How Can Being a Tenkara Geek Change Your Life?
Words: Paul Gaskell
Pictures: John Pearson & Paul Gaskell
Something struck me today. Isn’t it amazing just where in the world being a geek can take you? In my case, I somehow found myself with fellow fishing nut John Pearson in the mountains of Japan eating a fish (whole) and fumbling my rookie Japanese phrases – all while being filmed by a local TV crew. Which is pretty far-fetched by most peoples’ standards (and yes, they subtitled both my English AND Japanese speech in the broadcast)…
You might already have seen the following quote by Simon Pegg (thanks to Anthony Naples for reminding me by posting it on Facebook recently!). In case you don’t have it memorized it goes like this:
“Being a geek is all about being honest about what you enjoy and not being afraid to demonstrate that affection. It means never having to play it cool about how much you like something. It’s basically a license to proudly emote on a somewhat childish level rather than behave like a supposed adult. Being a geek is extremely liberating”
When it comes to tenkara, I know exactly what he means.
Of course, there is a huge role of plain ol’ blind good luck in all this too. But being passionate about tenkara beyond all rational limits – and not being able to help it – does seem to toss amazing things your way. Our route to Japan for the first time is one example…
It started when British angling journalist Jon Beer (who is a VP of the trout conservation charity I work for) phoned me with a curious request. Jon had been contacted by someone (Steven Wheeler, a really great guy) that he had previously chatted to about a net that featured in one of Jon’s articles – but that is not so important.
The real point is that Steven spends some of his working life in Japan and he’d had a fishing lesson from a Japanese teacher. The teacher in question was interested in visiting England for his first time to fish tenkara and had contacted Steven to see if he could help him out. So Steven asked Jon Beer for help because Jon had written an article about tenkara in Trout & Salmon Magazine (I hope you are following this… the payoff is coming, I promise).
Now Jon cheerfully admitted to not really knowing too many fine details about tenkara (his article featured fascinating letters and tackle he had been sent by another Japanese angler and also an account of Jon’s enjoyment when fishing with his tenkara rod). But he certainly did know how much I’d been yammering on about how awesome tenkara is whenever we’d done any work together through the Wild Trout Trust.
Which is how I came to be chatting with Steven.
Who casually got round to mentioning the name of the very nice chap who had given him a fishing lesson, some flies, and a rather nice hand-carved spool.
And that is how we came to host Dr. Ishigaki for 10 days in England in 2013.
All that happened through a combination of blind chance and being “Really, Really Into Something”. A geek. During his stay with us, Dr. Ishigaki invited us on a return visit to Japan that he would organize, oh and he’d set it up so we could spend time with Masami Sakakibara and a whole gang of what turns out to be some of the best tenkara anglers on the planet. Amazing. I still can’t believe it even now.
Now, before I get to describing the fishing and try (and fail) to give you a small taste of the unique vibe of fishing a Japanese tenkara stream, I want to tell you why I had no business going to Japan.
It really should never have happened.
You see, my first response in my head to the invite was “Amazing – but what a bitter pill to swallow because I can’t go”. I did not have the disposable cash, my young son had a hard start in life with his epilepsy and we were just getting into what turned out to be a year-long struggle to move house (while my partner was pregnant with our second son).
But here’s the thing. Because of the amazing support from my partner (huge thanks doesn’t really do it justice) and because I decided to keep my old car on the road and put off the (sensible) update and because we could make do with holidaying at home with our young family – I began to think, maybe it is possible? What would happen if we could offset some of the costs by publishing the stories of our trip? How about documenting our discoveries on video? Nah, that would never work.
The thing is, that requires a pretty big blind leap of faith. You need to suspend disbelief. You have to trust that it will “probably work out OK”. And that is even before the huge amount of support that you need to help you navigate the language barrier, geography, fishing permits and accommodation bookings in the strange and wonderful country of Japan. So, there is a massive debt of gratitude owed on top of the crazy good luck to even meet the series of people who had given us that opportunity.
This is the reason that www.discovertenkara.co.uk can even exist to share the stories and techniques of tenkara in Japan. Just geeks, kindness and good fortune…
I hope it is obvious, then, how overwhelming that feeling of good fortune becomes when you experience Japan’s tenkara rivers, the beautiful fish and the amazing camaraderie of the band of “tenkara nuts”. These are the folks who drive anywhere between 4 and 14 hours across the country to gather for a few days, maybe over a weekend, to fish, eat and drink together.
I get why they do it though. The cool, clear-blue waters flowing in and around the rocks and big, smooth boulders are just impossibly perfect. Go Ishii tells me that Japan has more than 20,000 streams like this that you can tackle with tenkara gear. That means you could fish a different one every single day for 54 years with no repeats. I love the atmosphere and the character of these rivers and streams and the word “privilege” is really the only way to describe how it feels to fish them.
Even the way the streamside vegetation smells when the sun warms it in late spring and through summer makes me happy – which is extremely weird. The scent? In all honesty, the closest thing would be skunk (!) – and I don’t think I will ever get over the novelty of river banks that are covered in dense bamboo thicket… The Oriental reed warblers that flit and “chu-chuuk-churra” between the stems complete that scene and define the setting for me.
Then there are the fish – the different kinds of iwana (some rare native strains survive in spite of widespread stocking of the “nikko” variety of iwana), the yamame and amago. I love the slightly arched back and chrome, reptilian head of the more mature males of these last two species. They just look so exotic and prehistorically wild.
It is also completely addictive to work out the characters of each fish in different streams. Yes, iwana from different streams tend to behave more like each other than they do compared to either amago or yamame…But the iwana in some streams seem much more “lazy” than others. OK, lazy is not the right word, they sometimes seem to need the fly to travel downstream reeeaaallly slowly though and that gives them a kind of “don’t work too hard” character in my mind’s eye.
Did I say that it is very common to need to present the fly slower than the true dead drift? The steep gradient of the streams means that, without weight, your fly would often be swept downstream too quickly to make an easy meal for the fish. This is one of the reasons that so many named presentation techniques have evolved in Japanese tenkara.
You see? My inner fishing geek wouldn’t know something like that (not “bones-deep” anyway) unless I’d had the stupid good fortune to see it and talk about it with the amazing tenkara addicts (kei-kyo-jin; “mountain crazy people”). What is really cool is that these tactics work so brilliantly on my home rivers – and of those in different countries outside Japan that John and myself have fished too. It turns out that knowing many of these things completely changes the way that you view rivers, their character, features and ever-morphing current-structures. Did you know that Masami often waits until a favorable swirl of current “blooms” in the right way before dropping his fly into it? More stuff that means nothing to the fishing “nonaddict”.
Perhaps there is something that anyone with an ounce of soul (angler or not) could appreciate and has a similar quality of satisfaction? Maybe the feeling of fine drizzle at dusk on your face, sitting in a volcanic hot-spring “onsen” pool looking out across a darkening, forested valley with the dull, reassuring thud of your heartbeat in your chest? That you can sit there, scalding water up to your chin, after already showering to remove the day’s grime won during a tiring day of wet wading and catching perfect fish from perfect water… Well, that might just be the finest feeling on earth.
And without the realization that “yeah, I’m a geek for this stuff”, you could never have experienced the good fortune and kindness of strangers that put you there. That’s worth celebrating in my book.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.