The Theology of Tenkara, Trout, and Japan

Editor’s Note: While the tenkara fishing “season” winding down for many, I thought it might be a good time to pull some old articles out of the archives. Isaac Tait wrote this great piece for Tenkara Angler (Winter 2015-16) that reflects on many aspects of his personal tenkara experience.

The Theology of Tenkara, Trout, and Japan
by Isaac Tait

“The angler forgets most of the fish he catches, but he does not forget the streams and lakes in which they were caught.” – Charles K. Fox

Reflections

In the years that I have pursued Tenkara I’ve caught several thousand fish. While I certainly don’t remember them all, I will never forget the places that I went with my Tenkara rod. Sometimes a special fish or a unique landscape comes along though and leaves a mark upon my soul. The others become an amalgamation and collage of feelings, sensations, emotions, and observations organized into one part of my brain -set aside for moments of quiet introspection.

My first Brook and Rainbow Trout were caught in a small mountain stream near Thurmont, Maryland – within the boundaries of Catoctin Mountain Park; my first Brown Trout was caught not too far away from there in Beaver Creek; and then there was my first Golden Trout, which was caught in a tributary of the Middle Fork Kings River near Le Conte Canyon, California.

These were special fish; accomplishments that required hours, sometimes even several days of quiet patience to attain. However, the thing that has really left an indelible imprint on me has been Japan.

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Japan

I will never forget the first native trout I caught in Japan. I was kneeling in a shallow pool, frigid water running across my legs sending a constant chill down my spine. Above me mountains capped with snow scraped the sky, while all around me the alpine jungle emitted an incessant cacophony of a million birds in song, the wind rustling the leaves, and the roar of water cascading over rock. All of this was pushed to the back of my mind though as I concentrated on the pool four meters in front of me. A tree had fallen into the river over the winter, creating a perfect habitat for my quarry – the Japanese trout known as Iwana.

My kebari splashed lightly into the water and began to tumble and twirl in the current. Suddenly I felt the slightest of tugs – was it a leaf, maybe a branch? I lifted the rod and the eruption of the tranquil water confirmed that it was not floating detritus but my first Iwana! A minute or so later I was cradling her in my hands, careful to keep her submerged while my friends dug for their cameras. Once her likeness had been saved as a series of ones and zeroes I released her back into the wild – a little more tired and little wiser than she was a few minutes ago.

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Japan is an empire of such intense beauty that sometimes I wonder if I am on another planet, and it has affected me more deeply than I could have ever imagined. The people, the food, the landscape, the history, the culture, and of course its fish; everything just defies all that I have come to know and think as an American. The Japanese way of life is one of peaceful, meek, and tenacious introspection, and is difficult for my ‘Western’ brain to understand sometimes. In immersing myself in the cultural differences I have come to a greater understanding of not just myself, but the God who I believe created all of the landscapes, experiences, and wildlife that I have come to cherish.

Over the last season, I have traveled all over Japan – Tenkara fishing, hiking, backpacking, and mountain biking. I was struck by how many foreigners never ventured too far from the shrines, geisha girls, onsens, ryokans, and groomed ski slopes. While those things are inherently Japanese, the wild side of Japan is something to behold, and yet it falls by the wayside. In a way, it is as if the untamed beauty of Japan has succumbed to the bright lights, chaos, and short skirts of Tokyo. During the last year, I traveled to Chiba, Yamanashi, Tokyo, Kanagawa, Nagano, Niigata, Gunma, Shizuoka, Kyoto, Tochigi, and Fukushima Prefectures. I could count on one hand how many foreigners I came across in some of the more remote, yet unfathomably beautiful locations I visited there. Once I got off the beaten path in Japan the majority of people I came across were Japanese. And I think that is a great travesty.

Cameron Kline (1)

Consumption

Charles Fox said that, “The roots of fly-fishing encompass a poetic heritage and that there is a power and sacredness in all living things…” I could not agree more and as a fly angler, I believe we all understand that in a way most others do not. Fish are the only animals that humans hunt and then release. Catch and release, while certainly not an exclusive practice of fly anglers, we certainly do make up a majority of the practitioners of this methodology. But why?

