and an annual Plum Blossom Festival, Baikasai on February 25th.  A large tea ceremony was held here in 1587, the Kitano no Ochakai. The event served thousands of guests and was personally directed by Sen no Rikyuu, the master of the Japanese tea ceremony. This event is recreated by the geiko (Kyoto term for geisha) and maiko (apprentice geiko) of the local Kamishichiken district. We went a week early to pick up tickets (3,000 available) and to enjoy the early plum blossoms. It rained for the Ochakai; the tea was frothy and hot (see Photos 12 & 13).

Pink Plum Blossoms

Photo 12a: Plum blossoms at Kitano Tenman-gu (shrine) February 17, 2012. Kitano-Tenmangu has groves of plum trees; some produce pink blossoms.

White Plum Blossoms

Photo 12b: Other plum trees produce white flowers.

Kitano no Ochakai

Photo 13: Miss Ichitomo, a maiko (apprentice geiko) of the Kamishichiken district, prepares a bowl of tea at the Kitano no Ochakai (big tea party at Kitano Tenman-gu shrine), February 25, 2012. The plastic panels behind her were put up because of the rain.

Tea originally came from China, but it has been grown in Japan, and specifically the Kyoto area, for nearly 1,000 years. Japanese Buddhists promoted tea cultivation. The drinking of tea in a religious context, suffused with Zen ideals of art, gave rise to the Japanese tea ceremony. The main elements came together in the 16th Century and were ultimately codified by Sen no Rikyuu. His descendants continue to lead Chanoyu – the Japanese ‘Way of Tea’ – in three similar, but distinct schools. One of these schools, Urasenke, is taught at RoHoEn, the Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix. Urasenke also offers classes to foreigners at the Kyoto International Community House. After completing six months of classes, I had the privilege to serve tea at the March Ochakai (see Photo 14).

Serving Tea

Photo 14: Ochakai at Kyoto International Community House, March 27, 2012. In my left hand is the natsume (tea caddy). My right hand holds the lid of the natsume and the chashaku (tea scoop) that will be used to transfer tea from the natsume to the chawa (tea bowl). Ebata-sensei (teacher, right foreground) acts as the first guest and oversees the making of tea.

Reiko and I visited her distant cousin’s tea utensil shop, where I bought gifts for my two sensei (teachers, Photo 15). One of my classmates went with me to the Marukyu-Koyamaen tea factory in Uji City, on the southeastern border of Kyoto. They have manufactured tea for 300 years and have won many gold medals (Photo 16).

Family Shop

Photo 15: Reiko stands in front of Harada Chadogu Ten (Harada’s Tea Utensil store).


Photo 16: Chin-san, a classmate from tea class, with oversized chawan (tea bowl) and chasen (tea whisk), Marukyu-Koyamaen tea factory, Uji City. This company makes award winning macha (powdered tea used for the tea ceremony) as well as sencha (leaf tea). The tea bowl and utensils were actually used for special temple ceremonies in the temples of Nara.

Last week I went to their teahouse in Kyoto, for my first bowl of Koicha – thick tea. The typical tea served in the Japanese tea ceremony is already quite thick; somewhat like espresso coffee vs. typical drip coffee. However, Koicha uses nearly three times the amount of macha (powdered tea) compared to the amount used in a typical tea ceremony. It looks and pours like a rich green enamel paint, with an intense taste of fresh tea leaves (Photo 17).


Photo 17: A serving of Koicha (thick tea) and Okashi (sweet) at Nishinotoin Tea House Motoan, Kyoto.

Ami celebrated her 8th Birthday in March with school friends and family (Photo 18). The spring equinox is celebrated as a holiday and the school year ended that same week, followed by two weeks of vacation. We visited Taiji, the whale town famous for it’s ‘Cove’ (more on that trip in a later post, Photo 19) and the new Kyoto Aquarium (Photo 20).

Ami's Birthday

Photo 18: Ami celebrates her 8th birthday with sister and friends.

Feeding Dolphins

Photo 19a: The Whale Museum of Taiji Town keeps a variety of dolphins and small whales in ocean pens. They perform in shows and can be fed by visitors. Marina and Ami feeding dolphins.

Hungry Dolphins

Photo 19b: A kobiregondou (short-finned pilot whale, Globicephala macrorhynchus) and two hangondou (Risso’s dolphins, Grampus griseus) looking for more fish.

Kyoto Aquarium

Photo 20: The Kyoto Aquarium opened March 14, 2012; its Dolphin Stadium looks out over a park. Wild-caught handouiruka (bottlenose dolphins, Tursiops truncatus) from the coast of Japan perform acrobatics before and during the show.

