Footsteps of the Masters

Footsteps of the Masters
By John Vetterli
Tenkara Guides LLC

June 1st 2014, two American tenkara fly fishing guides, Erik Ostrander and John Vetterli, along with Erik’s wife Ann traveled to Nagoya Japan to begin the tenkara journey that would profoundly change my views on tenkara methods, tools, cultures, and most importantly, is tenkara different in the land and culture of its origin as compared to what we know back home in the United States?

We have been very fortunate to make some fantastic friends in Japan. People who most western tenkara anglers know only by name and reputation. Friends like Eiji Yamakawa, Kiyoshi Ishihara, Masami Tanaka from the Harima Tenkara Club. Hiromichi Fuji, Nissin tenkara rod designer and pioneer of modern tenkara. Dr. Ishigaki, Daiwa tenkara rod designer, and the World Tenkara Ambassador.

And my mentor, teacher, and friend Masami Sakakibara (Tenkara no-Oni) Designer of the famed Oni rods and perhaps the greatest living tenkara angler in the world.

All this name-dropping has a purpose. Erik and I traveled to Japan to meet, fish with, and learn from some the best Japanese tenkara anglers alive today.

When we arrived in Japan, our first adventure was to travel by train from Nagoya to Mazegawa fishing center to meet for the first time, Masami Sakakibara, his wife Kyoko, and Rocky Osaki, our newest bestest buddy and translator.

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Masami Sakakibara is and incredibly humble man. Unassuming, no ego, quick to make a joke, and an incredible caster and angler. We spent time learning about the biology of Iwana and Amago, where they live in the rivers, their personalities and feeding habits and then it was off to the water.

The next several days consisted of early morning breakfasts long days on the water accompanied by lots and lots of skill tweaking and instruction of Masami’s theories about fishing strategies, casting mechanics, bio-mechanical efficiency, and just a hell of a lot of fun. Masami is a true friend who will freely share with you as much of his 35 years of tenkara knowledge as your brain can process.

During one of our many conversations he said something to me that rocked my tenkara world. I asked him “How does someone become a tenkara master in Japan?”

He simply said, “There are no real rules to become a tenkara master. You simply work very hard to develop your skills, innovate whether it be a product like a rod, lines, flies, a casting technique, a method of fly manipulation, etc. Then you must share your knowledge and continue to refine and perfect what you know.”

So I condensed that to Explore, Innovate, Share, and Repeat. It’s a never-ending cycle.

After several days with Masami we hooked up with our old friend Dr. Ishigaki for several more days of fishing at Itoshiro Village and to attend the Itoshiro Fisher’s Holiday. A meeting of all types of mountain stream anglers. Western fly fishers, tenkara anglers, spin casters, keiryu bait fishers, it’s a chance to see the mountain stream fishing spectrum of Japan all in one spot.

We met Dr. Ishigaki at the first Tenkara USA Summit in Montana in 2011. We immediately hit it off with him and a great friendship began to develop. Over the years Dr. Ishigaki has been a great resource of information for me as we kept our friendship alive via email.

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Dr. Ishigaki is the face and voice of tenkara in Japan. If there is a tenkara celebrity, it is Dr. Ishigaki. He appears on television shows, magazine ads, articles and interviews, lectures, and teaches many students. His personality is infectious. This is a guy who takes his fishing very seriously but himself very lightly. A man with a great sense of humor, a hell of a lot of fun to hang out with and just a great all around guy.

We spent long hours discussing the arts of fly manipulation, stream tactics, and a lot of fishing. And I learned that Dr. Ishigaki could probably eat his weight in rice. Man, that guy loves his rice.

During the Itoshiro Fisher’s Holiday we met hundreds of other anglers of all types. Fished side by side with keiryu bait fishers and spin casters. Met some extremely talented western fly rod designers and craftsmen. Talked about what fishing is like in the Western United States. Answered lots of questions about cowboys and Indians.

(Apparently the American Wild West is a fascination of the Japanese). The festival was an amazing experience to meet a lot of people.