I think the answer lies in not just the type of people who are attracted to catching fish on the fly but their unique desire to preserve, yet still enjoy, a landscape. Deep inside we grasp the power, fragility, and sacredness of not only the landscapes we find ourselves in but the animals that call it home. However, in the last several decades we have come to realize that not all of mankind has the same ideals. Organizations like Trout Unlimited, Orvis, and the multitude of non-profits have been created to protect specific rivers, watersheds, and even fish species that are vital to communities and our nation. If we just stepped aside and let the greed machine run unimpeded there would soon be nothing left.

One of the biggest weapons in the conservation arsenal is the money that tourism and the outdoor industry bring not only to communities but our nation. But it is much more than just the money that makes nature important, it is the quality of life that nature brings. And this quality of life is what keeps everything going – even the greed machines. The industries of logging, mining, and energy resource extraction are necessary; I won’t try and argue that they are not. However, when these necessary “evils” destroy our quality of life, it is just plain wrong and short-sighted. Once the resource is gone what are we left with? A huge hole in the ground or an erosion plagued hillside devoid of what once was. Before there were streams, springs, trees, and wildlife. Now there is an ugly scar that will poison our water and air for centuries to come, and for what? This shiny MacBook Air I write on? The sofa I’m sitting on while writing this? The scotch I’m sipping on to lubricate my creative side? All of this is necessary, or at least that is what I’ve convinced myself of, but there should be a balance and an understanding of the true cost of what we consume in the pursuit of happiness.

Cameron Kline (2)

Conservation

In Maryland, the need for conservation sprang primarily from the damage done by farms, pollution, and too much pavement. The first caused erosion due to deforestation to create farmland and then was exacerbated by runoff of fertilizer and pesticides into the ecosystem. The second was a byproduct of unchecked greed, plain and simple. The last caused unprecedented flooding because the ground that had once been able to absorb water was now paved over. This caused more water than the ecosystem could handle too flow into the rivers, which then increased flooding and erosion. Many of the streams I fished in Maryland that were purported to have once been rocky now had sandy bottoms. Because of these, and many other reasons I won’t go into now, these streams were no longer suitable for the native flora and fauna to flourish.

However, these issues have begun to be addressed through the education of the public, the introduction of riparian buffers that helped mitigate runoff, warming water, and pollution, and by a new method of paving that allows water to be absorbed yet still provide a durable surface.

No matter where you go, there is a threat to nature and Japan is no different. For example, rivers that once flowed unimpeded into the ocean are now dammed; illegal dumping and pollution is a big problem; both freshwater and ocean overfishing is becoming (or is already) an issue; and new roads, tunnels, weirs, dams, and bridges are being built at a very high rate – often times causing irreversible damage to natural habitats.

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The biggest threat, in my opinion, for the numerous keiryu (mountain streams) and genryū (headwaters) that I have explored and fished are first and foremost the dams followed closely by the cultural fishing ethics. “There are currently 2,800 dams in Japan. Structures over 15 meters tall are considered dams in Japan. If we include smaller structures, it is said there are close to 100,000 dams.” For a country smaller than California (which has 1400 named dams), that is a lot of dams. These dams, or weirs, have partially solved the flooding issues in Japan and because of that are necessary – but not to the extent at which they have been built. You don’t need a weir, let alone a dozen, on a stream that is in an unpopulated area – yet there they are.

There are many problems caused by these dams and weirs. First, they isolate the population of fish. With no way to swim upstream they are cut off, they can go down but they can never come back up. They also increase silt, gravel and rock buildups, which is their purpose because these man-made floodplains slow down flood water thus mitigating their damaging effects. However, the valley widens as it fills up with debris behind the manmade blockade. Once fast-moving streams that used to be shaded by trees, now slowly meander through a wasteland of sand and rock where no substantial foliage can protect them from warming under the direct sunlight.

These structures also reduce a river’s suitable habitat for fish to live and hide from predators in. Consequently, fish seek out smaller portions of a stream to inhabit. This then makes them more susceptible to disease, provides less access to food, and the warming water just exacerbates these issues.

