Catch of the Day: Fishing Traditions in Japan

August 28, 2019

While relaxing beside a placid lake, rod in hand may seem like a traditional fishing experience, in Japan this is far from the truth. Long-reliant on the bounty of the sea and its river sources to provide sustenance, the fishermen of the island-nation have crafted unique techniques to ensure they can survive. Whether it’s the employment of wild birds, the seasonal trapping of river fish or breaking into ice-covered rivers, fishing here is a far more creative affair.

In Hokkaido—the northernmost island of Japan—rivers are often frozen over for four-to-five months of the year. Beneath the pristine snowy surface, however, the fish continue to swim and can still be caught—if you have the right skills. Seated in small tents, locals drill holes into the ice and catch small wakasagi fish—often cooking them then and there as a delicious snack. A popular winter day-out, there are now opportunities for tourists to try it too. Only half an hour from Sapporo, the Barato River is a great spot to try it, and on clear days colorful tents will dot the snaking river.

On the mainland of Honshu, the tradition of cormorant fishing, known as ukai, is one of the most unusual in Japan, if not the world. Sailing only at night, the fishermen tether trained birds to their boats, using a burning torch to illuminate the waters around them. Natural fishers themselves, the birds swallow fish whole, but store the catch in special pouches in their necks. Prevented from swallowing them fully by a special snare tied at the base of their necks, their food is retrieved by the fisherman when they are taken back onto the boat. Although it was once a regular source of income, today it is mainly a tourism draw, with displays watched by dinner-cruises in Kyoto, Gifu and elsewhere in Japan.

Some traditions, however, rely on a simple trick rather than an elaborate scheme to catch the wily creatures. Ayu, the popular sweetfish eaten throughout Japan, are often caught using an age-old tactic which requires live bait. Using a starter fish, the fisherman will attach a hook to the back, allowing it to swim in the river and eventually aggravate another fish nearby. Once the targeted fish attacks its intruder, it will be snared on a second hook and captured. Pulled to the surface, the original fish will be removed and replaced with the fresh catch, allowing the cycle to continue.

While fishing is a way of life for many individuals in Japan, in some towns, like Ine in Kyoto Prefecture, it is part of the very nature of the community. Considered one of the most beautiful places in the country, this small village is made of picturesque funaya (boat-houses) which line the bay, looking out to sea. Housing boats on the first floor and families above them, some now serve as minshuku (guesthouses), allowing visitors to experience a day in the life of a fisherman, including going out to try their hand at the skill themselves.

Of course, if you’re keen to try some more regular fishing, there are specialized spots to try your hand at the popular pastime. Forest Springs Kaisei in Kanagawa is easy to reach from Tokyo and offers three ponds, all home to a variety of trout species. The staff can teach you the basics, rent you equipment and even help you prepare your catch at the cafe after—a pretty perfect day, especially for beginners.

For more details, contact DMC Japan to discuss ideas, locations and rates.
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