I also asked Dr. Ishigaki about how one becomes a tenkara master in Japan. Strangely enough, his answer was the same as Masami Sakakibara’s answer.

Explore, Innovate, Share, Repeat.

After several great days of fishing in Itoshiro, we were on the road with our great friend Eiji Yamakawa headed to Kyoto to meet up with the legendary Hiromichi Fuji.

We met Eiji Yamakawa, Kiyoshi Ishihara, and Masami Tanaka at the 2nd Tenkara Summit our company hosted with Tenkara USA in our hometown of Salt Lake City, UT.

Eiji, Kiyoshi, and Masami are members of the Harima Tenkara Club. One of the oldest tenkara clubs in Japan. These guys are awesome! They are some of the most fun people I have ever fished with. Eiji taught me how to build tapered furled tenkara lines from fluorocarbon. Masami is a supreme stream tactician; Kiyoshi is perhaps the most humble man I have ever met. They each bring their own version of tenkara to the table. Each man has developed his own complete system of tenkara. It includes rod type, kebari patterns, casting methods, stream tactics, line types. Each has his own distinct style.

So, after about a 5-hour drive and an intense trip through Osaka rush hour freeway traffic. (Los Angeles traffic is nothing compared to Osaka Japan). We reached this tiny hut alongside a fairly busy mountain road across the street from this beautiful river that flowed through the valley. As we pulled up to the hut, a small group of about 6 men ranging from ages 20-75 came to the cars to greet us. We were immediately introduced to Hiromichi Fuji. A quiet and unassuming man about 75 years old.

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For a man who is for all intents and purposes, the father of modern tenkara, he is very warm and approachable. He is quick with a joke, a perfectionist in everything he does, and a very patient teacher.

We dumped our gear in the hut and immediately began fishing the river across the street.

Hiromichi Fuji or Sensei as his students refer him to, is the guy who pioneered the use of monofilament line materials for tenkara. He is most likely the first person to use nylon and fluorocarbon materials to build the first furled lines of these products. He is also the designer of the Nissin Airstage Fujiryu family of tenkara rods. These rods were my first true Japanese tenkara rods. If you have never used one, you are missing out on something unique.

Fuji Sensei discussed his casting technique with us and began to immediately teach the subtleties of his methods and his personal tenkara philosophy.

Fishing with Fuji Sensei was one of my life’s greatest honors. He is a living legend, one of the modern sports greatest innovators, a fantastic teacher, and just a fun and interesting man to talk to about everything from his experiences in Japan during World War II and how the country rebuilt itself after the war, tenkara history both ancient and modern. His many different kebari patterns he ties and uses, and most interestingly, how the sport is evolving now that it has left the country of its origin. Fuji Sensei looks to the future of tenkara with great excitement. The West is pushing it in new directions, unexplored regions, new cultural ideals, evolving, and developing new skills. I get the strong feeling that Hiromichi Fuji sees the full circle at this moment. He has seen the evolution of tenkara from mystery and a practically lost art to the modernization of rods from bamboo to fiberglass to carbon fiber, lines from horse hair and silk thread to fluorocarbon level lines and now the surge of new ideas freely flowing from a distant culture that is a bit wild and unencumbered by past history. We are just going to do what we are going to do best. Adapt and make it our own.

One evening Fuji Sensei and I were sitting on the steps of the hut, just the two of us and I asked him my now infamous question “How does someone become a tenkara master?”

Fuji let out a little laugh and said “Learn all you can, explore and make your own tenkara, share it with others, never stop learning.”

The next morning we left the fishing hut and headed to Fuji Sensei’s home in Kyoto to visit his workshop where he ties kebari for Nissin and manufactures the spectacular Nissin PALS furled fluorocarbon tapered tenkara lines.

After spending several hours learning about his line designs and watching him make several lines, he sat at his desk and tied a few of his signature kebari and then it was done. Our time with Hiromichi Fuji was over. We then piled into Eiji’s van and we were off to our next adventure. Somewhere in the middle of the Japanese wilderness. I have no idea of where the hell we were headed, but I was very excited.

