It’s been quite a few months since I drove through the streets of Hita in southern Fukuoka prefecture and popped out to catch this particular manhole cover, but I saved it for a very good reason. The event depicted on it only happens in the summer.
Yes, I’m talking about ukai, or cormorant fishing. It’s an ancient practice here in Japan, dating back to sometime around 960 AD. The event takes place only in the evening and involves a fisherman and anywhere from one to six birds. The birds are tethered to the boat with a string and banded around the throat with a snare (a practice that is controversial in some minds). When a cormorant manages to catch a fish, the snare prevents it from actually swallowing its prize. (This pertains to large fish; smaller fish can often get past the snare and into the bird’s stomach.) The birds’ fish of choice is usually the ayu, or river trout, which you can find served in Hita’s riverside restaurants.
Today, ukai is rarely practiced for much more than tourism purposes and even then, it has only been continued in 13 different locations in Japan. Hita is one of two places in Kyushu where you can witness this evening event, although the towns of Gifu and Uji (both in the Kansai region) are much more well-known for the fishing practice.