Nagara-gawa ukai (長良川鵜飼)

Nagara-gawa ukai is ukai (cormorant fishing) that is conducted in Nagara-gawa River in Gifu City, Gifu Prefecture during the period from May 11 to October 15 every year. It is conducted every night except for the day of harvest moon and when the river rises. The reason why it is not conducted on the day of harvest moon is that sweetfishes are not lured by kagaribi (fishing fire) due to the light of full moon.

It has been conducted for about 1,300 years, and its origin was ukai for fishery. Currently, however, ukai is conducted as a tourist attraction inheriting traditional fishing method.
Ukai that is conducted eight times a year at Imperial Household Agency's goryoba (fishing ground for the Imperial Court) is called 'goryo ukai.'
Sweetfishes that are caught in goryo ukai are offered not only to the Imperial Palace but also to Meiji-jingu Shrine and Ise-jingu Shrine.

Ukai of Nagara-gawa River is the sole ukai in Japan that is patronized by the Imperial Court, and the official job title of usho (a fisherman of cormorant fishing) of Nagara-gawa ukai is shikibushoku usho of Kunaicho (Imperial Household Agency). A set of tools for Nagara-gawa uaki, a total of 122 pieces, are designated as national important tangible assets of folk culture, and the fishing method of Nagara-gawa ukai is designated as intangible folk cultural asset by Gifu City.

The middle reaches of Nagara-gawa River where ukai is conducted was selected in 1985 as one of 'the best 100 natural water sources in Japan.'
Also, a bathing place located along the river, about one kilometer from the Nagara Bridge in Gifu City toward the upper stream, was selected by the Ministry of Environment as one of 'the best 55 bathing places in Japan' in 1998 as well as one of 'the best 88 bathing places in Japan' in 2001, the sole case among riverside bathing places.

Fishing method

Usho gets on ubune (a boat used for ukai) with kagaribi at its bow and controls 10 to 12 cormorants by handling tenawa (a hand rope), and cormorants catch sweetfishes that gather under kagaribi. As usho always lives together with cormorants, usho and cormorants get along perfectly and cormorants catch sweetfishes neatly. Usho gets cormorants to spit out sweetfishes into a basket. A fishing method called Makigari, which is conducted by six ships, is fantastic.

The order of going out fishing is decided by a drawing done by tomonori (a person responsible for steering a ship). As a haul of fish varies depending on the order, this drawing is important for usho.

Shozoku (formal clothes of usho)

It is black or dark-blue hemp, and it is put around a head for the purpose of protecting hair from kagaribi. The reason why its tip is angular is because it was originally designed to cover topknot. This name derived from the fact that its shape looks like the one that was broken by the wind.

Ryofuku (clothes for fishing)
Clothes made of black or dark-blue cotton. Dark colors are used for ryofuku because bright colors stir cormorants' fear.

Muneate (bib)
It is used for protecting the body from sparks and pine resin. It is also used as a pocket.

Koshimino (grass skirt)
It is made of straws and is used to keep the body warm by brushing off splashes.

Ashinaka (footwear)
Ashinaka is waraji (straw sandal) whose size is half the normal one and is put on by a toe. It is devised to prevent slipping caused by fat of fish or fur. As straw-made ashinaka is expensive, vinyl-made ahinaka is often used.


A boat which usho uses for ukai is called ubune. Its length is about 13m. Other than usho, 'tomonori,' who is responsible for steering a ship, and 'nakanori,' an assistant for usho and tomonori, are on board ubune. These three persons make a team and go down Nagara-gawa River while catching ayu.

Ubune built at Ukai Kanransen Zosenjo (shipyard of spectators boat of cormorant fishing) operated by Gifu City is being used.


Temminck's cormorants are used for ukai. This is because temminck's cormorants are bigger and stronger than common cormorants. Temminck's cormorants are used for ukai after having been trained for two to three years. Usho usually keeps about 20 cormorants at home and put all of them into ukago (a basket to bring cormorants) a few hours before going out fishing. Then, he decides cormorants which he brings for fishing after judging their physical condition. Cormorants are fed once a day, and the volume of feed is reduced during the on-season so that they are kept hungry before going out fishing. As cormorants that are not hungry don't catch sweetfishes, those that are brought to fishing are fed only after fishing finished. As usho makes two cormorants act in pair in ukai, he usually makes same two cormorants act in pair in other places than that of ukai. As a result, these two cormorants get on well each other, but not with other cormorants. The above pair is not necessarily that of male and female.

