Uji: Phoenixes, Fireflies And Fishing With Cormorants

Byodoin Temple by lake in Uji, Kyoto

As night fell, the flat-bottomed fishing boat silently glided out across the Uji River. A metal basket dripping with flames hung from the bow, barely illuminating the sleekly feathered troop of cormorants, eagerly awaiting deployment.

Ukai boat with fire hanging from bow and fishing cormorants in water on Uji River, Japan

The Cormorant Fishing Begins

The fish were drawn towards the burning basket, like moths to a flame, unaware of the carnage about to be unleashed upon them.  They were further encouraged by the thwacks of an oar, rapped against the side of the boat.  Satisfied that the fish had taken the bait, the fisherwoman launched the attack.

One by one, she dropped the cormorants into the water, each tethered by a thin lead.  Clad in a splash proof straw skirt and spark repellent bandana, the fisherwoman adeptly manipulated the strings like a master puppeteer.  She controlled all six cormorants at once as they ducked and dived around the boat.

Within minutes, the first bird found success and was deftly scooped into the boat.  The catch was pulled from the cormorant's beak and tossed into the waiting basket. The disappointed cormorant rejoined its colleagues and continued the hunt. The successes continued until the basket was nearly full. When the fisherwoman was satisfied, she collected the birds and rewarded each one with a fresh sweetfish treat.

Fisherwoman controlling fishing cormorants from ubune boat on Uji River, Japan

The Fisherwoman Shows Off Her Skills

The art of cormorant fishing (ukai in Japanese) has been practised in Japan for over a thousand years. Carefully regulated and requiring an Imperial licence, it's no surprise that only a select few still follow the tradition. The cormorants themselves are well cared for, living up to 4 times longer in captivity than in the wild. The cormorants in Uji are divided into two teams, working on a rotation so no cormorant is expected to fish on two consecutive evenings. Not a bad life.

When Can I See Cormorant Fishing?

Ukai displays are held in Uji every evening from July to September.  Spectators get a front row view of the action from the comfort of another boat, which floats just a few metres from the cormorants.  Tickets should be bought on site as no prior reservation is possible.

Long cormorant fishing viewing boat moored by shore in Uji, Kyoto

Ukai Viewing Boat

Byodoin Temple

Cormorant fishing isn't the only reason to visit Uji. Next to the river, lush Japanese gardens provide the idyllic setting for Byodoin Temple. Visit in late April to see the wisteria in full bloom, splashes of lilac brightening up the subtle beauty of these ancient wooden buildings. Topped with a pair of phoenixes, Byodoin's aptly named Phoenix Hall has been standing for nearly 1000 years and is now pictured on the 10 yen coin.

Uji Tea

Uji is also known for producing high quality green tea. Local artisan shops sell countless variations on this theme. You can try everything from bitter green tea ice cream, which is definitely an acquired taste, to surprisingly delicious green tea noodles.

Firefly Viewing

A little out of town, Uji City Botanical Garden has a small population of fireflies. From late May to early June, the garden is open late for firefly viewing. Take a walk along the riverside to see the tell tale green flashes or explore the glass houses after dark.

How To Get To Uji

From Kyoto: Take a train from Kyoto station on the JR Nara Line to Uji. The station is a 5 – 10 minute walk from Uji River.

From Osaka: Take a train from Kyobashi on the Keihan Main Line to Chushojima. Change to the Keihan Uji Line and take the train to the terminus at Uji. The station is next to Uji River.

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