Essay Tenkara

Do You Taste Your Tenkara?

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.

Dennis Vander Houwen - Do You Taste Your Tenkara - Japan

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.

Dennis Vander Houwen - Do You Taste Your Tenkara - Kebari

“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.

Dennis Vander Houwen - Do You Taste Your Tenkara - Fly Box

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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6 comments

  1. Thank you Dennis… I find myself frequently echoing your thoughts on learning and respecting the traditional Japanese roots of Tenkara fishing. It’s one thing to explore the various nuances within Japanese Tenkara fishing, or even to make a choice to disregard the historical techniques and uses with a knowledge that you’re doing so. But don’t to use a Tenkara rod for a non-traditional application and then turn around unknowingly and enthusiastically and promote it online as “Tenkara”. In any endeavor, choice the right tool for the job, and research the proper use of the tool before using it. That includes learning some of the history.

    1. Jeff – Your collapsible IM12 carbon fiber Tenkara rod and furled or mono or fluoro leader DOES honor the history and tradition of Tenkara, but when I sling streamers from my kayak looking for saugeye that DOES NOT. Is that what you’re getting at?

      Show me your continuous bamboo rod and horse hair leader that you sat on the floor spinning up by hand using candle or lamp light, then come back to me and tell me that my warm water pursuit of anything that breathes under water doesn’t count as “real” Tenkara.

      Dennis – I respect your point, you made it eloquently. I have my own reasons for this, my heart goes out to those that suffer from PTSD. That you found your thing is amazing, and I hope it continues to provide you that release.

      1. Randy – I don’t need to, because I already covered that. Quote “But don’t to use a Tenkara rod for a non-traditional application and then turn around unknowingly and enthusiastically and promote it online as “Tenkara”.” What you’re doing is Fixed Line fishing. Nothing wrong with that. Tenkara is fishing with a Tenkara rod, with traditional lines (furled, tapered or level), with mostly Kebari or nymphs and fishing in high gradiant, fast water, mountain streams. So as long as your don’t promote it as Tenkara, you’re good. That’s what I’m getting at. It’s pretty obvious when someone is fishing with Japanese Tenkara methods and when they’re not. Both are fine, just don’t promote the later as the former.

  2. This was beautifully written Dennis. Thank you for being such a great steward for the art. I struggle with “adding ketchup” living in a state with only two trout bearing streams and no mountains. But as long as I respect the history and am grateful for the gift, I think that’s ok.

  3. Well written, and my sentiments exactly. I particularly liked the reference to the traditional tea ceremony.
    I too have traveled a wandering path to traditional tenkara.
    While I understand “each to their own”, for me, there is an emotional resonance with traditional tenkara. A calmness, a simple deep satisfying happiness.
    Thank you for this essay.

  4. @Dennis Vander Houwen
    First, I Thank You from the bottom of my heart for Your Service.
    Second, I am happy that you have found healing in the richness of Tenkara.

    The Japanese seem to take a methodical approach to life where the things they do become an artform. I highly admire their approach towards life and their patience thru heritage.

    The stream trout fishing fishing season was closed when I purchased my first rod in November 2017 so for 8 months I tried to learn all I could about the nuances of traditional Tenkara before I ever wet a (level) line. On my first outing with a Tenkara rod to a small river I had fly fished for almost 25 years, I landed the biggest trout I had ever caught from that stream. As a result I was solidly hooked. Soon afterwards I duplicated that result on another small creek I had fished for several years. I became thoroughly captivated by both Tenkara’s effectiveness, and from peace and relaxation through its rather deceptive simplicity. By that I mean the emphasis of using essential skills; i.e. reading water, stealth, presentation, fighting – landing fish rather than (often unconscionably) expensive fly fishing rods, reels, lines… I have continued to learn all I can through resources available to me online.

    Without having a true traditional Tenkara mentor sensei I’ve figured out things on my own that I haven’t found anywhere else to enhance my Tenkara “experience” on the water and thus “enjoyment”. I recently came across this article in Tenkara Angler: Footsteps of the Japanese Tenkara Masters
    https://tenkaraangler.com/2019/03/10/footsteps-of-the-masters/
    where a key takeaway for the author from the Master Japanese Tenkara anglers he has met on his trips to Japan is “Explore, Innovate, Share, and Repeat”.

    As I read the article I began to ponder, has a solid base of traditional Tenkara techniques followed by my own “discoveries” to solve frequent “problems” I encounter on the water and even provide more fishing opportunities enhanced my “experience” creating more peace and relaxation? I believe it has.

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