We first spent the night at this really cool village an hour or so out of Kyoto. This house we stayed in is around 250 years old. A building that existed during the reign of the Samurai.

The next morning we headed out with Eiji and Masami for a few more days of fishing. We travelled up high into the mountains and explored streams that I cant even do justice trying to describe. Steep canyons, volcanic rock and granite, the clearest water I have ever seen, lush cedar and bamboo forests. After a few semi-rappelling descents into the canyons, we hit the water and started fishing.

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Fishing with Eiji Yamakawa is always a lot of fun. Eiji or “Eddie” as his friends know him, is a legitimate tenkara master in his own right. He has no interest in titles or recognition. I like to refer to Eddie as the “Reluctant Master”. His casting skills are deadly, the way he approaches a section of stream and analyzes it, allows him to pull fish out of the most unlikely places that 99.999% of anglers would pass by. His personality is very laid back and filled with humor.

Masami Tanaka is another “Reluctant Master”. He and Eiji have been fishing partners for decades. They move through a stream together as a seamless team. Each has their own distinct style and methods that equally balance out the other. There are simply no gaps in techniques between the two. They move through the water leaving no potential lie untouched by more than one method of casting, fly manipulation, drifts, or angles. With these two guys in the stream, the fish just simply don’t stand a chance.

So, following the theme of my trip to Japan, I asked Eiji my question “How does someone become a tenkara master?”

Eiji may very well be the originator of the term “The 10 Colors of Tenkara”. He simply said, “You must find your color of tenkara. Take the basic skills and explore them, shape them, make them your own. Find your tenkara.”

And just like that, I was sitting on a Boeing 747 leaving the ground at Nagoya Airport and my first journey to Japan was over.

I had 18 hours of travel time to digest everything that I had experienced in Japan fishing with several of the best and most renowned tenkara master anglers alive today. Met hundreds of people along the way. Ate some of the best food I have ever had. And had a hell of a lot of fun.

These people are just that, people. Here in the West, there has been a tendency to put them on a pedestal and idolize them. Maybe that is just our way of romanticizing tenkara. It has centuries old history based in a distant and exotic culture, in our countries outside of Japan; tenkara is still in its infancy. So it seems natural that we would look to the land of origin for heroes to follow.

So, here is what I really learned from my time both in Japan in 2014 and even as I write this article. Tenkara is not mystical, exotic, Zen, or any of that. It is just simply a method of fly-casting. There are no hard rules. There is no single and correct tenkara method. Tenkara is a reflection of the angler who uses the tools and techniques to suit his/her natural environment, fish species, knowledge and skill base they bring to the table from past fishing experience. Tenkara is just you.

I believe that the next generation of tenkara masters is in the process of being created right now, at this exact moment in time. This next generation will most likely come from the West. We are pushing tenkara in directions it has never been. Carp fishing, warm water species, and ocean fishing. We as a culture are unencumbered by tenkara’s history. We are completely free to Explore, Innovate, Share, and Repeat.

The history of tenkara and its origin is Japan. The future is being forged here in the West. There is no other time in the fly-fishing culture that such a dramatic swing has ever occurred. We are all a part of this paradigm shift.

I had a conversation with Hiromichi Fuji about how he feels about how tenkara is being changed and adapted outside of Japan. He finds this exciting and a necessary evolution of tenkara’s future. The sport was gradually dwindling in popularity in Japan. The peak of its popularity was most likely in the early 1980s. Once tenkara left Japan, a true revolution occurred. There is a lot of speculation among tenkara anglers in Japan that tenkara is vastly more popular in America than it ever was in Japan. There are more tenkara anglers outside of Japan now than inside.

This is the future and we are all taking a part in shaping it.

To follow the footsteps of the masters is impossible. For as soon as every one of the Master’s footsteps are made in the stream, the water washes them away. There is and can be only one tenkara path. Your path.

Go and Explore, Innovate, Share. Find your own tenkara. Make it yours. Share what you know, never stop questioning what you know.

And above all have fun.

