A wet day in Okayama
We'd seen cormorants before, on the last cormorant fishing night of the summer from the banks of the Katsura river at Arashiyama near Kyoto . There they all had rings around their necks and were tethered by slim lines controlled by fishermen as they chased trout from two traditional wooden boats. The trout were attracted to within reach of the birds by flaming braziers suspended by long curved iron poles from the boats' prows. Whenever a bird caught a decent sized fish it was hauled in by the fishermen and forced to disgorge it to the cheers and flashing phones and cameras of dozens of tourists in boats moored in the middle of the river.
We couldn't decide if this was a cruel business, the birds seemed as keen as whippets, but we could definitely see that it was in its own way a beautiful spectacle, one that had been recorded in exquisite Japanese wood-block prints for centuries. The cormorants' splashings turned the reflections of the flames into splinters of orange light that danced on the black waters and behind, the ancient Togetsukyo bridge with its elegant low parapets drew a lovely gently arched silhouette against the darkening blue evening sky. It was also clearly a highly profitable business, the four tourist boats each made two trips out into the river, both times carrying thirty-odd tourists paying about 5000 yen per person, so it wasn't the prospect of flogging a couple of dozen trout to a local fishmonger that got the fishermen and the cormorants onto the water on moonless nights through each summer.
Later on the trip we saw cormorants again, from our hotel room overlooking the Ota river within view of the crippled peace dome at Hiroshima. Here they paddled against the flow and intercepted fish carried upstream on the incoming tide. This time we were able to watch them from above, albeit from quite a distance, so we could see their dark shapes under the water as they smoothly picked off their prey. I took no photos or made any sketches and at this point just assumed they were Japanese Cormorants (Phalacrocorax capillatus) the same birds the fisherman use and not Great Cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo) familiar here in the UK but which are becoming more common in Japan.
Okayama is about half way between Hiroshima and the megalopolis of Kobe/Osaka and by Japanese standards is a smallish city, perhaps best known in Japan for being the home of the strange legend of Momotaro. Found inside a peach by an old couple, Momotaro or Peach Boy, grew up to heroically fight demons all over Japan with, weirdly, the help of a talking dog, monkey and pheasant. A Momotaro trail marked by tasteful bronze plaques of the four heroes can be followed through the city but we were staying there to use it as a base to visit the art island of Naoshima in the nearby Inland Sea. Our last day in Okayama was earmarked for a walk up the long central boulevard to the ancient Korakuen Garden, one of the three great gardens of Japan. Unfortunately the northern flank of a typhoon that had lashed Kyushu way to the south east was delivering a drenching to Okayama that day, so we took the bus instead.
Korakuen like nearly all classical Japanese gardens is beautiful place of water, stone, islands and bridges, its lawns dotted with lovingly tended maples and black pines and, in late summer, drifts of vermillion nerine lilies. It was nevertheless a bit soggy that day so, having taken a look at the captive crane breeding cages and the extraordinary sight of hundreds of huge koi carp roiling in the muddy water at the inlet to one of the ornamental ponds, we crossed the footbridge over the Asahi river to the imposing Okayama Castle which had been painstakingly reassembled after being reduced to rubble by war-time bombing.
On the way back we noticed the cormorants, two of them, fishing in the river directly under the bridge and it was only then we could see just how beautifully adapted they are to underwater hunting. The green waters were quite clear although the surface was a little diffused by the rain and we watched them driving individual fish towards the shingle shallows, their dark shadows twisting and coiling, until they made a capture with a sharp dart of their necks. After each dive, which could take them twenty or thirty metres, they would surface with globules of silver water sliding off their black oily backs and, if successful they would juggle the fish a couple of times in their long hooked bills before gulping them down. Then once more with a preliminary little upward leap they would dive into the jade waters. On land there is something of the reptile about these birds, with their ungainly, folded shapes and scaly plumage, but underwater they are all sinuous fluid grace. Perhaps little plesiosaurs looked something like this 70 million years ago.
We escaped from the rain into the little coffee bar at the end of the bridge, quiet on such a wet day, and watched the comorants from the comfort of dry seats. One suddenly pattered across the water and flew low, skimming the surface until it disappeared beyond the bend in the river underneath the shadow of the looming castle. Then the other one took off and, maybe realising it needed to catch up, cut off the corner and flew higher over the wooded slope almost underneath the great curved eaves, a little black projectile, like an arrow hurled from a medieval siege engine.
The Japanese Cormorant is mostly found on the coast whilst the Great Cormorant, as in the UK, has apparently taken to inland waters recently. They are quite alike but as the birds we saw lacked any defining whiteness at the base of the bills I'm assuming they were carbo, and not capillatus.