Waterside Birds, Part II: the Cormorant

..That island in the River Ota was also used as a resting place by cormorants. Unlike herons, cormorants are ferocious birds and dive into water to catch fish. They can stay underwater for a long time. It is always interesting to predict where they will appear again, for our guesses are seldom right. When they are tired of diving, cormorants perch on the rocks and spread their wings to dry. On these occasions, there is something comical about their appearance.

09-10-18 多摩川・鵜 1by NY-x

..Cormorants are also tamed and used for cormorant fishing. I first saw a cormorant show at Miyoshi, where three rivers merge to form the Gonokawa, a big river that runs into the Sea of Japan. Here, even today, we can catch one-foot-long ayu fish. What is so good about the cormorant fishing in this river is that we can get very close to the master fisherman’s boat to watch the show from there. I have seen cormorant fishing at other places, for example, at Gifu and Iwakuni – but I could never get close enough to enjoy the show. Basho wrote the following poem about his experience.
….Enjoyable at first,
….But eventually saddening–
….Cormorant fishing.
..I am not quite sure what was the cause of Basho’s sadness. Is he referring to the end of this magnificent show when torches are extinguished and everything is swallowed up in darkness, or is he thinking about the sad fate of the ayu fish caught by the cormorants, or the plight of the birds kept on a leash? Whatever, cormorants come up to the water’s surface with an ayu caught horizontally in their beaks, and then throw it up into the air before swallowing it down with their neck held vertically. This is nothing short of an acrobatic feat, and gave rise to our expression unomi ni suru, which means to ‘gulp something down like a cormorant without chewing’. The special delicacy of Miyoshi is ayu zushi, strained lees of bean-curd stuffed into the cleaned bellies of ayu fish. I have not had the pleasure of tasting this delicacy for a long time now.
When I travelled to Guilin several years ago, I saw Chinese cormorant-fishing masters. One of them was enjoying a nap with his cormorants perched on his raft. I thought it was very brave of him to entrust himself to the fast-flowing River Li. Compared with elegant herons, cormorants look very fierce, probably because of their pitch-dark feathers.
….Black as a monk’s robe,
….The cormorant has red eyes
….Burning with hell fire.


3 Responses to “Waterside Birds, Part II: the Cormorant”

  1. I do not know who posted the Waterside Birds, Part II entry, there’s not name attached. But I’d like to comment on Basho’s haiku, and his sadness. I read the poem to mean that Basho is sadden by the fact that the birds cannot keep the fish they catch. The ring around their neck prevents the bird from swallowing the fish. Down the river’s depths the black bird has to go repeatedly, probably catching the same fish again and again. Looked at it this way, my sadness also goes out for the fish. Eventually, it catches on to the fact that this is some sort of game, so not to worry.

    What, again? same beak,
    same air toss, same return splash;
    dumb fish thots to smart rock

    Meaning the stone hugs the river bottom close, and avoids getting caught by the bird; the fish notices this, but doesn’t get the clue.

    In Kyoto’s autumn, there is one out-of-town tourist for every leaf on the maples in Heian Shrine. It has been calculated this way. Hence, the yellow smog of buses in the fall to match the yellow sand from China in spring.

    eyes watering, nose running, masks mounted;
    lovely times, ancient capital

    Still, if it’s possible to escape the masses and get to the hills surrounding us, some fantastic views are awaiting.

    From Mt Hiei, glorious capital
    fills the king’s valley

    Enuf for now; back to the riverbank.

  2. Thanks for this, Richard. I loved the yellow smog of buses. There’s a daily mist of them out here at Arashiyama, too. The author of the piece is Nobuyuki Yuasa. Haigo (pen names) are given on the Contributors page. His is Sosui, ‘running water’, a touch cormorant-ish?

  3. It just so happens that on Sunday, atop Mt. Ogura here in Kyoto, we were decorating a tree with poems. The tree would represent to the wind and the rain our feelings about this poets’ mount during the next two weeks. My own poem was about the summer-time cormorant-fishing that takes place in the Oi River at the foot of the hill, so I share it here with tanka-style trans. by Okiharu Maeda. Since we had a camera crew with us that day, it might well be featured on Mainichi TV later this month.

    Fire moving
    On night water:
    Cormorants plying
    The two worlds.

    夜の水面映え移しけむ火明かりは 彼の世此の世往き帰す鵜かも
    yo no minamo, hae-utsushi kemu, hoakari wa, ka no yo ko no yo o, iki-kisu u kamo

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