Cormorant fishing has been handed down since the Muromachi period by Yoichiro Adachi, a ceremonial cormorant master for the Imperial Household Agency.

Cormorant fishing has been handed down since the Muromachi period by Yoichiro Adachi, a ceremonial cormorant master for the Imperial Household Agency.

Cormorant fishing is a fishing method in which a cormorant master pulls the reins from the top of a boat and steers the cormorant to catch ayu (sweetfish) and other river fish. The cormorant’s habit of diving into the river and holding the fish it catches in its throat is utilized. The cormorant swallows the ayu as it begins to move, startled by the bonfire lighting up the surface of the water, and catches it. In the silence of the dark night with a gentle river breeze, the sight of cormorants dressed in traditional costumes, boats lit by crackling bonfires, and cormorants maneuvering their boats to catch the ayu is truly a fantastic sight.

It has a long history, having been handed down in Japan for 1,300 years, and is still practiced in 11 locations throughout Japan, including Ehime and Oita prefectures. Of these, the Kose Cormorant Fishing in Seki City, Gifu Prefecture, and the Nagara River Cormorant Fishing in Gifu City, Gifu Prefecture, are conducted under the protection of the Imperial Household, and nine cormorant masters carry on the tradition under the title of “Imperial Household Agency ceremonial cormorant masters. In 2015, the Nagara River cormorant fishing technique was also designated as an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property of Japan for the first time in Japan.

Yoichiro Adachi, the 18th generation of the Adachi family of cormorants, is the successor to the Kose cormorant fishery. While working as a cormorant during the annual cormorant fishing season from May 11 to October 15, he also runs an inn, “Cormorant House Adachi,” in a 300-year-old house that has been designated as a tangible cultural property by the city. After the summer cormorant fishing season is over, I take care of the cormorants every day in preparation for the following year. Cormorant fishing is not only about fishing, but also about nurturing cormorants. I am the only one who can take care of the cormorants, so I can never take a day off. (Mr. Adachi)

He was also conflicted about his occupation and longed for other jobs when he was a child. 27 years old, he decided to follow in his footsteps, but it was not all glamorous work like the cormorants he saw on TV. He laughs, “It wasn’t all glamorous work like the cormorants you see on TV.

There are other ways to catch ayu, but why does the cormorant fishing continue? Nakada replied, “Because it is the most efficient way to catch ayu, and the taste of the ayu is good. One cormorant can hold several ayu in its throat, and the freshness of the fish is excellent because it is caught in an instant with a sharp chopstick. Also, when making stews and other dishes, the cormorant’s bite marks soak up the flavor, making them delicious,” says Adachi.

It may seem like a performance for tourists, but in fact, there is a rational reason for it, backed up by 1,300 years of history.

Inside the tasteful main building, there is a box painted “Goyo” (Imperial warrant), inside which are housed lanterns. A number of them, supplied from the Edo period to the Showa period, are lined up in a row. In those days, these lanterns were held over cormorant boats to indicate that the boats were fishing with the endorsement of the Imperial Court, the Shogunate, or the government. Cormorant fishing could not continue without such backing, so it has survived with the help of patrons of each era,” says Adachi.

Since water has always been important to people, there have been times when conflicts have arisen with farmers over the flow of rivers. In such situations, the cormorant fishing industry was recognized as a special role and protected by the patronage of court nobles and others.

Currently, Mr. Adachi works as a ceremonial cormorant fisherman for the Imperial Household Agency (a national public servant), and keeps the traditional lights of cormorant fishing alive by conducting “imperial cormorant fishing” eight times a year for the Imperial Household in the Imperial Household Prohibited Fishing Area.

When the bonfire is very powerful, the sparks from the fire are quite hot, but if the fire is big enough to light in the darkness, ayu fish can be caught, and the sight of the fire gives it an air of elegance, and tourists cheer loudly, so I feel that it is worthwhile. That’s why bonfires are the life of cormorants,” says Adachi.

Matsuo Basho composed a haiku poem, “Omoshiro te yamashiki udonohuna kanana,” or “If something disappears, it disappears, and if something continues, it continues,” Adachi muses. As long as there are cormorants who keep the fire burning in their hearts, this mysterious traditional culture will never die out.


Unoya Adachi
78 Oze, Seki-shi, Gifu
TEL 0575-22-0799