Editor’s Note: As relative newcomers to the tenkara scene, many of us Westerners (with the aid of the internet) have developed certain ideas about tenkara and how it is practiced in Japan. In the Summer 2016 issue of Tenkara Angler, John Vetterli of Tenkara Guides, LLC set out to separate fact from fiction, as well as provide some insight on what traveling to Japan might really feel like for those interested in making the trip.
Myth Busting Tenkara in Japan
by John Vetterli
A while back I visited Japan for a few weeks of fishing with several recognized tenkara experts.
When I arrived in Japan, I thought I had a pretty solid grasp of how tenkara was practiced in the land of its origin. Man, I was completely off about that.
Here is the short list of tenkara myths that many westerners have about tenkara in Japan.
1. One Fly is the way Japanese tenkara anglers fish
Well, I hate to break this to you but the One Fly thing is for the most part an American interpretation of Japanese tenkara.
There are a few tenkara anglers in Japan that do use one fly pattern, very few. And within that one fly pattern there are variations of size, color, and hackle size/stiffness.
Most people I fished with used a pretty wide variety of fly and kebari patterns. These included Masami Sakakibara and Hiromichi Fuji, two of the most respected tenkara anglers in Japan.
There are some tenkara anglers in Japan who do use only one fly pattern.
Dr. Ishigaki is perhaps the most widely known One Fly Guy. These anglers are using the one fly method as a personal challenge to add a level of self-imposed difficulty. It is a game they play with themselves.
2. Level Line Tenkara is what most anglers do in Japan
Well, not exactly.
There is a lot of personal line choice exercised in Japan. I fished with people who use tapered furled fluorocarbon lines, PVC fly line, nylon monofilament level lines, tapered nylon monofilament lines, western fluorocarbon tapered leaders as tenkara lines, and of course fluorocarbon level line.
3. All rods from Japanese companies are manufactured in Japan
There are some rod companies in Japan that make and source every component of their rods in Japan. Nissin, Gamakatsu, Tenryu, and Sakura.
Other companies like Diawa and Shimano outsource many models that are made all over Asia in places like Vietnam, China, etc. The biggest difference in outsourced rods from a Japanese company is how they manage quality control. Most of these companies send a quality control team to the out of country manufacturing facility to directly manage the production run of the rods. Every piece of the rod from raw materials to final product has direct oversight of the Japanese quality control team.
4. Tenkara is very popular in Japan
Not exactly. Modern tenkara’s heyday was most likely in the 1980s when guys like Hiromichi Fuji and Mr. Soseki were resurrecting tenkara from historical oblivion by introducing modern materials like carbon fiber and fluorocarbon to the rods and lines. These two men really brought tenkara back from the dead.
Here’s the real deal on mountain stream fishing in Japan. Fixed line bait fishing is #1 there is no contest, period. Followed by western fly-fishing and spin casting with artificial lures.
On the fly-casting side, western fly-fishing is extremely popular in Japan. You are more likely to see someone who looks like they just stepped out of the Orvis catalog than anything else.
Tenkara is a small niche in the many hundreds of different types of fishing in Japan. My friend Masami Sakakibara has said that he is pretty sure there are a great deal more tenkara anglers in America than in Japan at the moment.
Tenkara is seeing an increase in interest in Japanese anglers because of all the commotion about it here in the States.
Here is something interesting. When you look at the catalogs from the big Japanese rod manufacturers, these things are a couple of hundred pages thick and the tenkara rods are usually less than one full page of the catalog. Nissin has more variations of fixed line micro fishing or tanago rods then they have tenkara rods.
5. Japanese streams are healthy and loaded with fish
If you travel to Japan for tenkara fishing, you had better bring your “A” game.
Many mountain streams are over fished because catch and release fishing just isn’t really practiced in Japan. Over the past few years Dr. Ishigaki and Masami Sakakibara have made a lot of progress in changing the hearts and minds of tenkara angler in Japan but it is going to be a slow road before catch and release fly fishing is widely practiced.
Many of Japan’s rivers are dammed for hydroelectric power and that has had massive impacts on Iwana and Amago fish populations in the upper mountain streams. There are fish stocking programs in Japan but the rivers and streams are broken up into co-op areas and each region of a river/stream is independently managed. When you fish anywhere in a river/stream in Japan, you must purchase a fishing license from the managing co-op. Because of this type of stream management, fish stocking is pretty much a thing of “we will stock the river when we have enough money”.
So, mountain stream fishing is tough in Japan. Anglers reduce the fish population faster than it can reproduce and the dams screw up migration.
It’s still worth the trip though.
6. Travel in and through Japan is tough for non-Japanese speakers
Travel in and around Japan is really quite easy. Many people in Japan speak English. The announcements on trains and airports are both written and spoken in English, and freeway signs are printed in both languages. The money is pretty easy to figure out. And if you get into trouble, just look for a 10 year old kid. Their English is really good and they are just dying to try it on you.