Although temminck's cormorants had been captured in Ise bay until the early Showa era, they are currently captured at Juo-machi, Hitachi City, Ibaragi Prefecture.

Uayu (a sweetfish caught by a cormorant)

A sweetfish caught by a cormorant, which is called 'hagata no ayu' (literally, ayu with a tooth mark), has the mark of cormorant's beak. It is said that uayu is fresh and tasty since it was instantly killed with a cormorant's beak. Uayu is so precious and expensive that it is normally not on sale at the market, but some tourist hotels serve it under the contract with usho.

Fishing ground

A fishing ground has changed according to the change of situation surrounding ukai. At the time of 1909, a fishing ground was the area from Suhara, Mino City to Sunomata, Ogaki City. After the war, the border between Nagaragawa Chuo Fisheries Cooperative Association and Nagaragawa Fisheries Cooperative Association (the upstream of the junction of Nagara-gawa River, Ima-gawa River and Ibo-gawa River) became the border of Nagara and Oze. As ukai is mainly conducted for tourist attraction purpose at present, its actual fishing ground has become shorter.

Goryo ukai

Ukai patronized by the Imperial Court
Ukai of Nagara-gawa River in Gifu City and Seki City are the only ukai in Japan that are conducted by shikibushoku usho of Kunaicho (accordingly, they are national public servants). There are six and three Shikibushoku usho in Nagara, Gifu City and Oze, Seki City respectively, and all of them inherited the job based on the hereditary system.
Ukai that is conducted by these usho eight times during the season at Kunaicho's goryoba is called 'goryo ukai.'
Sweetfishes that are caught in goryo ukai are offered not only to the Imperial Palace but also to Meiji-jingu Shrine and Ise-jingu Shrine.

While the people doing ukai fishing are generally called 'Utukai,' those doing ulkai in Nagara-gawa River are traditionally called 'usho' because of the hereditary system.

Kunaicho shikibushoku usho

Yoshinori SUGIYAMA
Ichisaburo SUGIYAMA


Goryoba is basically a non-fishing area, and it is used only for goryo ukai.

Furutsu area, Gifu City
Tachibana area, Mino City (Oze ukai)
Takeda, Gunjo City (abolished after the war)

Ukai for tourists

It is ukai for tourists that is conducted at the upstream of Nagara-bashi Bridge. Ubune on which kagaribi is burning slowly appears and tourists can watch the scene where cormorants catch sweetfishes from a spectator boat. Tourists can enjoy ukai without going ashore since a toilet boat and a shop boat, on which fireworks and drinks etc. are on sale, are also operated. Before getting on board, explanations about ukai is done by usho at the boarding place.

Ukai is normally conducted once a day, and six ubune make one round trip in front of a spectator boat. On the day of ukai in the cool of summer evening, ukai is conducted twice and sogarami is also conducted.

1. Reception
2. Explanation about ukai
Explanation about ukai is done by usho at the boarding place.

3. Boarding
4. Departure
5. Mooring
A boat moors at the side of river and guests take dinner while waiting for the start of ukai.

6. Ukai
Ukai starts at the signal of fireworks.

7. Karikudari
A spectator boat and ubune go down the river side by side.

8. (sogarami)
A fishing method in which six ubune line up in a row, drive sweetfishes into shallows and catch them.
(it is conducted only on the day of ukai in the cool of summer evening)

9. Leaving a boat

Ukai-biraki festival

Ukai-biraki festival is held on May 11 every year. After the ritual praying for the safety and prosperity of ukai during the season is held, spectator boats row out into the river one after another amid the performance of drums. Various events are held by citizens including the operation of odoribune (dancing boat) by geigi (geisha) and the sending up of fireworks.


Utan' is a mascot modeled on a cormorant which Gifu City selected in order to promote Ngara-gawa ukai across the nation. It usually wears the clothes of usho, but it sometimes wear other clothes for PR purpose.
Its name 'Utan' consists of 'u,' a Japanese word corresponding to a cormorant, and 'tan,' a child's word of 'chan.'

