What is it about the Ayu that makes fisherman act so strange? The first time I heard about the little fish was when a friend pointed out some fisherman in the Nagara River. The men stood waist-deep in the water, with long fishing poles.
A fisherman uses a bird and fire to catch Ayu.
"They make the fish fight," my friend told me. I had no idea what he was talking about. Only after several people explained it to me did I understand the interesting ways of the Ayu fisherman.
In the US, I always fished by putting a worm on a hook and casting into the water. Not the Ayu fisherman. They use a hook, but they don't put any bait on it. Instead, they tie a living Ayu onto their line above the hook. Then they dangle the fish into the water and wait for another Ayu to attack it. The new Ayu will get hooked while the two fish fight.
According to fisherman, Ayu like to hang out next to big rocks and nibble on moss. They are very territorial, so when another Ayu comes along, they fight over their little patch of moss. This isn't the only way to catch an Ayu, though.
For the last 1,000 years, some fisherman have used birds to catch fish. The ukai, or cormorants, are big birds that love to eat anything that swims. The fisherman tie ropes around the necks of the hungry birds and turn them lose on the Ayu at night when they're sleeping.
"We must be careful about how tight we tie the rope," an Ayu fisherman told me. "If the rope is too tight, the birds can't eat anything, so we have to leave room for them to swallow the smaller fish."
The Ukai fisherman keep the birds in their garden all year. During fishing season, they bring out the birds at night. They go out in a boat and light a fire in a metal basket that hangs over the water. The fire burns hot, so the fisherman wears a skirt made of grass to protect himself.
A couple of men row the boat over the river while the birds dive underwater and bring back whatever they catch. I sat in a boat next to them and watched. It was a fascinating sight. The dancing orange flames were reflected in the birds' black eyes and the smooth dark water. Now and then a bird appeared with an Ayu in its mouth, like a dog bringing back a toy ball. Everyone cheered.
Seeing these men fish in the same way that people have fished the Nagara for centuries was incredible. It was like visiting a museum, but instead of imagining what life was like, I was bearing witness to the living heritage of Ayu fishing. That kind of experience, with the fire and the fish, felt more than just interesting. It was a historical and spiritual trip down the river.
Now, whenever I eat Ayu at a barbeque, I can imagine the human history that swims alongside these little silver fish. The white meat is very delicate. If you ever have a chance to taste Ayu, think about that little fish in the river, next to a rock. You can almost taste the moss in the sweet meat. No wonder we do such strange things to catch those fish, they're delicious.
Check out some video footage of the cormorant fishing!