Furthermore, the only way to replenish these streams with fish is to carry them in. This is mostly done by fishing co-ops which then require that you pay for a license to fish. The main difference though is that while in America when you pay for a license you know that the money is not just going to stocking but offsetting the tax burden and conservation efforts by state biologists, this is not the case in Japan. Typically, the money is earmarked for profit first and then stocking second. And since these rivers are routinely stocked the sense of personal responsibility is lessened and the perceived right to consume is heightened.

With that change in perspective, the fishing ethics, by and large, has become a belief that, “All fish should be kept no matter how small they are.” And I don’t need to explain how this mentality can do some serious damage.

Solutions

Having observed all of this, I have been searching for ways that I could affect a real change in Japan. As a foreigner though my options are limited. However, the answer I keep coming back to over and over against tourism. If more foreign visitors ventured into the backcountry, the out-of-the-way areas and the back roads of Japan – the influx of tourism interest and dollars spent would surely get noticed. Suddenly flooding a valley that had been enjoyed for centuries would not just inconvenience the local residents (not to mention the wildlife) but the people who came from Europe, Australia, and America to fish, backpack, camp, and explore it too–then, of course, there is the fact that the influx of foreigner expenditures in these communities would cease. My hope is that the influence of “outsiders” would help to highlight the necessity of the wild places and wild animals of Japan.

Japan is a country of such immense beauty, yet most of those who travel here to visit only see a tiny sliver of what Japan has to offer. “The essential human experience requires a deep connection to our lands and waters. Anything less and we risk the sort of social psychosis characterized by video game addiction and the destruction of our planetary life support systems. In other words, if we lose our link to nature, we risk losing everything else.”

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This idea for solving the issues in Japan through “adventure tourism” though isn’t without one glaring problem – there is a significant shortage of English speaking guides here. In nearly every form of outdoor adventure, English-speaking guides are almost non-existent. Those that one can find often advertise their services on websites that look like they were created in the early 90’s using Japanese/English translations that are hard to interpret, maps that are nearly impossible to decipher, and URLs that do not facilitate quick and easy google searches. In other words, traveling to Japan and ‘getting off the grid’ is going to be an adventure – it may even be a bit scary, but the reward is absolutely worth it. Trust me.

Right now is a perfect time to travel to Japan. The experience will be rife with opportunity to regain one’s lost sense of adventure, self-reliance, and self-awareness. It is something that our ancestors had in spades when they settled the world, sailed across the oceans without maps or charts, and climbed mountains that no one had ever summited before – but we have lost touch with this in our present culture. The golden age of human exploration and sense of adventure has been replaced by television, ‘smart’ devices, hashtags, inflated opinions, and laziness. We’ve become so intently focused on pursuing comfort above all things that we have isolated ourselves but yet still claim true balance, perspective, and open-mindedness, which we somehow acquire from social media, entertainment, and the “news.” It is when we are stretched, tested, and tried (three things that are very prevalent when seeking to live in a culture different from our own) that we truly develop character and a sense of self not rooted in ourselves.

History

My introduction to the heritage of “Western” fly fishing (author’s note: Western fly fishing I define as fly fishing with a reel), came from the book “Simple Fly Fishing” by Yvon Chouinard, Craig Mathews, and Mauro Mazzo. The book begins by explaining how Western fly fishing as we have come to know it, was an elitist activity engaged in by a privileged class of landholders.

On the opposite end of this spectrum of privilege and class is the Japanese Tenkara anglers of old who for centuries did not have the luxury to pursue fishing as a pastime or a sport. It was most certainly not an elitist activity practiced by the privileged, but rather was engaged in by peasants, farmers, and artisans as a matter of survival. Time spent fiddling with equipment or tying on a new fly every few minutes could result in their untimely demise. Up until the late 1960s and early 70s, parts of Japan were cut off from the rest of the country during the winter. So much snow fell in the mountains that the roads were unsafe to pass for as much as five to six months out of the year! Because of the harsh Japanese winters, entire communities had to rely on their ingenuity, foraging, farming, preserving, and of course their fishing skills to survive. It was in this environment of bare-bones necessity, yet still maintaining a level of dignity and meekness not commonly found in those circumstances, that Tenkara was born.