Ambassador of Nagara-gawa ukai

Famous people who are associated with Gifu are designated as the ambassador of Nagara-gawa ukai. This system was established in 1999.

Katsuhiko HIBINO
Mr. Maric
Masaaki MORI

Gifu City Ukai Spectator Boat Office

Address : 1-2 Minato-machi, Gifu City, 550-8009 (adjacent to the boarding place of ukai spectator boat located on the south edge of Nagara-bashi Bridge)
Tel: 058-262-0104


Nagara-gawa ukai has been conducted for about 1,300 years and its history overlaps the history of Japanese ukai. As ukai was a luxurious hobby of persons of power, it has been protected persons of power of the time. During the Edo period, it was conducted under the protection of Tokugawa bakufu and Owari Tokugawa family. After the Meiji Restoration, it was once patronized by the house of Imperial Prince Arisugawa. Thereafter, it was affiliated to the Shuryoryo (division of hunting) of the Imperial Household Ministry (current Imperial Household Agency) in 1890.
The job title of usho of Nagara-gawa River is 'Kunaicho shikibushoku usho.'
Basho MATSUO composed a haiku, 'Omoshirote yagatekanashiki ubunekana' (I was interested in ubune, but gradually became sad).

A description concerning the ukai of Katagata County of Mino Province is seen in 'Wamyosho,' a dictionary compiled in the middle of Heian period.

It was recorded in 'Shukaishakubekki' that 37 houses were engaged in ukai.

It was recorded in 'Shinsenminoshi' that ukai was conducted at nine villages in Katagata County.

There exists a record saying Kaneyoshi ICHIJO stayed at Shoho-ji Temple in Mino and saw ukai in the era of Bunmei (Japan).

There exists a record saying that seven houses along Nagara-gawa River were engaged in ukai during the era of Engi, that FUJIWARA no Toshihito made these seven houses offer sweetfishes to the Emperor, that the Emperor was pleased and gave Shichigo Village in Katagata County as the place for planting pine trees for kagaribi, and that this village came to be called Ukaishihigo.

After having been defeated in Heiji Disturbance, MINAMOTO no Yoritomo, along with MINAMOTO no Yoshitomo, wandered along the Nagara-gawa River and stayed at the home of Hakumyo, the head of ukai fishermen. At that time, he was entertained with ayuzusi (fermented sushi with sweetfish) etc. When he went to Kyoto in 1192 as Udaisho (Major Captain of the Right Division of Inner Palace Guards), he called a child of Hakumyo, expressed his gratitude and ordered to send ayzushi to Kamakura every year.

In 1564, Nobunaga ODA saw Nagara-gawa ukai and gave the title of usho as well as ten bales (traditional unit for rice, which is 60 kilograms) of stipend to each ukai fishermen, which was the same treatment with takajo (a hawker).

In 1615, Ieyasu TOKUGAWA saw ukai and relished ayu baked in hot pebbles. Since then, it became a practice to offer ayu to Edo-jo Castle every year, and each of 21 usho was entitled a stipend of ten ryo. Ukai declined thereafter and the number of houses engaged in ukai became 12 in 1805. The above number began to increase again when a stipend of each house was increased to 120 koku per year and 532 ryo 2 bu.

Ukai once declined due to the Meiji Restoration, but sweetfishes were often offered to Daizenshiki (Office of the Palace Table) during the era of Emperor Meiji.

In 1890, a total of about 2.67 km of Nagara-gawa River, located in Furutsu, Nagara-mura, Inaba-gun, Mugi-gun and Gunjo-gun, was incorporated into the goryoba of Imperial Household Ministry.

In 1918, the Emperor watched ukai together with the Prince of Wales (George V [king of the U.K.]).

Charles CHAPLIN visited Gifu twice, in 1936 and in 1961, to watch ukai.
It is said that he hailed usho as artists and kept on saying 'wonderful.'

In 1962, ukai was held in the presence of the Emperor Showa.

In 1997, ukai was held in the presence of the present Emperor and Empress.

[Original Japanese]