Stories Tenkara

American Genryu

Article by Jay Johnson

Jay Johnson - American Genryu

Due to the compact and minimal nature of tenkara, it lends itself well to combining activities like hiking, biking, climbing, and backpacking. For people coming from the backpacking and ultralight communities, tenkara instantly made sense from a logistical point of view. The effectiveness of the long rod, light line method was an unexpected bonus to many. As the tenkara obsession grew, it was no longer the idea of doing your favorite activity + tenkara, but rather a synthesis of these activities to create something all its own – an interdisciplinary approach to the backcountry. As tenkara grew, information became translated and readily available, with stories of Genryu starting to emerge. Some people in America were already doing it, while others were captivated by it. It was that moment, where the concept of American Genryu started to form.

Japanese Genryu

The Japanese word “Genryu” translates to English, as headwaters. Whether you call it headwaters, blue lines or “cricks,” Genryu doesn’t necessarily translate strictly to one of these definitions. For a group of hardcore anglers in Japan, Genryu means much more than the source waters of a watershed. For them, it means the remote streams in the mountains furthest from any road, whose only access is by foot through thick forests, steep climbs/descents, wading, swimming and sometimes technical rope work. To put it simply, adventure. This is the heart of Genryu for both Japan and America.

Wet Wading

North America has a broad, varied geographical landscape. In this aspect, not all Genryu will require wet wading, but if you find yourself in the type of environment pictured in this article, expect to get wet. It is in these conditions, where the Japanese method of wet wading is a foundation for American Genryu.

Regular waders will not cut it. They will either get trashed or slow you down. The alternative is neoprene socks and gaiters (spats). Gaiters play a key role in not only insulating but streamlining your legs for better hydrodynamics in the water. As for wading shoes, we’re not talking KEENS, either. You want a wading shoe that is flexible and light enough for long miles on trail, while providing proper traction on slick rocks, in and out of water. In Japan, lightweight wading boots and sawanobori (shower climbing) shoes are readily available. Wading boots found in U.S. fly shops are often too stiff, extremely heavy, and poorly designed. To get your hands on quality footwear, you either have to special order from Japan or find domestic alternatives, like Five Ten or Astral. 

Proper footwear combined with neoprene socks and gaiters create a lightweight setup and doesn’t hold you back. This style of wet wading has proven itself for maximum efficiency in an environment that requires brutal hikes, wading in swift currents, swimming, and fishing long hours in cold mountain streams. 

Jay Johnson - American Genryu - Running Water

Ultralight Backpacking

Another foundation for American Genryu is ultralight backpacking. Now, I expect some people to be triggered by this but bear with me. I’m not talking about some arbitrary pack weight, but the philosophy behind it. A lighter, less voluminous pack allows one to travel further and faster, as well as maintaining balance in perilous situations expected in the backcountry. 

To achieve a smaller, lighter pack you don’t need all the latest and greatest exotic materials for clothing and gear, although they certainly do help. What is more important, is how you choose your gear. Everything must be justifiable and the more uses it has, the better. Leave your camp chair at home. Instead, bring a sit pad that can be used as support for a frameless pack, converted into a pillow, used to fan a fire and most importantly to sit on. Instead of bringing a decked-out broomstick as a wading staff, use a trekking pole that will help you up and down steep grades, can be used as a wading staff as well as structural support for a shelter. Multi-use gear goes a long way in trimming weight and volume. 

The finer details of ultralight backpacking techniques for Genryu fishing is worthy of a dedicated article of its own. The main takeaway for now, is that in order to get where you need to be, you’re going to leave the glamping items behind.


Genryu trips do not require a group of people – it was Yuzo Sebata after all, that popularized the style by spending weeks at a time in the mountains by himself. However, a big part of Genryu is about the shared experience, which is where Tenba (camp-site) comes in. Genryu camp is all about the camaraderie of your fishing buddies, enjoying yourselves after an exhausting day of trekking and fishing. Counter to the ultralight philosophy previously mentioned, this is where you might carry some extra weight in luxury food items as well as drinks. It’s all about enhancing the experience and having a blast with friends around a campfire.

Jay Johnson - American Genryu - Trout

American Genryu

Remote mountain streams, wet wading, ultralight backpacking and tenba are all part of American Genryu. It is a Japanese concept with our own twist, while remaining true to its roots. It’s more than just fishing. It is the convergence of wild landscapes, friendship and adventure. 

If you would like to delve deeper into the topic, stop by the Headwaters Facebook group. It is there, where you can find discussions and trip reports dedicated to Genryu and headwaters. 

Jay Johnson is a backpacking, tenkara and Genryu addict, as well as an aspiring meme lord. You can find him at the Headwaters Facebook group.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2017-18 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

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