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Tenkara Tour of Japan 2023

Trip Report by Guido Scala
Additional Photos by Davide Zarlenga

The idea for our trip to Japan dates back almost a year. Along with my friend Davide Zarlenga, we decided that it could be done, and we bought the plane tickets in December 2022.

As the months passed, the excitement built, but also tension. Excitement because fishing with tenkara in the birthplace of this ancient technique creates such emotion. Tension because Japan, although always described as a welcoming and kind country, is on the other side of the world. However, mostly because it has a language and a writing system that are completely unknown and indecipherable to us.

Fortunately, once the fateful day arrived, the 14-hour flight from Rome to Tokyo was not as difficult as it seemed.

Day 1

We landed in Tokyo in the late morning and quickly handled the procedures to pick up the portable Wi-Fi device and the rental car without much trouble. We also exchanged some Euros for Yen because in many places, especially in rural areas and small towns, credit cards are not always accepted.

In the early afternoon, we set off for the first stop of our trip: Lake Kawaguchi, which offers a splendid view of Mount Fuji. Here comes the first shock!

Fuji-san is immense… You can’t truly grasp it until you see it in front of you—it has an incredible grandeur. Perhaps it’s because it’s a volcano, or because of its perfectly shaped mountain form (the one we draw as children), or maybe it’s because it’s the only mountain of such height surrounded by much lower hills. But it gave us the impression of being above us, watching over us and protecting us.

Tenkara Tour of Japan 2023 - Tenkara Angler - Guido Scala - Mt. Fuji

We continued following the road map meticulously prepared by Davide over the course of months, taking into account valuable advice given to us by Uberto Calligarich and Ryuta Okano, and considering the various locations, roads, and hotels. For our overnight stay, we stopped in Chino, in Nagano Prefecture, at a hotel run by two lovely sisters in their eighties who, of course, don’t speak a word of English.

After having a quick lunch at a Family Mart with takeout food, that evening we deserved a dinner worthy of our location. Therefore, we chose a restaurant that specialized in freshly made udon noodles, which were seasoned with various toppings. As Italians, we opted for the “Big” portion, which costs 7 euros, but it was almost a liter of udon, and we struggled to finish it.

Day 2

In the morning, we had breakfast at a Mr. Donuts and headed towards Matsumoto (still in Nagano Prefecture) to visit a large outdoor store and stock up on equipment for the trip. The prices are good, although not extremely low, and they also had fishing gear and some tenkara items.

Tenkara Tour of Japan 2023 - Tenkara Angler - Guido Scala - Tenkara Sign
A sign explaining what Tenkara is and urging fishermen to fish with this ancient technique

After completing our shopping, we reached our first fishing stream: Okuhida, Gamada River. The river is not very wide or fast, with small pools and riffles alternating with low weirs, all with a central fish ladder. In a no-kill section we caught beautiful, probably native, iridescent fish. Davide even caught an Amago, a trout that is not easy to catch due to its cunning behavior.

We caught almost all the fish using yellow kebari flies in different patterns, such as futsu, jun, and sakasa. The only two anglers we met were fishing with dry flies in the English style. Throughout the trip, we came across anglers using spinning reels or fly fishing, as these are the two popular techniques in the inland waters. Unfortunately, we encountered very few tenkara anglers.

After three hours of fishing, feeling tired from the jet lag as well, we got back in the car and headed towards Takayama (in Gifu Prefecture), the city that was to be our base for the next five days.

Tenkara Tour of Japan 2023 - Tenkara Angler - Guido Scala - Davide Guido

Day 3

Waking up at 9AM to heavy rain, fishing was not possible. It was decided to visit Master Masami Sakakibara and Master Hisanobu Hirata‘s shop in Gujo.

We visited Master Hirata first and discovered his fantastic shop, very small but with everything you need. He is a nice person, available and kind. He showed us that he was mentioned in Daniel Galhardo’s book of Tenkara and in a newspaper article because he won a fishing contest. Hirata was also featured in a few YouTube videos, including an episode of John Pearson and Paul Gaskell’s Tenkara in Focus. He showed us some of his flies, they are all futsu, with the body always beige and with various rooster feathers.

And then he showed us the top specimen – a kebari with snake skin (Japanese viper – mamushi). We looked ecstatically at the kebari, they were all futsu with a red spot on the tail, the body in snake skin, and the hackles of grizzly rooster. We were speechless, he explained that viper skin reflects light in such a way as to be very attractive to trout and therefore much more captivating.

