Kiso River Cormorant fishing: Experience 1300 years of history

It is around 6:30 p.m. afternoon on the picturesque Kiso River (Inuyama). Right at the end of the Japanese summer, when the sun has practically gone down, the spectacle of cormorant fishing begins. The cormorant fishing, called in Japanese Ukai (鵜飼) is a traditional fishing method with more than 1300 years of tradition, in which cormorants, aquatic birds, are trained and used to catch freshwater fish such as ayu (鮎).

Kiso River Cormorant fishing

A brief history

The cormorant fishing is a technique that was developed in Asia very actively (Japan, China and Korea). But it is Japan in particular, where it  has had such refinement and perfectionism that it is considered one of the most remarkable forms of tradition in the country.

It is said that the Ukai has been practiced in the rivers of Japan for more than 1,300 years, as they appear in the first writings of the history of Japan (Nihon Shoki and Kojiki). It seems that in these there are songs and allusions pointing to this unique fishing method.

Ukai Watching was a very popular pastime among the feudal and aristocratic lords in the eighth to nineteenth centuries. Oda Nobunaga, one of the most important feudal lords in Japanese history, supported the fishermen with cormorants, granting some of them the title of Ushō or “cormorant fishing master“. This remarkable fact greatly helped the development of the fishing industry and the preservation of this form of fishing until the Meiji Restoration (1868).

During this time the system of government completely changed and the protective policy of the feudal lords came to an end. The cormorant fishing faced many difficulties. But several years later, in 1890 and by order of the Imperial Family, and as an action to save this tradition from his disappearance, the Emperor named the fishermen of Ukai on the Nagara River, Fishermen of the Imperial Agency. Since then, this title has been passed down from parents to children to this day.

From tradition to a tourist attraction

Currently the Ukai is carried out mainly as a tourist attraction. Special tours are offered day and night. The Ukai season runs from June 1 to October 15 (except August 10), and each tour lasts about 1 hour.

Kiso River Cormorant fishing

At nightfall, the ukai boats go out for fishing. During the tour, fishermen wear traditional clothes. Each ukai boat has a master fisherman, a rower (Tomonori とも乗り) and an assistant (Nakanori なか乗り) that helps the master fisherman (Ushō 鵜匠) during the fishing. The master fisherman controls the cormorants with hemp ropes that he ties to the neck of the cormorants and his wrists. The men hit the sides of the boat and make noise to keep the birds active.

Kiso River view

Kiso River Cormorant fishing Kiso River Cormorant fishing Kiso River Cormorant fishing

A fire hanging from a steel basket in the bow of the boat attracts the fish. The cormorants dive into the river and catch the fish. At that moment the fisherman pulls the rope and quickly retrieves the fish from the throat of the bird. Extreme skill is required so that  the ropes tied to the cormorants do not get tangled. About 6 birds fish at once, and each bird can have approximately five or six fish in its mouth at a time.

Kiso River Cormorant fishing

Night after night, year after year, you can see the bonfire of cormorant fishing, reflected in the waters of the Kiso River.

Travel tips

If you are going to go on the night tour, I recommend eating before at the different food stalls in the downtown city.

In the ukai tours, both night and day, they serve meals prepared with the sweetfish (Ayu 鮎) that the cormorants hunt. Dinner prices range between 2,200 and 7,000 yen. On the day tour the price of lunch is already included.

There is a mini shop where you can buy snacks, sweets and drinks (there are also alcoholics). If you bring food or drinks not purchased at the store, they charge an additional charge of 350 yen (per person).

Getting Here

By train
If you are coming from the Chubu Centrair International Airport, you can get a Meitetsu Limited Express train or a Express from (μ-Sky) to the Inuyama Yuen station (approx. 60 minutes).

If you are coming from Nagoya station, you can take a Meitetsu Limited Express train or an Express from to the Inuyama Yuen station (30 min approx.).

Once arrived at the Inuyama Yuen station take the east exit and you will arrive in 3 minutes on foot.

General Information

2 Kitahakusanbira, Inuyama, Inuyama-City, Aichi Prefecture
Google Maps

Booking Hours

From April to May (weekdays only): 9:30-16:00
From June to October 15: 9:30-18:00
* Book with 3 days in advance

Tour Dates and Hours

Night ukai tour: Only includes the ukai tour.
From June to August: from 7:00 p.m. to 8:15 p.m.
From September to October: from 6:30 p.m. to 7:45 p.m.

Night ukai tour + dinner on board
From June to August; from 5:45 to 8:15 p.m.
From September to October: from 5:15 to 7:45

Day ukai tour + lunch on board
From 11:30 to 14:00


Night ukai tour
Low season (June to August): adults 2,600 yen, children (from 4 to 12 years old) 1,300 yen
High season (September to October): adults 2,900 yen, children (from 4 to 12 years old) 1,450 yen
* Does not include meals.

Day ukai tour
Low season (June to August): adults 4,500 yen, children (from 4 to 12 years old) 3,300 yen
High season (September to October): adults 4,800 yen, children (from 4 to 12 years old) 3,450 yen
* Free for children under 4 years.

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