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This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

Do you have a story to tell, a photo to share, or a fly recipe that’s too good to keep secret? If you would like to contribute content to our next issue, click HERE for more details.

Traditional Japanese Fly Fishing? Which one?

Traditional Japanese Fly Fishing? Which one?
by Chris Stewart 

For years now, every time I’d read the phrase “traditional Japanese fly fishing” I wanted to ask “Yeah, which one?” Of course, the writer always meant tenkara, but tenkara is not THE traditional Japanese fly fishing. It is but one of several traditional fly fishing methods, one or two of which might be hundreds of years older, and perhaps thus even more traditional than tenkara.

You will occasionally, although very rarely, read about a second traditional method – dobuzuri or dobutsuri – which is fly fishing for ayu, although no one in the US ever refers to it as traditional Japanese fly fishing. Actually I don’t think I have ever seen it mentioned other than tangentially – through the flies, never the fishing.

Talk about tradition, Meboso Hachirobei, run by the same family in the same location since 1575, started making ayu flies in the late 1800s.
Talk about tradition, Meboso Hachirobei, run by the same family in the same location since 1575, started making ayu flies in the late 1800s.

Interestingly, the late Robert Behnke, (aka Dr. Trout) who had been a Professor of Fisheries and Wildlife Biology at Colorado State University, fished for yamame and iwana in Japan in 1951-52, and saw only dobuzuri flies and imitations of western fly patterns (Japan at that time was a major exporter of trout flies to the US). He saw no tenkara flies. Of course, that was before tenkara became tenkara and had its resurgence in popularity. Perhaps tenkara flies were rediscovered.

But the third or fourth or fifth traditional Japanese fly fishing methods? I would bet most readers have never heard of them. For example, I remember reading that tenkara anglers didn’t use weights, with the reason given that the flies were too valuable to risk getting snagged on the bottom and lost. However, we know that fly anglers in at least two regions did use weight – either applied to the fly or on the line above the fly. It might not fit the definition of tenkara, so I suppose it might be true that “tenkara” anglers didn’t use weights, but other fly anglers certainly did!

Perhaps even more surprising than a traditional Japanese fly fishing method that used weighted flies was the method that in addition to a fly (tied on the line as a dropper) used a bare treble hook a bit below the fly to possibly snag a fish that rejected the fly and turned back down or that the angler missed while attempting to set the hook. You never hear about that one! Perhaps intentionally snagging fish offends our sensibilities, but recall that ayu fishing, which is probably the pinnacle of fresh water fishing in Japan, uses live “decoy” fish and bare treble hooks to snag ayu.

A fifth method, which survives to this day, is called kebari tsuri. Tenkara, before it was called tenkara, was called kebari tsuri. It may well be that kebari tsuri was a much broader and more inclusive term – possibly encompassing any fishing with a fly. After all, the translation of kebari tsuri is “fly fishing.” The kebari tsuri of today is a method that uses multiple flies, generally either five or seven, tied as droppers on a tippet behind a wooden float. The float is cast across the stream and allowed to swing downstream. Today this is a method for catching oikawa (pale chub) and haya (Japanese dace), not trout, but a fishing method differing only with respect to where on the rig the float was placed historically was used in the Iwate prefecture to catch Yamame.

The Japanese says Kebari Tsuri Shikake. Google translates Shikake as gimmick which is actually a good translation, as the Japanese has the connotation of a device inte.jpg
The Japanese says Kebari Tsuri Shikake. Google translates Shikake as gimmick which is actually a good translation, as the Japanese has the connotation of a device intended to trick or fool.

I guess the most telling piece of information, though, is that the earliest written account of tenkara fishing was in either 1877 or 1878 (two separate accounts, neither of which mention “tenkara” but both of which describe a fishing method that might have been tenkara). However, the earliest written account of fishing with a fly in Japan dates from 1678, a full two hundred years earlier! That fishing was for oikawa and haya rather than trout, so it doesn’t fall into the definition of tenkara. When considering “traditional” Japanese fly fishing, though, one really ought to give the greatest weight to the oldest recorded method – haegashira – which is fishing for chubs and dace, and later ayu, in the lowlands rather than tenkara, which is fishing for trout and char in the mountains.

