Stories Tenkara

The Legendary Yuzo Sebata

Article by Paul Gaskell

The man who solidified the use of the term “tenkara” in Tsuribito (Fisherman) magazine in the 1980s has dedicated his life to developing and promoting a philosophy and practice of tenkara. That philosophy is one that retains and honors many of the values and skills prized by the mountain professionals that include the “Kijishi” (foresters and wood craftsmen), “Matagi” (winter mountain-forest hunters) and “Shokuryoshi” (professional tenkara anglers).

Sebata-san 2017 Tadami Bansho; Photo John Pearson

It is a mission that he has been on for almost 60 years now.

Perhaps he is most well known in the West for his sugegasa conical bamboo hat, mischievous twinkly grin and his electrician’s tape/pantyhose thread hand-tied flies (!!). Rest assured, though, that there’s an avalanche of other factors that have created his legend in Japan.

For instance – the epic rescue tales involving broken limbs and marathon descents from mountain-sides (you can read more details and stories in the Sebata-san page on Beyond that, there is his incredible knowledge of the natural environment and a fearless explorer’s spirit.

English brown trout caught on kebari tied by Sebata san

In Sebata-san’s tenkara, it is every bit as much about the adventure and the journey as it is the fishing destination. His charisma and unique skillset has inspired entire generations of outdoor enthusiasts in Japan. He has even been the catalyst leading to the creation and popularisation of new outdoor pursuits such as waterfall climbing (a bit like reverse canyoneering) and genryu tenkara.

The core aim in his genryu-tenkara approach is to use a river as “line of weakness” (basically the easiest pathway) into pristine mountain headwater regions. The ultimate goal is reaching the foot of the final waterfall where the fish, themselves, can go no further. Along the way, you have to fully embrace all the different “faces” or personalities of each section of the river, including its surrounding forest and its rock formations. Those personalities take in the full range from downright mean to kind and generous. Beware – because all those faces are beautiful!

The remote, hard-to-reach headwaters (which can be surprisingly large in size with incredibly powerful flows) known as “genryu”. This is not really about paddling ankle-deep in a small trickle of a typical small-stream headwater though. These are waters that will kill or maim those whose concentration or skillset is not up to the task. Even Sebata-san has been caught out. Trapping his foot between rocks on one expedition, the power of the genryu current washed him backwards with such force that his leg broke instantly. It was only the heroic actions of the group of 20 or so students and experienced companions that saved him from drowning and managed to move him to safety…

Sebata-san fishing Tadami region in 2017; Photo John Pearson

Even normal trips, without such dramatic incidents, are impressive physical feats. Sometimes it may be necessary to cross from one river valley to another to reach your target headwater and continue upstream on that new blue line. That can mean hours of slogging up a steep valley side and a rough descent down to the new river. If a river is readily accessible, it isn’t really considered a true genryu.

This “full immersion” experience (literally when it comes to swimming through gorges and making treacherous white-water crossings with full 90L packs) also extends to becoming part of the ecosystem food chain that you enter into. Because genryu trips involve rough camping for at least one night (and perhaps up to several weeks), knowing how to forage and prepare wild edibles becomes invaluable. At the same time, Sebata-san believes that it cuts both ways – so as well as foraging, he willingly accepts leeches getting their own meals from his blood during the time that he has entered their environment. “Quid Pro Quo Dr. Lecter” indeed…

For these reasons, Sebata-san eagerly absorbed knowledge and philosophy from the matagi that he would meet as he was developing his skills. He also relished the opportunity to re-use matagi shelters and secret pathways used by these mountain hunters whenever he could. Up until more recent years, when this type of exploration has greatly increased in popularity, it was possible to get most of your protein by keeping a proportion of the fish (typically iwana – the white-spotted char) that you caught on genryu trips. This would be standard practice for all the original mountain professionals. But now, this is less and less sustainable and it is time for genyru anglers to increasingly embrace catch and release.

Sebata-san and iwana from the Kurobe River system; Photo Kikushi Minamiya

Perhaps the most fitting comparison suggested by his friends is that Sebata-san actually shares the same personality as the iwana that he pursues. Those fish are always compelled to keep questing further and further upstream – way beyond the limits of the yamame and amago (trout). Sebata-san too has an unstoppable urge to keep questing upstream to find his own limits, as well as reaching -and possibly climbing – the obstacle that defeated the iwana in each river system.

Although I can’t do anything like proper justice to the story of Sebata-san, his fellow genryu tenkara pioneers and the people his adventures have inspired, I feel I need to make at least a brief special mention here in this short piece.

In particular, I wanted to avoid underestimating the role played by his long-time “partner in crime” Kikushi Minamiya. As well as the regular camping, climbing and fishing gear, Minamiya-san had to carry and manage his beloved camera gear which he used to video and take still pictures to document the pair’s epic adventures. He is also a talented cartoonist – although many of his sketches are way too risqué for general publication!

Sebata-san with steely gaze at camp; Photo Kikushi Minimiya

Go Ishii kindly (and miraculously) managed to obtain and share the handful of Minamiya-san’s slides that you can see in this article and on the Discover Tenkara website. When you compare the pictures that John took in September 2017 of Sebata san at age 78, it is striking to see the – almost intimidating – intensity and steely determination of Sebata san in his 50s shown in Minamiya-san’s images of the early 1990s. But what an incredibly valuable window into their outrageous adventures – most of which defy description in words…

Please do check out the information on the Yuzo Sebata page at Discover Tenkara to learn more about the legacy of the man who has given so much of his life to tenkara.

Paul Gaskell (along with John Pearson) blog at Discover Tenkara and have a free email tutorial service that teaches tenkara step-by-step. He is also one of the hosts of the video series, Tenkara in Focus and founders of Fishing Discoveries.

This article was originally featured in the Spring 2018 issue of Tenkara Angler.

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