Stories Tenkara

The Three Paths

Essay by Dennis Vander Houwen

Tenkara is what brings my life peace. It is no mistake that my blog is called “Tenkara Path.” For me it is how I am traveling through life. Tenkara has been a great teacher and healer to me as well. I know others who have made it a very important practice in their lives too. This said, I also know that there are people who do not follow tenkara with the same sense of reverence I have. For them it is just another style of fishing. I can accept this because not everyone is on the same path but whatever path they are on it is to the same destination.

For a couple of weeks now I have been really working to find a way to look at the bigger picture of tenkara. This article is the result of many late nights writing and rewriting my opinion in a way that I think represents a better tenkara for our future. This is how I see tenkara and how I will teach it to others going forward.

Before I dive into this, I think we need to establish some basic agreements. If we can agree on a starting point, then we are working in the right direction for keeping the basics of tenkara intact and well defined.

Let’s agree that tenkara is a “fishing style.” 

First I believe we can all agree that this is the commonality that we all share with tenkara. We all see tenkara as a style of fishing. Simply a rod, a line and a fly. We all know this mantra.

Let’s agree that tenkara and western fly fishing really are two things.

Tenkara really is its own form of fly fishing. Tenkara and western fly fishing are similar, but they have two very different histories and even more differences than similarities when it comes to their techniques and tackle requirements.

Finally, let’s also agree that there are different “ways” to fish tenkara.

People who fish tenkara make choices along the way as to how they are going to embrace tenkara. “Each of these paths are different and yet, they all work to travel to the same summit.” Each person’s path is a choice they make. I propose that there are three definitive paths that are taken by people regularly regarding their relationship to tenkara. They are “Tsuri, Renshū and Dentō”. They can be seen as different paths however they are dependent upon each other in a way that makes them all really one path to the summit that is a place I call the “heart of tenkara.”

The Path of Fishing 

釣り – Tsuri – Fishing 

“Tsuri no michi” translates to “the path of fishing.” Each style of fishing has its own tackle, techniques and history. In this path we want to look at “just fishing tenkara.” Many are happy to just fish tenkara “recreationally.” This is fine, enjoyable and serves them. They hold tenkara as just a style of fishing that they do. They have no more expectation or devotion to tenkara than they do for western fly fishing, deep sea fishing or even ice fishing. This is a free choice of course. 

Tenkara shows us that we really do not need much in the way of equipment to catch a fish. It also shows us that tenkara is more than just the gear. We must also learn how to fish with the tackle and techniques of tenkara for it to work and catch fish. We must learn all the basics from how to rig your rod, line and fly, how to cast, where to cast, how to present the fly and how to bring a fish in is the reality of this path. This place of learning is one we will return to again and again. The amount of information is growing. We also learn from our own experiences.

This path is about actually getting out and fishing tenkara. It is about embracing and learning tenkara with the help of others and through our own self study of the techniques. Those who take on this tsuri no michi should do so with intent to do it correctly. You will learn by doing and experiencing this path actively and with intent to take the path beyond the trailhead to the summit. Let your path in tenkara be a path that is not weighed down by western techniques

The Path of Renshū 

練習 – Renshū – to Practice 

“Renshū no michi” translates as “the path of practice.” This is the path of those who have decided to make tenkara not just about fishing, but also as a form of mediation and mindfulness that informs them on how to live their lives better. By applying the basic principles of tenkara to other parts of their lives they find happiness, productivity and deeper meaning in their own lives.

The Renshū no michi looks to the experience of tenkara fishing with deeper appreciation for the minutia and details seen along the way. The traditions of tenkara act as a guide and map to how they fish and how they live their lives. By observing oneself and practicing mindfulness to fishing tenkara the person begins to see the connectedness of all things in life. Coming to this path is a decision that is likely based in a desire to find more in tenkara than just a technique. It is a philosophical journey that can be compared to many of the traditional Japanese practices such as gardening, tea ceremony, sumi painting, calligraphy, flower arrangements, martial arts, etc. It is with this depth of focus and discipline that the renshū no michi is taken.

