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Tue, Oct. 10, 2017 Nagara River: Pristine beauty, waterborne bounty
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The Nagara River runs for 166 kilometers through the heart of Gifu Prefecture, in central Japan. Although some 830,000 people live along the river banks, the water is renowned throughout Japan for its pristine clarity. It is also famous for its abundant ayu ("sweetfish"), a species of freshwater fish that only live in unpolluted waterways, and which make a summer specialty for food lovers across the country.

John Moore was born in Ireland but has lived in Japan for 30 years. On this edition of Journeys in Japan, John explores the Nagara River, meeting with residents who feel a strong bond with this waterway and who work hard to keep the river clean and clear. Their efforts are maintaining the habitat of the ayu fish and supporting the work of local artisans.

Local fishing tours for visitors
Local fishing tours for visitors
Fisherman Kentaro Hiraku takes participants out on the Nagara River to see for themselves its beauty and bounty. As part of the tour, he demonstrates a traditional method of cast net fishing.
40 Nakakarayama-cho, Kagamihara, Gifu Pref.
Tel: +81-(0)80-8256-4295 (in Japanese only)
Cormorant fishing
Cormorant fishing
This impressive way of catching ayu has been practiced along the Nagara River for around 1,300 years. Traditional fishermen train cormorants to dive into the water and catch the fish. The fishing takes place at night, using blazing braziers. Some of the catch is offered to the Imperial Household.
78 Oze, Seki, Gifu Pref.
Tel: +81-(0)575-22-0799 (in Japanese only)
River diving
River diving
In Mino, the Nagara River is as much as 12 meters deep, making it one of the few places in Japan that is ideal for river diving. Participants have a good chance of spotting fish such as ayu, eels, catfish and carp. If you are lucky, you may even glimpse a giant salamander. These large amphibians grow over a meter long and are designated by the government as a special natural asset.
Nagara River Diving Resort
1559-1 Minato-cho, Mino, Gifu Pref.
Tel: +81-(0)575-31-0588 (in Japanese only)
Mizu-uchiwa ("water fans")
Mizu-uchiwa ("water fans")
A special type of handmade washi paper is made in Mino from the bark of the gampi tree. This paper is a local specialty handicraft. It is used to cover fans which, when varnished, are as transparent as water. In the old days, people used to dip these fans into water to create a nice, cooling breeze when fanning themselves in the heat of midsummer - and that is how this kind of fan got its name.
2249 Aioi-cho, Mino City, Gifu Prefecture
TEL: +81-(0)575-33-0621 (Japanese only)
Traditional fish traps (yana)
Traditional fish traps (yana)
This traditional method of catching ayu is practiced around the time when the fish make their way downstream to spawn. The rivers are blocked at various intervals using weirs and platforms made from wood and bamboo, known in Japanese as yana. The season usually runs from mid-August through mid-October. Visitors are welcome to try their hand at catching ayu at the yana, and then to enjoy the freshly caught fish grilled nearby.
Kariyasu Yana
1184 Hakusan, Minami-cho, Gujo, Gifu Pref.
Tel: +81-(0)575-79-2959 (in Japanese only)
From Tokyo, it takes one hour 40 minutes by Shinkansen bullet train to Nagoya. From there, it's a 20-minute ride to Gifu, taking a rapid train on the Tokaido Mainline.
Travel Log

Traveler: John Moore > More Info


Occupation:Growing people

Length of residence in Japan:31 years

Reason:Japan had called to my heart since I was 18 years old, and I came to work in Japan as a PR copywriter for an advertising agency.

Traveler's Archives:

> Niseko: Snowy Adventures

> Bounty of the wild north: Cape Soya, Hokkaido

> Okayama: Into the Deep Red

> Kingdom of Apples: Tsugaru, Aomori

> Awaji Island: Keeping traditions alive

By John Moore

I live deep in the high mountains of Shikoku. Naturally, the rivers there are fast, deep and clean. But I had heard about another river that was just as crystal clear - but which flows through towns and villages with as many as 830,000 people.

Pristine enough to allow flourishing populations of ayu ("sweetfish"), which only eat river moss? Could it be true? I travelled to Gifu Prefecture, right in the center of Japan, to check the Nagara River for myself.

First, I visited the ancient river town of Gujo Hachiman, where I wandered among wonderful tiled houses and temples. My aim was to discover this legendary waterway. To my delight, I discovered so much more.

I found a deep culture of living together with water. Recycling with respect has been normal for centuries. People here would never disrespect the water by throwing rubbish into it. Clean living is the social consciousness.

I met one lady who washes all her food in mountain water, and who carefully leaves the remaining rice as food for the fish. In cities we usually use and flush. The dirt goes away, but here does it go? We don't know, and few care. So our city rivers are dirty, and dangerous to our health and our children.

Fishing for ayu, I went out river diving. Underwater, they flicker through their ecosystem like rays of light dappling a forest glade. They are territorial about the moss that grows on the river stones. If you use a live ayu as bait, when the resident ayu defends his territory, he gets hooked!

I also observed the spectacle of cast net fishing - looping a net around an ayu feeding area. An amazing nature sport!

And then there is the night fishing - with cormorants! The tethered birds dive for ayu by the light of a wood-fire brazier on the foredeck of the boat. It felt like a Japanese Noh drama, slipping back some 13,000 years. Fire, wind, moonlight, drums, songs, wind, and diving fish: a summer festival of river life.

I ate that night's catch. Delicious! So clean and pure! Because the river is so pristine, the ayu do not smell "fishy."

The Cormorant Master is an employee of the Imperial Household Agency, and I sat in the very same seat used by the Emperor of Japan when he visited that house to eat ayu.

I strolled through streets, and visited wonderful old Japanese stores selling washi, the traditional paper that's been handmade here for a thousand years. Today's artisans paint designs of ayu on paper so thin it floats on air. Their skills are old but the designs are very modern.

If you need to learn how to grow a social consciousness that cares for waterways, explore the Nagara River. If they can do it here, you can do it where you are. And it's all an open book.

See you on the road!

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