We spent most of spring vacation in Kyoto. We picnicked at Fushimi Momoyama Castle. The castle was built by the retiring Shogun, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, after unifying Japan at the end of the 16th Century. It was the last time Kyoto would be the capital of Japan. Nearby is the tomb of Emperor Kammu, who ordered the construction of Heian-kyo (Kyoto) for his new capital in 794 (Photos 21 & 22).

Momoyama Castle

Photo 21: Momoyama Castle, Fushimi-ku (ward), Kyoto. Originally completed in 1594, this replica was created in the 1960’s. The previous version of the castle was the site of a mass suicide; blood stained floorboards from that castle have been incorporated in the ceilings of several temples.

Kammu Memorial

Photo 22: The tomb of Emperor Kammu, the 50th emperor and one of the most important in Japanese history. He moved the capital from Nara to Nagaoka (Nagaoka-kyo) in 784, and then to Kyoto (Heian-kyo) in 794.

The sakura (cherry blossoms) open near the end of March and early April; everyone waits in expectation. First-year college students camp out at Maruyama Park in the Gion District, holding space for upperclassmen and their hanami (cherry blossom parties, Photo 23). Maruyama Park is home to the most famous cherry tree in Kyoto, a 65 year old Hitoe Shiro Higan Shidare Sakura (single petal, white, Higan, weeping cherry), whose health (poor) and status are reported on by the daily newspaper and TV stations (Photos 4 & 24). The blooms were a bit late this year, but lasted nearly two weeks. We had our large hanami at a local park on Easter and included a small Easter egg hunt (Photos 25-27).

Hanami at Maruyama Park

Photo 23: Hanami (cherry blossom parties) at Maruyama Park, April 15, 2012.

Weeping Cherry

Photo 24: Reiko and I pose with the famous weeping cherry in Maruyama Park (the same tree in Photo 4).

Sakura Along Sosui Canal

Photo 25: Sakura (cherry blossoms) along the Sosui canal, our path to an Easter day Hanami party.

Sosui Canal

Photo 26: Underneath the cherries, along the Sosui.

Cherry Blossoms

Photo 27: Sakura (cherry blossoms).

The spring crop of Kyoto vegetables began to show up in April, including takenoko (bamboo shoots). We ate takenoko no ki no me ae (bamboo shoots coated with leaves of the Japanese pepper tree) everyday for three weeks, variously mixed with ika (squid) or tako (octopus). It tasted even better after we dug our own from a cousin’s bamboo forest (Photos 28-30).

Bamboo Forest

Photo 28: Reiko with cousin, Toshiko at Toshiko’s bamboo grove.

Digging Bamboo

Photo 29: Reiko digs up takenoko (bamboo shoot). The bamboo shoot, lower left corner, needs to be harvested soon after its appearance above ground. The shoot rapidly becomes woody and inedible.


Photo 30: Two freshly dug bamboo shoots; one has been cleaned and halved.

We visited more temples and shrines when the kids were in school: Ryoan-ji (temple), famous for its dry garden, and the nearby Ninna-ji. Kodai-ji (temple) was built by the widow of Shogun Hideyoshi Toyotomi; it includes two Ochashitsu (tea houses) built by Sen no Rikyuu (originally for the Shogun’s Fushimi Momoyama Castle) and a dry garden with a dragon theme this year (Photos 31-35). Visitors swarmed kiyomizu-dera and its overhanging balcony at cherry blossom time.


Photo 31: The dry garden of Ryoan-ji: fifteen rocks surrounded by white sand. From the perspective of the viewing platform it is impossible to see all the rocks from any one vantage point.

Pagoda Ninna-ji

Photo 32: Pagoda of Ninna-ji temple.

Kodai-ji Garden

Photo 33: The dry garden of Kodai-ji temple April 16, 2012, suggests a partially submerged dragon (2012 is the Year of the Dragon).

Kasa-tei Outside

Photo 34a: Kasa-tei (umbrella tea house), Kodai-ji temple. Originally built by Sen no Rikyuu at Fushimi Momoyama Castle for Shogun Hideyoshi Toyotomi. This teahouse and Shigure-tei were moved here by the Shogun’s widow, Nene. Kasa-tei from the outside.

Inside Kasa-tei

Photo 34b: Kasa-tei is so named (umbrella tea house) due to its umbrella-like roof when seen from inside.


Photo 35: Shigure-tei (house of drizzling rain) – the only two-story teahouse built by Sen no Rikyuu, at Kodai-ji temple.

In the last month we made as many visits as possible for sabbatical subjects outside of town, to complete the year of Ama harvests (reports to come), offer our thanks and make our goodbyes. None of my studies would have been possible without the expertise and hospitality offered by so many fishers in Japan. Domo arigatou gozaimashita!