Cameron Kline (4)

For much of my life, I had been told that a new iPhone, a new car or clothes, maybe a new pair of seamless waders, or that sleek new graphite fly rod would make me happy. Basically consuming would fulfill me, or at least cloud the sense of purposelessness in it all. Gradually over the years, when the happiness didn’t come, I began to search deeper within myself for answers. The catalyst that brought about true discovery and understanding was the stupendous and beauteous landscape of Japan.

Tenkara translated literally means “from heaven,” but maybe it is not just the image of a fly falling from the heavens into the water to attract a meal that sparked the name – but the fact that it is so counter to our culture that it awakens a side of ourselves that we have subdued for too long. In that discovery, we find a whole new way of seeing and thinking about the world that had been closed off to us before.

Curator for Fallfish Tenkara – Isaac Tait is a Tenkara fanatic currently residing near Tokyo. 

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Myth Busting Tenkara in Japan

Editor’s Note: As relative newcomers to the tenkara scene, many of us Westerners (with the aid of the internet) have developed certain ideas about tenkara and how it is practiced in Japan. In the Summer 2016 issue of Tenkara Angler, John Vetterli of Tenkara Guides, LLC set out to separate fact from fiction, as well as provide some insight on what traveling to Japan might really feel like for those interested in making the trip.

Myth Busting Tenkara in Japan
by John Vetterli

A while back I visited Japan for a few weeks of fishing with several recognized tenkara experts.

When I arrived in Japan, I thought I had a pretty solid grasp of how tenkara was practiced in the land of its origin. Man, I was completely off about that.

Here is the short list of tenkara myths that many westerners have about tenkara in Japan.

1. One Fly is the way Japanese tenkara anglers fish

Well, I hate to break this to you but the One Fly thing is for the most part an American interpretation of Japanese tenkara.

There are a few tenkara anglers in Japan that do use one fly pattern, very few. And within that one fly pattern there are variations of size, color, and hackle size/stiffness.

Most people I fished with used a pretty wide variety of fly and kebari patterns. These included Masami Sakakibara and Hiromichi Fuji, two of the most respected tenkara anglers in Japan.

There are some tenkara anglers in Japan who do use only one fly pattern.

Dr. Ishigaki is perhaps the most widely known One Fly Guy. These anglers are using the one fly method as a personal challenge to add a level of self-imposed difficulty. It is a game they play with themselves.

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2. Level Line Tenkara is what most anglers do in Japan

Well, not exactly.

There is a lot of personal line choice exercised in Japan. I fished with people who use tapered furled fluorocarbon lines, PVC fly line, nylon monofilament level lines, tapered nylon monofilament lines, western fluorocarbon tapered leaders as tenkara lines, and of course fluorocarbon level line.

3. All rods from Japanese companies are manufactured in Japan

There are some rod companies in Japan that make and source every component of their rods in Japan. Nissin, Gamakatsu, Tenryu, and Sakura.

Other companies like Diawa and Shimano outsource many models that are made all over Asia in places like Vietnam, China, etc. The biggest difference in outsourced rods from a Japanese company is how they manage quality control. Most of these companies send a quality control team to the out of country manufacturing facility to directly manage the production run of the rods. Every piece of the rod from raw materials to final product has direct oversight of the Japanese quality control team.

4. Tenkara is very popular in Japan

Not exactly. Modern tenkara’s heyday was most likely in the 1980s when guys like Hiromichi Fuji and Mr. Soseki were resurrecting tenkara from historical oblivion by introducing modern materials like carbon fiber and fluorocarbon to the rods and lines. These two men really brought tenkara back from the dead.

Here’s the real deal on mountain stream fishing in Japan. Fixed line bait fishing is #1 there is no contest, period. Followed by western fly-fishing and spin casting with artificial lures.