7. The food…
If you like Japanese food, then my friends you are in luck because the food in Japan is freaking awesome. Some of it can be a little strange and confusing but you can always ask someone about it. Just be adventurous and try everything and most places have pictures on the menus so it makes it a little easier.
On our first night in Japan, Erik and I were wandering around Nagoya at 10pm trying to find a place to eat. We decided on this small restaurant that had a lot of people hanging out around it so our logic was if that many people are hanging around, it must be good right? We took a chance and went inside and were taken to a small table. When handed the menus, there were no pictures. So we did what any jetlagged, starving fishing guides would do, we just randomly pointed to a line on the menu to the waiter and rolled the dice. I have no idea of what kind of sushi we had but it was amazing.
Before you go to Japan, take some time and eat at a few more traditional Japanese cuisine restaurants and ask a lot of questions to the staff about the food.
8. Japan is really expensive
Yes and no. If you travel to Japan and only see the big cities, then yes, Japan can be very expensive. It would be no different than staying in New York City, London, Paris, etc. But, if you do your homework, you can stay and eat in Japan very reasonably. If I remember correctly, the most expensive place I stayed was $125.00 a night and that was in Osaka, one of the major cities.
When we were traveling throughout the countryside fishing, we stayed at Royokan Inns. Sort of like a bead and breakfast. Most of these places charged around $100.00 per person per night and that included breakfast and dinner. Everywhere we stayed had fantastic traditional cuisine that would set you back easily $25-50.00 per person back in the States.
Since Japan is arguably the most modernized country in Japan, my credit/debt cards should work everywhere, right?
If you travel to Japan, TAKE CASH. Japan is still a cash culture. Finding a place to accept a foreign credit card is downright tough. There is only one type of ATM that will accept foreign debt cards and it isn’t at a bank. It’s the Japanese Post Office. And not all of them have the right kind of ATM.
10. Japanese people are very formal and stuffy
Japan is a very polite culture. There are certain cultural protocols that come with that. It is good to have at least a minimal understanding of how one is to be introduced or to introduce someone.
For the most part, everyone we met was very friendly, inviting, and fun to be with. Every time I see Masami Sakakibara I get a big bear hug.
Remember, these master tenkara anglers are just people like you and me, they all have real day jobs, they love to fish, they all like to have a good time, they just happen to be very good at fishing tenkara through decades of experience.
I was slightly intimidated by meeting Hiromichi Fuji. I have read all of his books on tenkara and knowing his place in the modern tenkara timeline and how influential he has been, I’ll admit I was a little nervous. He is a man small in stature but commands great respect from his peers and students. When my friend Eiji Yamakawa introduced us, we both politely bowed and then he grabbed my hand and gave it a good firm handshake with a big smile.
Hiromichi Fuji is really fun to be with. He has a wicked sharp sense of humor and is very humble and relaxed once you get past the formal introduction part. Love that guy.
11. Tenkara in Japan has very strict rules
This is where a lot has been lost in translation from Japan to the West.
Tenkara in Japan is very fluid. There are no hard rules or dogma surrounding it. Tenkara is simply a traditional form of fixed line fly-fishing practiced in mountain streams throughout Japan.
It has been said there are the 10 colors of tenkara, meaning, that for every 10-tenkara anglers there is a different and unique method being employed.
After my trip to Japan and many hundreds of Skype calls, emails, Facebook messages to my friends and mentors in Japan, I have concluded that there are really 10,000 colors of tenkara.
The way tenkara is looked at in Japan is that there are some basic tools like a telescopic rod with a fixed line attachment at the tip, a line made of what ever material and construction the angler prefers, and some flies. After that, it is pretty much open to the individual’s interpretation.
This leads us to the next and final item.
12. Tenkara anglers in Japan only use kebari pattern flies
Well, not exactly.
Let’s define the word kebari. Kebari refers to fly patterns that are native to Japan. They are not “match the hatch” type representations like we see in other parts of the world. Kebari are all not wet fly or Sakasa (Meaning forward) hackle patterns either. Kebari range widely in styles. There are dry pattern, wet pattern, and weighted pattern, forward hackle, and rearward hackle kebari.
In Japan, tenkara anglers refer to western style flies as “flies” just to keep the confusion down.
Some tenkara anglers choose to use only kebari patterns and some use a large mixture of both western flies and kebari.
To add to that, there are tenkara anglers in Japan who do match the hatch and some that don’t.
Again it all comes down to tenkara is very fluid in Japan. You can and are in fact encouraged to find your own “Tenkara Color”.
Make tenkara your tenkara. Don’t worry about anyone else’s opinions, just go out there and experiment and have fun.