I also made more dives in Kushimoto and in the Nihon Kai (Sea of Japan) where I photographed the smallest fish in my collection, a juvenile dango (Lethotremus awae, Cyclopteridae) less than one cm in length (Photo 36).

Juvenile Dango

Photo 36a: A juvenile dango (Lethotremus awae, Family Cyclopteridae), Echizen-cho, Fukui-ken, Sea of Japan. Close up of one dango.


Photo 36b: Two dango on a kelp blade.

Many thanks to my dive buddies, Mori-san and Kim-san (Photo 37). They both began to dive when I first began my studies in Japan (Summer 2009). We celebrated Mori-san’s 100th dive on May 26 (Video 3). Most of our travels out of Kyoto were taken in Mori’s car – a huge thank you Mori-san!


Photo 37a: Two great dive buddies, 37a. Mr. Minoru Mori, engineer by day.


Photo 37b: Dr. Hyoh Kim, Shiga University of Medical Science.

While most of my subjects were outside of the city, Kyoto was our home and scene of our daily life. The first week of May was Fuji no Mori Jinja‘s O-Matsuri (the festival of our local shrine), including a parade-like event in which O-Mikoshi – portable shrines – are carried through the streets and right in front of our home. Participants include the young and old, men and women, representing historical photos and kami (gods). The pictures and videos were taken across the street from our home – mostly shuttered with rusty corrugated iron doors except for the open section with lace curtains (Photos 38-42 and Videos 4 & 5).

Shrine Festival

Photo 38: Fuji no Mori Jinja‘s O-Matsuri (shrine festival) parade opened with a musical group of children dressed with samurai swords.

Shrine Festival

Photo 39: Fuji no Mori Jinja‘s O-Matsuri (shrine festival) parade included historical costumes, adults and children.

Fuji no Mori

Photo 40: Fuji no Mori Jinja (main shrine) includes smaller shrines to the Seven Gods (good luck, or treasure gods). Each of the seven gods was represented in the May 5th festival and parade. Leading the seven gods are Juroujin (god of longevity) and Daikoku (god of wealth); Ebisu, the god of fishers, divers and businessmen follows the three boys with his red tai (fish, sea bream) under his arm.

Shrine Festival

Photo 41: The most important components of Fuji no Mori Jinja‘s O-Matsuri (shrine festival) parade were the portable shrines – O-Mikoshi. Women push this shrine.

Shrine Festival

Photo 42: Fuji no Mori Jinja‘s O-Matsuri (shrine festival) parade included several horses. The shrine is associated with horses and horse races.

In this last week, Reiko and I splurged on a special dinner on the deck over the Kamogawa (literally ‘duck river’) that runs from north to south through the heart of Kyoto. Also, we enjoyed sustainable fish provided by Shokuichi at Shioriya Restaurant (Photos 43-46).


Photo 43: Looking north over the Kamogawa (river) from Shijo (4th street) bridge. Residents and visitors enjoy the banks of the Kamogawa for weekend picnics and evening parties. The eastern bank of the river (left side of picture) is lined with restaurants, many with decks overlooking the river. The restaurants are accessed from a single street that comprises the Pontocho district, one of the geiko districts in Kyoto.


Photo 44: The Kamogawa (river) from the deck of Kappa Restaurant, Pontocho district.

Kappa Restaurant

Photo 45: Reiko and I, Kappa Restaurant, Kyoto.

Shokuichi Fish

Photo 46: Two nodoguro (Doederleinia berycoides) and one genge (Bothrocara tanakae), served for lunch at Shioriya Restaurant, Kyoto. These fish were once considered bycatch (waste). A young fish merchant, Atsushi Tanaka (Shokuichi company), tested these fish with local chefs and found a market for them. They tasted great.

The science center of Kyoto offered free glasses to view the eclipse at 7:30 AM, Monday, May 21st, before the girls went to school. Saturday, June 2nd, their school – Fukakusa Shougakkou – had a special half-day for dads to visit. It was the girls’ final day here, after 14 months of school. Their classmates had parties and gifts for them the day before (Photo 47).  We had a farewell party in our home the last weekend of May.

Last Day of School

Photo 47: Ami and Marina, standing outside our Kyoto home, before attending their last day of school at Fukakusa Shougakkou, June 2, 2012.

The annual events that began my visit have come again. This year I was able to walk beside Marina and Ami as they pulled the O-Mikoshi of Ebisu Jinja’s Matsuri in the Gion district (Photos 48-53 and Videos 6 & 7).

Small O-Mikoshi

Photo 48: Standing with Ami and Marina in front of Ebisu Jinja (shrine) before the start of the festival.

