As I watch my translator, there's a dance going on. A dance of words and body language. Intricate steps that I do not understand. Each move is designed to show respect. Layers of tradition, built into verbal and non-verbal movements that must be carefully played out before a relationship is established. 

Mr. Junji Yamashita is 84yrs old. A revered Usho (Cormorant/Ukai fisherman) on the payroll of the emperor. If anyone deserves this beautiful dance, he does. 

We are in Gifu City nestled in the middle of Japan. Yamashita’s house sits by the pristine Nagara River with views of the distant tree-covered mountains. Fishing on the River dates back more than 1,300 years. Yamashita is one of six fishing masters in Gifu. A title and occupation that is passed down from generation to generation, keeping the ancient art form alive. Yamashita’s extended family of cormorant fisherman can be traced back seventeen generations.

It has a very long history in Japan and is mentioned in many ancient chronicles. The samurai warlord, Oda Nobunaga took the ukai fisherman under his patronage and created the official position and title of usho (Cormorant Fishing Master). The haiku poet, Matsuo Basho famously wrote a haiku about ukai when he visited Gifu to watch the cormorant fishing: “Exciting to see / but soon after, comes sadness / the cormorant boats”. Today, the fishing masters are the official Imperial fisherman of the emperor of Japan, with the sweet fish sent to the Imperial family several times a year.

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