Tenkara Tour of Japan 2023 - Tenkara Angler - Guido Scala - Hirata

He’s a great person and you can tell he subscribes to simplicity. You can also see it in his space where he churns out one kebari after another. It is essential, with only what is needed, nothing more, nothing superfluous.

The Master also showed us (in front of his shop) his casting and retrieval. While he retrieved the kebari, he applied a kind of rotation that gives a very particular movement.

After the greetings we went towards Itoshiro to meet Master Sakakibara. The Itoshiro valley is stupendous, it is a tourist valley with ski lifts and ski slopes, with very luxuriant woods, few houses, and above all a lot of streams.

Masami and his wife Kyoko welcomed us with great kindness. I had met them a month earlier in Monaco at the EWF and at the Tenkara National Gathering when they were guests in Valsesia. They offered us excellent tea and told us a little about themselves. Masami invited us to fish with him on Wednesday and we were thrilled.

When we returned to Takayama, we were hungry. After looking for a place to eat, which we found easily, I ate fried balls filled with octopus, fried lotus root and an omelette… another world!

Tenkara Tour of Japan 2023 - Tenkara Angler - Guido Scala - Fried Lotus Root
Fried lotus root

Day 4

The incessant rain of the day before has been considerably swollen all the rivers. Our destination for that day was also unfishable. The upper part of the Gamada River (where we had been two days prior) was a rushing brown stream, definitely not passable.

We quickly decided to audible to one of the stops scheduled for one of the following days and we moved to Shirakawa to visit the ancient village with the same name. The visit to the village took a couple of hours, but our interest was diverted to the river that flowed through the village. It was strangely clear and fishable. We didn’t think twice and went down to the river.

The Shō River originates and flows for a good part of its course in the Gifu prefecture, and then flows into the Toyama Bay in the Toyama prefecture. In the Shirakawa area it is a medium-sized river and is characterized by rather large holes. It is an ideal river for spin fishinng. Among some of things I found were some minnows on the ground of the bank, probably fallen from some fisherman’s box.

Shogawa River seemed to be the only fishable water that day and so we gave it a try. The fish were present in large numbers, especially Yamame, there was no way to undermine the large specimens certainly present in the deep holes and we enjoyed catching the smaller specimens waiting for food at the end of the runs. A day we thought was ‘wasted’ instead turned into an afternoon of great fun!

Tenkara Tour of Japan 2023 - Tenkara Angler - Guido Scala - Kurenai

When we returned to Takayama that evening Hida beef with onions and the ever-present rice awaited us for dinner.

Tenkara Tour of Japan 2023 - Tenkara Angler - Guido Scala - Rice Paddy
Instead of a garden, each house has its own rice paddy

Day 5

At 9AM we arrived at Masami and Kyoko’s Osugi Lodge. By 9:05, Masami had already climbed into our car, sat in the driver’s seat, and ready to take us to the river.

He took us to the upper reaches of the Itoshiro River. The Itoshiro is a tributary of another important river, the Kuzuryū which originates in the Gujō area and crosses the entire Fukui prefecture before flowing into the Sea of Japan at Sakai.

Tenkara Tour of Japan 2023 - Tenkara Angler - Guido Scala - Itoshiro

In that area the Itoshiro is characterized by saxons, holes, and currents, in short, a typical torrential course. This is the home of tenkara, the ideal river. Here Masami gave his best, we saw the “demon” (Oni) come out of him in full force.

Tenkara Tour of Japan 2023 - Tenkara Angler - Guido Scala - Masami Sakakibara

It is not easy to describe the Master’s way of fishing, his approach to water is based on essentiality. Essential because he does nothing useless, superfluous. His movements are precise and his attacks are very effective. He never makes more than 5-6 casts in the same spot and with his eyes and mind he’s already on to the next spot, in a sequence of continuous and deadly attacks.

The percentage of catches was very high, I calculated that out of 10 spots, he caught at least one fish in 8 of them. (It often happened that he caught even more.)

Watching him fish was incredible, we were all petrified, open-mouthed, enraptured by that simple perfection and by his moving in the river with agility, precision and speed as only a roe deer, a chamois, or a bird can possess.