Small O-Mikoshi

Photo 49: Small O-Mikoshi (portable shrine) with image of Ebisu. This shrine will be pulled by kids.


Photo 50: The procession lines up, ready to start. Two rows of kids will pull the two red ropes of the O-Mikoshi (shrine) shown in Photo 49.


Photo 51: The procession moves through the streets of the Gion District, mostly small streets, but includes main arterials, here Shijo (3rd street). Parents walk alongside.


Photo 52: Adults carry larger O-Mikoshi shouting and tossing them up and down.


Photo 53: I pose with Marina and Ami as they push one of the smaller O-Mikoshi.

We had to leave the event a bit early so Marina and Ami could demonstrate their skills with the rest of their Aikido Dojo (Photo 54). They studied aikido twice a week for six months.

Akido Dojo

Photo 54: Members of the Aikido Dojo after their exhibition, May 20, 2012. The two sensei (teachers/masters) sit on either side of the girls.

We could not attend the Enko Matsuri (festival dedicated to kappa) in Shikoku this year, but instead went to Kizakura Company’s Kappa Country restaurant and museum (Photo 55). Yesterday, our day before departure, we stopped by Ebisu Jinja for the last time, and then went to the Kamogawa where the girls went wading and then swimming with their friend Kaito (Photos 56 & 57). This morning, we made a quick, final visit to Fushimi Inari Jinja before our airport shuttle came to pick us up (Photo 58).

Kappa Country

Photo 55: Outside Kizakura Kappa Country (sake brewery with museum and restaurant), with Reiko’s mom, Ms. Noriko Yasui, June 3, 2012. A favorite lunch spot after swimming at the local public pool. The Kappa museum was most first exposure to this mythical creature. The day before was Enko Matsuri, a festival dedicated to mythical creatures, held near Kochi, Shikoku. We attended the festival last year, the first of my sabbatical adventures.

Ebisu Farewell

Photo 56: A final visit to pay my respects at the Ebisu Jinja (shrine) in Gion, Kyoto. The shrine offers several options for paying your respects. Here, I toss at the face of Ebisu. Two sets of metal nets catch coins. My coin landed in the smaller, higher net, closer to his face (the better position). Kids enjoy tossing coins to Ebisu.


Photo 57: Marina and Ami swim the Kamogawa in downtown Kyoto, with friend Kaito in tow.

Senbon Torii

Photo 58: A final walk through the senbon torii (thousand sacred gates) of Fushimi Inari Taisha, the head of all Inari shrines. We made many visits here this last year, a 10-minute bike ride from our home.

We will miss the beauty and urbanity of Kyoto: the green of small gardens and forested hills, canals with fish and birds, delicious artesian water. Also, I will miss the history and culture, tea, temples and shrines unique to Kyoto. Delivery trucks, cars, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians, both old and young (an elementary school is half a block away) respectfully share the market street where we live. I never heard yelling from the traffic, and only the occasional tap of a horn. The shop owners along the street know us (and all our details) and wish us ‘O-kaeri’ – welcome home – as we pass by. A short stroll or bike ride takes care of most of our shopping needs – and all grocery stores sell fresh sashimi as well as other seafood; even convenience stores have packaged sushi and onigiri. For longer trips, the train is two minutes away. Everyone bows in Japan, a sign of respect. Even the ticket takers on a train enter your car with a bow, and exit with a bow. If you see me bow in Arizona, you will know why. How often and how long will I keep bowing?

On the other hand, I will not miss banging my head on the low doorways, nor my knees on the low tables. The girls look forward to being ‘home’ with their own room, backyard pool, and many friends they have missed this last year. Reiko and I look forward to being with our American friends again.

Although I write these words in Kyoto, by the time you read them I will be back in Glendale, Arizona, USA. I wonder if our impressions of Kyoto and Glendale will change once we are back? Some of my sabbatical studies have yet to be posted. Stay tuned for news of our transition home and the following subjects:

  • A Visit to Taiji, Whale Town
  • Ukai Fishers use Cormorants to Catch Ayu (sweet fish)
  • Ama Divers: a final report (or two)

The Story of Nori, Part II: Modern Mariculture and Processing*

Since the 1970s Japan has produced billions of nori sheets a year at a market value exceeding one billion dollars. The development of this technology stems from the work of Kathleen Drew-Backer, a British scientist who found a ‘missing link’ in the life cycle of nori, a red alga (Rhodophyta, Porphyra spp). She discovered the ‘conchocelis stage’, a filamentous diploid generation that grows on oyster shells (see Photo 1). It is the conchocelis stage that produces the spores (conchospores) that grow into nori. Continue reading