The Path of Dentō 

伝統 – Dentō – “Tradition” 

“Dentō no mishi” means “The path of tradition.” Having and holding respect for tradition is very important. There are some romanticized ideas about tenkara that we can only speculate on the history surrounding them. But there are also things that we know to be true. Dentō dives into these, understanding the truth of the history. But tradition is not just the history or the development of rituals surrounding that tradition. Traditions are very tightly guided by a culture’s experience and relationship with those traditions. What becomes culture and tradition is based in what worked and in how something became revered as it served the culture over time. Tradition does evolve, and the authentic remains in place despite changes in technology.

Most know that tenkara’s tradition can be traced to commercial fishing in the mountain villages of Japan. It was how villages not only fed themselves but was also what they traded for the things they needed. Remarkably they recognized their immediate resources and developed not just the equipment for fishing but the way that they could catch the most fish economically each day. These centuries of dentō are not to be forgotten or their importance taken for granted. Today we do not fish to catch our meals, feed our villages or to trade our fish for other items. We can still hold great reverence and respect for these forefathers of tenkara and share it when we are teaching the practice to others.

Dentō no michi tenkara practitioners seek out the finer elements of the tradition by practicing and studying the ways, techniques and presentations used for centuries before them. They still use the modern rods and tackle available, and they likely have a better historical appreciation and understanding for the tools we use. You can be sure that they have studied a range of known traditional kebari patterns and techniques as translated from what books are available and have been translated from Japanese to English.

I believe the Dentō practitioners have an important role as protectors of the traditional teachings. Their passion for the history, tradition and form guides them. We should hope that we can count on them as needed to remind us of original forms and traditions. We need people who are willing to dig into texts and historic records as they come available. It is incumbent on them to teach and at times gently defend the historical facts and ideas of tenkara.

It is an honorable pursuit for those who decide to take this path themselves. We need people to be caretakers of history and traditions related to tenkara. The power of dentō practitioners is that they can be resources and teachers to all of us in some way. Dentō informs and guides both Tsuri and renshū paths. 

Let’s look now at how these three tenkara identities relate to each other. 

Dennis Vander Houwen - The Three Paths - Venn Diagram

When we look at these paths together, we see how they influence each other and how they really do work together to create what I call the “heart of tenkara.” 

Tsuri is just the practice of fishing. No matter how a fisherman embraces tenkara, so long as they are using tenkara in a way that is in line with the simple core principles of the Japanese progenitors, they are on the tsuri no michi. Just by fishing tenkara they are contributing to keeping tenkara alive. They may or may not be influenced overtly by the dentō of tenkara and they may not pursue tenkara on the path of renshū. Nevertheless, all paths have an influence automatically to tsuri no michi and all paths practice fishing tenkara.

Renshū provides a depth of purpose to tenkara. It should not be confused as being a religion but does embrace the philosophy of tenkara and applies it to our modern world in a way that continues to provide meaning and a practice of mindfulness. Renshū in a way, and with a little luck, becomes part of the continued history and future dentō of tenkara. It is the people who live tenkara today that will add to the dentō over time. When people on the tsuri no michi meet the renshū no michi they can take inspiration to make tenkara more than just a hobby. 

Dentō is where we look back to for facts, guidance and direction to the form. The traditions and origins have a role to play in not just providing a richness and history to our experience but in guiding us in the primary techniques and ideas behind tenkara. While there is no “true” or “pure” form of tenkara. We have only a few historical references to look to combined with what the modern masters of tenkara have passed on to us from their work. Tenkara as we have it today is no longer a necessity for feeding our families or for trading for the things we need. We do not live in mountain villages in Japan. We use tenkara mostly for recreation, socialization and for some, as meditation. 

It is my hope that as you look over these different paths of tenkara that you recognize the path that you are on and embrace tenkara with your heart. Consider each path of practice and assume each mindset when you fish. Perhaps you find yourself between two of the paths I have described. I believe that you can embrace any two with ease and all three with just a little more effort. Doing so will make your tenkara experience deeper and more meaningful.

Dennis Vander Houwen is an early adopter of tenkara, he lives and fishes all over Colorado.  For more information on living simply or approaching a richer life with fewer things check out his blog, Tenkara Path, where you can also support his tenkara lifestyle by purchasing one of his amazing, handmade tenkara line spool, fly keepers.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2018-19 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

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