Essay by Jim Tignor
In the tenkara community, I have found there are many different types of anglers. Some are helpful, some are easy going, and of course, some are very opinionated. I love learning from all of them. One topic that seems to consistently create controversy is the simple question of “What is tenkara?”. Boiled down, ultimately, the most significant division regards the observance of tradition versus the embracing of modernization.
Readers be warned: I still consider myself a novice tenkara angler. Since I began, however, I have found myself deeply engrossed and fascinated in the history, culture, and people who partake in this wonderful art. I also happen to be a voracious reader. I purchased my first rod in March of 2015; a Teton from Tenkara Rod Co.
I immersed myself in fishing my small local Piedmont creeks, learning to cast for a variety of pan-fish and bass. I fished those creeks because they are 10 minutes from my house, and the nearest coldwater trout stream is a 2-hour drive. It was a full year before I hooked and landed a trout on Curtis Creek in North Carolina. Since then I have purchased several other rods, and caught countless rainbows, brookies, and browns. I still fish my local streams after work several days a week.
The debate of “modern” versus “traditional” reminds me of a similar conversation from the martial art I studied for ten years. Not unlike tenkara, Ninjutsu was originally developed and practiced in the mountains of Japan hundreds of years ago. The utilitarian simplicity of both art forms was the result of necessity.
The fishermen did not have reels, nor did they have time to forage for bait. So, they adapted and made simple flies, and they fished efficiently. Similarly, when they needed to defend themselves, the same farmers and fisherman made do without modern weapons like swords, or naginata. Communities adapted, using farm and carpentry tools or whatever they had as weapons to get the job done, and they did so skillfully
The martial art debate I referred to concerns the traditions of Togakure-ryū and To-Shindo. Togakure-ryu is a historical tradition of Ninjutsu and it is still taught by Masaaki Hatsumi, the 34th Sōke, or Grandmaster. It is a martial art that is beautiful, deadly, and ruthless.
Many of its movements were designed around clothing and equipment of a bygone era. In addition, some of its ethos was created out of the political and social dynamics of that same era. There is merit in studying such traditions, particularly if you as a student are interested in those traditions. With training and dedication, it is an effective and beautiful martial art form.
To-Shin Do is a modern form of Ninjutsu. It was founded by Black Belt Hall of Fame instructor Stephen K. Hayes in 1997. Hayes learned from Hatsumi, but To-Shindo differs from the traditional Ninjutsu taught by Hatsumi in several ways. To-Shindo prepares students to handle threats found in contemporary western society. It has been radically modernized.
Of course, rarely, if ever, in our today’s world will the average citizen encounter a group of Samurai. Nor will the average citizen engage in a bar fight with someone wielding a sword. To-Shindo is a highly effective art form, and several of my peers and I would argue that it has become more effective in our modern society than the traditional Ninjutsu.
I appreciate the traditionalist embrace of the roots and origins of tenkara. There is much to be learned from the true “bare-bones” simplicity of the classic style. To ignore the practices and traditions of this style would leave a tenkara angler with an incomplete practice; a lack of understanding of what makes tenkara an art form. However, I am confident the ancient Ninja would quickly and without hesitation employ the use of a modern handgun or AK47s, were they available at the time.
Similarly, I believe that if we were to go back in time and offer a tenkara angler modern equipment, or access to tasty and easier to catch fish, he’d jump on the opportunities. So, perhaps a blending of the two approaches would serve to benefit both sides.
Just like in the tenkara community, practitioners in the Ninjutsu community sometimes debate which art is the “better” of the two. I posit that one is not better than the other; simply different. As practitioners, we do not need to denigrate one to appreciate the other.
If you wish to emulate traditional Japanese tenkara fishermen from long ago, you can do so. To what extent? That of course is up to you, but will you use a bamboo rod? Will you create your hook from a sewing needle? And will you forego modern waders and boots? Do it if is suits you.
Or perhaps you will go the opposite direction and forego tradition. You may be interested in the latest, most advanced tenkara rod available. Modern gear is comfortable and can make standing in a cold river all day more comfortable.
In both discussions, I would say that neither the more “traditional” form, nor the “modern” form is better, only different. After all, we are all fishing a form of tenkara. Perhaps the distinction might be that some of us fish “traditional tenkara”, while others are fishing “modern tenkara”. Regardless, I am confident that we are all drawn by the same beauty the natural world offers us, and the thrill of the cast, hook, bend, and landing.
Hope to see you on a river! I will be the guy muddling between ancient Japanese and modern styles. I may or may not have a fish on my line.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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