On the fly-casting side, western fly-fishing is extremely popular in Japan. You are more likely to see someone who looks like they just stepped out of the Orvis catalog than anything else.

Tenkara is a small niche in the many hundreds of different types of fishing in Japan. My friend Masami Sakakibara has said that he is pretty sure there are a great deal more tenkara anglers in America than in Japan at the moment.

Tenkara is seeing an increase in interest in Japanese anglers because of all the commotion about it here in the States.

Here is something interesting. When you look at the catalogs from the big Japanese rod manufacturers, these things are a couple of hundred pages thick and the tenkara rods are usually less than one full page of the catalog. Nissin has more variations of fixed line micro fishing or tanago rods then they have tenkara rods.

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5. Japanese streams are healthy and loaded with fish

If you travel to Japan for tenkara fishing, you had better bring your “A” game.
Many mountain streams are over fished because catch and release fishing just isn’t really practiced in Japan. Over the past few years Dr. Ishigaki and Masami Sakakibara have made a lot of progress in changing the hearts and minds of tenkara angler in Japan but it is going to be a slow road before catch and release fly fishing is widely practiced.

Many of Japan’s rivers are dammed for hydroelectric power and that has had massive impacts on Iwana and Amago fish populations in the upper mountain streams. There are fish stocking programs in Japan but the rivers and streams are broken up into co-op areas and each region of a river/stream is independently managed. When you fish anywhere in a river/stream in Japan, you must purchase a fishing license from the managing co-op. Because of this type of stream management, fish stocking is pretty much a thing of “we will stock the river when we have enough money”.

So, mountain stream fishing is tough in Japan. Anglers reduce the fish population faster than it can reproduce and the dams screw up migration.

It’s still worth the trip though.

6. Travel in and through Japan is tough for non-Japanese speakers

Travel in and around Japan is really quite easy. Many people in Japan speak English. The announcements on trains and airports are both written and spoken in English, and freeway signs are printed in both languages. The money is pretty easy to figure out. And if you get into trouble, just look for a 10 year old kid. Their English is really good and they are just dying to try it on you.

7. The food…

If you like Japanese food, then my friends you are in luck because the food in Japan is freaking awesome. Some of it can be a little strange and confusing but you can always ask someone about it. Just be adventurous and try everything and most places have pictures on the menus so it makes it a little easier.

On our first night in Japan, Erik and I were wandering around Nagoya at 10pm trying to find a place to eat. We decided on this small restaurant that had a lot of people hanging out around it so our logic was if that many people are hanging around, it must be good right? We took a chance and went inside and were taken to a small table. When handed the menus, there were no pictures. So we did what any jetlagged, starving fishing guides would do, we just randomly pointed to a line on the menu to the waiter and rolled the dice. I have no idea of what kind of sushi we had but it was amazing.

Before you go to Japan, take some time and eat at a few more traditional Japanese cuisine restaurants and ask a lot of questions to the staff about the food.

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8. Japan is really expensive

Yes and no. If you travel to Japan and only see the big cities, then yes, Japan can be very expensive. It would be no different than staying in New York City, London, Paris, etc. But, if you do your homework, you can stay and eat in Japan very reasonably. If I remember correctly, the most expensive place I stayed was $125.00 a night and that was in Osaka, one of the major cities.

When we were traveling throughout the countryside fishing, we stayed at Royokan Inns. Sort of like a bead and breakfast. Most of these places charged around $100.00 per person per night and that included breakfast and dinner. Everywhere we stayed had fantastic traditional cuisine that would set you back easily $25-50.00 per person back in the States.

9. Money…

Since Japan is arguably the most modernized country in Japan, my credit/debt cards should work everywhere, right?

If you travel to Japan, TAKE CASH. Japan is still a cash culture. Finding a place to accept a foreign credit card is downright tough. There is only one type of ATM that will accept foreign debt cards and it isn’t at a bank. It’s the Japanese Post Office. And not all of them have the right kind of ATM.

10. Japanese people are very formal and stuffy

Japan is a very polite culture. There are certain cultural protocols that come with that. It is good to have at least a minimal understanding of how one is to be introduced or to introduce someone.

