In Arashiyama I stepped into a dream. A fat orange moon climbed into view as I crossed the Togersu-kyo, or Moon Bridge. Coloured lights lit the narrow streets, and lanterns hung among the trees down by the water. Small balls of fire floated across the bay: the cormorant fishing had begun.
Watching these boats I felt witness to a world of fairy-tales. Marco Polo witnessed the fishing in China, but I didn't believe it still existed. The town of Arashiyama, so close to the old capital Kyoto, has been popular since the Heian period (794-1185), when the nobles would visit during the summer months (and yes, they too watched the cormorant fishing). On a warm summer's night in Japan, I walked into this world I thought long gone.
To attract the fish, a burning brazier is hung from the front of the boat. The cormorants dive from the boat to catch the fish; a ring around their neck prevents them from swallowing larger fish, but as they return to the boat with their prize the fishermen reward them with smaller fish to eat. The birds are obviously well cared for, and after their swim they sit on the edge of the boat, drying their wings, a silhouette against the burning brazier.
Although the fisherman put on their display for the tourists barges in the bay, by walking along the edge of the water I could get quite close to where the fishermen pulled ashore. They were dressed in traditional garb, with the traditional dark kimono, a straw skirt to repel water, and a linen cloth wrapped around their heads to protect them from sparks.
Fishing is only in the summer months, and a balmy breeze floated around me as these little balls of fire floated across the water against the backdrop of dark mountains. The lights of hidden restaurants dotted the hillside, and the moon climbed ever higher into the sky.
One day I will return to Arashiyama, designated by the Japanese government as a Historic Site and Place of Scenic Beauty. I want explore the town by daylight; her temples and groves of bamboo, see the cherry trees in blossom and watch the hills don their autumn hues. For now, however, I was content to see an ancient world come to life, to live on in my memory.
Reaching Arashiyama from Kyoto
i) By bus: Bus #28 leaves regularly from Kyoto Station, taking some 30 mins. The bus terminal in Arashiyama is a few minutes walk from the Moon Bridge.
ii) By train: from Kyoto Station, take the JR Sagano/San-in line to Saga-Arashiyama station. From there it is a ten minute walk into town.