Essay by Dennis Vander Houwen
There is a place my wife and I go for breakfast. While all their food is very good, the bacon they serve is just the best. My eyes literally roll back into my head and I savor each bite. It is a euphoric experience. All things fall away with each bite and tasting. Ah… Bacon Nirvana.
Thankfully for my vegetarian friends, this kind of life experience isn’t limited to just bacon. It can be achieved by anything that brings us to a place of special appreciation, joy, happiness, or satisfaction. We slow down to the moment and everything “just is.” Tenkara does this for me. This experience though has had me thinking about the way we can sometimes mindlessly consume things without slowing down enough to taste or experience them in a moment.
We must slow down to taste
Do you eat food quickly to just fill up? Or… do you eat slowly and let your senses experience taste, texture, and the process of the flavors on your palate? This is the difference between being mindful in your experience and just consuming food as it is put in front of you. The same concept applies to many other things in our lives too. I repeatedly ask myself if I am just consuming things without thinking or am I slowing down to the experience? If we slow down, we see the connection and completeness of each moment. So, can you taste your tenkara? I mean this figuratively of course. Get that kebari out of your mouth before you hook yourself. Let us take a moment to look at tenkara and how we can appreciate it for all its flavors and textures.
Tenkara is a gift from Japan
The origins of things in our life does matter. We should appreciate this and not take it for granted. Ingrained in this gift is part of Japan’s rich history that deserves respect and no small amount of reverence. We can taste the history of tenkara when we practice it. I think of my own practice of tenkara as a continuation of the traditions started by mountain village fishermen. These original tenkara fishermen created and developed this style of fishing using limited resources paired with incredible skill and ingenuity. This is the texture of tenkara. Keeping things simple, practical, and fishing tenkara closely to the original form is how we connect with that history. While our tools may have evolved with modern materials and technology, the principles of this art are still the same. We can practice tenkara with each cast, each fish, and each time we move to the next spot to fish.
Tenkara as a traditional art form
We should, look at tenkara with the same reverence the Japanese hold for other arts in their culture. We can quickly identify other examples of Japanese arts such as the culture and art of archery, tea ceremony, kintsugi, gardening, origami, calligraphy, paintings, sushi, martial arts, etc., etc. The Japanese have a way of practicing arts in a way that connects it and themselves to life. These arts inform them in living their lives. I have tried to inform my own outlook on tenkara with this approach. Tenkara teaches and guides my life through its simplicity and through its practice. Even if you don’t approach your tenkara with this kind of intensity, you should at least give some thought to this point. I find the traditional perspective of tenkara important. Sadly, I am seeing more anglers in this latest wave of tenkara enthusiasts missing this point.
We must not assume we now own tenkara
When we take on tenkara as a practice or even a simple past time, we must remember that it is not ours to do with as we wish. We should hold tenkara as something put in our care. Why does it matter though? Well, if you take some time to understand the Japanese culture, you will know that a gift given is usually reciprocated in a small way. So, what are you giving back? Are you only receiving without so much as a reverent look into understanding tenkara’s history and Japanese culture? I hope that at the very least, part of our gift back to Japan would be that we don’t tarnish their gift to us with “Westernized” modifications that do not respect or compliment the basics of tenkara.
Ask yourself, “If you had to give tenkara back, would it be in the same condition as you received it?” Which brings me to the next point.
“Please, don’t put ketchup on the sushi.”
We all like to dabble and try new things out. This may be why you have found tenkara interesting in the first place. It is however important to know things just as they are. Many have the idea that they must add something to make the experience more comfortable or familiar. Others foolishly think they can improve it without even knowing it or tasting it. Adding things to tenkara or messing with its nature of simplicity, defeats the point of tenkara and is like putting ketchup on sushi. Fish and practice tenkara like it was intended to be practiced. Tenkara does not need to be modified to make you feel more comfortable. It does not need to evolve outside of a rod, a line and a fly. There is no need to apply “new” techniques to it presentation.
Don’t dwell in ignorance
When I first found tenkara, I tried to learn all that could about it. The information 10 years ago though, was not nearly as accessible as it is today. There are now greater resources for tenkara, and you can even take classes with real masters of tenkara. There are books, videos, pod casts, blogs, and more. Don’t ignore these resources. More than this, know that ignorance of cultural traditions and history is not a virtue to brag about. Neither is brushing aside a whole culture’s gift to you like a spoiled child who claims to know it all. Keep learning. Be mature. A little knowledge and an open mind to learning are a pathway to understanding any subject. It is difficult to watch ignorance. It is even more difficult to watch others celebrate in it and encourage it in others.
So why do I give a damn?
I have written this because I care. Tenkara has filled a hole in my life and has given me healing for my combat PTSD. I have cleared the halfway mark of my life and with that a different understanding of what matters settles into your thinking. Is it wisdom? I don’t know; and I don’t know for even a minute if what I have written will make a difference to anyone in this latest generation of tenkara enthusiasts. I do know that I have a perspective that I think is valid enough to share. I know that I can at least say that I stood up for something I believed in and tried to give back what I could of this gift from Japan in speaking up for its integrity. Having spoken now I can only go forward and live by example. I did not come to argue or debate. Only give others the opportunity to slow down and taste tenkara.
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.
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