Tenkara Tour of Japan 2023 - Tenkara Angler - Guido Scala

There were fish, and in large quantities. Mainly Iwana (char) but also some Yamame (trout). Their size was not very big, but in tenkara, not using the bait to scour the bottom as with other techniques, when there are so many eager, native fish, it becomes difficult to catch specimens of great size.

A lunch break was scheduled for noon and then we returned to the Osugi Lodge where Kyoko prepared a sumptuous and delicious lunch for us.

In the afternoon we returned to the Itoshiro, a little further upstream. The situation was practically the same, the morphology of the stream is identical to before. Now used to it a bit more the catches came, but still nothing compared to those of the Master who caught on average 10 times as many.

At the end of the day we were exhausted while Masami looked fresh as a daisy, what a physique! We returned to the Osugi Lodge and arrangend to meet the next day in Shokawa on the Shō river

Day 6

We had an appointment at 9AM with Masami and Kyoko in Sokawa to buy fishing permits. Masami took us to the Ishiki River, a tributary of the Shō. This river is different from the Itoshiro, but has a torrential character too. It is wider, with shallower and bigger holes. There was little water but there were plenty of fish – Iwana and Yamame.

Here too, as on Itoshiro, there were many insects, mainly caddisflies and a few mayflies. It was not a coincidence that the kebari Masami used had a body of vaporous dubbing and a tuft of deer on the back (like sedge).  

Masami and Kyoko took us in a restaurant for lunch where we ate sitting on the floor and Davide and I tried our best.

Tenkara Tour of Japan 2023 - Tenkara Angler - Guido Scala - Lunch

After lunch, we returned to the same stream, a little further upstream. On the way there, two monkeys crossed the road. Masami told us that there are many and it is easy to meet them.

The environment was fantastic as usual. The stream flows through the woods and it is beautiful, immense peace, no noise, just the sound of the bells that Masami and Davide hung on their belts to keep the bears away.

Here the philosophy of tenkara emerged, the immersion of the environment, and becoming one with it. Finding essentiality and at the same time discovering the great complexity and power of nature.

Tenkara Tour of Japan 2023 - Tenkara Angler - Guido Scala - Nature

Catching fish was no longer the important thing, it became important to be present, to live those moments in that state of mind, to grasp the beauty of the situation and come out of it richer in spirit. All the technical notions and tricks, however important, that I learned from Masami are nothing compared to what the Master taught me and that is that tenkara is within us and that we must live it.

In the evening we met Masami and Kyoko again and a meat-based dinner was planned in a restaurant run by an acquaintance of Ryuta Okano.

Before leaving for Japan, Ryuta gave me the souvenir print of the anniversary of the Tenkara-Valsesiana pairing, which he had prepared for the recent Tenkara National Gathering. He asked me to bring it as a gift to the owner of the restaurant.

Tenkara Tour of Japan 2023 - Tenkara Angler - Guido Scala - Dinner

The restaurant was called Tenkara and the owner Ikutaro Wada happens to be a student of Master Hirata. The meat was exquisite and the restaurant was full of fishing references including two 90 years old bamboo tenkara rods.

Ikutaro is a fisherman and most recently a spin fisher, he took us to his laboratory, where he builds fantastic balsa minnows. He told us how fishing has changed over the years and how the new generations now choose spinning or fly fishing as a technique. Tenkara is a fishing style that may disappear because it is not practiced.

It was late and we were feeling tired. We said goodbye to Ikutaro and gave a big hug to Masami and Kyoko who really made us live two unforgettable days. The appointment with them will probably be next year, the idea is to organize a series of training meetings with the Maestro in Italy, we’ll see!

Days 7 & 8

The last two days were dedicated to visiting Tokyo and therefore I won’t bore you with stories about pandas, huge megastores, huge orderly and silent crowds, super crowded intersections, and restaurants with preposterous food… and others with delicious food.

It was an exciting, exciting journey. I thank my friend Davide for being an excellent, patient and trusted travel companion, without him this trip would not have happened.

Big thanks to Masami and Kyoko for everything they did for us. And thanks also to Uberto Calligarich and Ryuta Okano for their suggestions.

This trip will remain in my heart, as will Japan. A great country with spectacular scenery and a people whose kindness and hospitality make it truly special.

Guido Scala is an Italian tenkara enthusiast, expert fly tyer, and photographer. Visit him on Instagram at gs_flyfishing or through Tenkara Italy on Facebook.

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