For the most part, everyone we met was very friendly, inviting, and fun to be with. Every time I see Masami Sakakibara I get a big bear hug.

Remember, these master tenkara anglers are just people like you and me, they all have real day jobs, they love to fish, they all like to have a good time, they just happen to be very good at fishing tenkara through decades of experience.

I was slightly intimidated by meeting Hiromichi Fuji. I have read all of his books on tenkara and knowing his place in the modern tenkara timeline and how influential he has been, I’ll admit I was a little nervous. He is a man small in stature but commands great respect from his peers and students. When my friend Eiji Yamakawa introduced us, we both politely bowed and then he grabbed my hand and gave it a good firm handshake with a big smile.

Hiromichi Fuji is really fun to be with. He has a wicked sharp sense of humor and is very humble and relaxed once you get past the formal introduction part. Love that guy.

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11. Tenkara in Japan has very strict rules

This is where a lot has been lost in translation from Japan to the West.

Tenkara in Japan is very fluid. There are no hard rules or dogma surrounding it. Tenkara is simply a traditional form of fixed line fly-fishing practiced in mountain streams throughout Japan.

It has been said there are the 10 colors of tenkara, meaning, that for every 10-tenkara anglers there is a different and unique method being employed.

After my trip to Japan and many hundreds of Skype calls, emails, Facebook messages to my friends and mentors in Japan, I have concluded that there are really 10,000 colors of tenkara.

The way tenkara is looked at in Japan is that there are some basic tools like a telescopic rod with a fixed line attachment at the tip, a line made of what ever material and construction the angler prefers, and some flies. After that, it is pretty much open to the individual’s interpretation.

This leads us to the next and final item.

12. Tenkara anglers in Japan only use kebari pattern flies

Well, not exactly.

Let’s define the word kebari. Kebari refers to fly patterns that are native to Japan. They are not “match the hatch” type representations like we see in other parts of the world. Kebari are all not wet fly or Sakasa (Meaning forward) hackle patterns either. Kebari range widely in styles. There are dry pattern, wet pattern, and weighted pattern, forward hackle, and rearward hackle kebari.

In Japan, tenkara anglers refer to western style flies as “flies” just to keep the confusion down.

Some tenkara anglers choose to use only kebari patterns and some use a large mixture of both western flies and kebari.

To add to that, there are tenkara anglers in Japan who do match the hatch and some that don’t.

Again it all comes down to tenkara is very fluid in Japan. You can and are in fact encouraged to find your own “Tenkara Color”.

Make tenkara your tenkara. Don’t worry about anyone else’s opinions, just go out there and experiment and have fun.

Article: Tenkara Fly Fishing Camaraderie

An unexpectedly excellent piece on tenkara appeared in the Huffington Post blog section on Wednesday titled: Tenkara On Small Streams: Teaching Kids Fly Fishing, Respect for Conservation and a Mother’s Love.

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Image: Blair Smith

Many topics were touched, but no theme aligned more with what the tenkara community is all about than this passage.

“There is an instant connection formed with tenkara fishermen and women. Maybe it is the connection of simplicity with no reel. He saw our rod sticking out of our pack as we hiked down towards the stream. The tenkara fishing rod was a magnet to conversation.

Turns out, I was right. He fishes tenkara and is a local. He knew exactly where he was. I should have had him pegged. We talked streamlining, tenkara rods, the rain that week, currents, and stinging nettle. We were just like a group of kayakers studying the river at an access point.”

 

Need a Saturday morning pick me up? Look no further than Blair Smith’s article.

Fallfish Tenkara: Overlanding & Tenkara

Isaac Tait, author of the Fallfish Tenkara website/blog, has contributed some very entertaining essays to the last two issues of Tenkara Angler. For those that frequent his site, his skills as a wordsmith come as no surprise.

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Recently, Isaac published a new post to Fallfish Tenkara, Overlanding & Tenkara, in which he chronicled a recent trip where he took some friends on an off-road adventure through the Tanzawa Mountains of Japan. Wonderful writing & photos!