Realistically, tenkara is probably much older than the written accounts of the late 1870s. Perhaps it is as old as haegashira but we will never know because there are no written records. What we do know, though, is that tenkara is not the only traditional fly fishing of Japan. So next time you string up your seiryu rod and go out to catch a few creek chubs, realize you are carrying on an old if unsung tradition.

And after you return home, fire up the computer and read (or re-read) the wealth of information on traditional Japanese fly fishing that you can find on Yoshikazu Fujioka’s wonderful website My Best Streams. It is mostly about tenkara, but if you read it carefully, you will realize there is much more to traditional Japanese fly fishing than just tenkara.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

Do you have a story to tell, a photo to share, or a fly recipe that’s too good to keep secret? If you would like to contribute content to our next issue, click HERE for more details.

Respecting Our Roots: Making A Case For Modern Japanese Tenkara in the USA

Respecting Our Roots: Making A Case For Modern Japanese Tenkara in the USA
By Adam Klagsbrun

Fixed line fly-fishing may be centuries old, but as it is practiced today, tenkara is new. Tenkara is modern. Tenkara is not from the USA – tenkara is from Japan.

There’s been a lot of discussion over the years about what tenkara actually is, and what the definition of tenkara should be. There has also been discussion about what tenkara is not, and that seems to have created some really interesting, and in some cases intense, dialogue. What perplexes me the most is why some people immediately get defensive and upset about being told that fishing for bass or crappie in local warm water ponds and slow-moving rivers isn’t “Tenkara.” My goal in this article is to lay a foundation of understanding, to make a case for why it is important to keep tenkara from being re-defined, and to explain why we shouldn’t be the ones to re-define it here and now.

At this point most of us know the story about how Daniel Galhardo started Tenkara USA around 2009. What many do not know, or have not paid attention to, is how he honored tenkara’s roots in Japan and did not try to sell it to us as something that it was not. Sure, he added a more minimalist pitch in his marketing, but it made sense, given that from what I recall, the earliest adopters of this sport here appeared to be, in fact, ultralight backpackers who were largely exposed to Tenkara USA via Ryan Jordan at backpackinglight.com.

What Daniel did was to go spend time with Japanese tenkara anglers who were involved in creating and naming tenkara, the people who actually defined it for modern times, in Japan. He asked them questions. He listened to the answers. He watched the anglers. He learned from them. He got the definition. What he brought and packaged for us here in the USA was very close to tenkara as it was in Japan, and so began our adventures with tenkara here in the USA.

Since that point, Tenkara has grown to encompass a larger group of fishermen and a broader range of styles. As soon as there was a market established, other companies jumped in. Many of them became known as “me too” companies – some survived by producing great quality products at reasonable prices and attained a permanent seat at the “table” of tenkara rod-makers. Others did not. A lot of anglers here “grew up” on these rods when it comes to their personal journeys into discovering tenkara. But there has been a bit of an elephant in the room… Most of these rod companies never looked to the Japanese for anything in creating companies that were selling a Japanese-designed product for a Japanese sport. Does this make any sense?

While some people may have taken advantage of Oni school, most of the owners of these other companies didn’t appear to seek out relationships with the creators of tenkara the sport, they didn’t travel to Japan, but, most importantly, they didn’t learn about what a tenkara rod taper was all about, and they didn’t license any tenkara mandrels from Japan. They still haven’t. The result? The result is that the consumers got the short end of the stick. Many of us never learned what tenkara was, where it really came from, or why any of that matters. Many of them still have never cast a rod that flexes like many of the most popular Japanese tenkara rods do.

As one example, Patagonia made an early impact of this type, offering not only a completely incorrect taper and action in a “Tenkara rod” but then going one step further to apparently take credit for tenkara here in the USA. Chouinard painted a picture of fixed line fishing for his fishing kit that was loosely inspired by Pesca Mosca Valsesiana and tenkara, without truly representing either style in their kit. He calls it “simple fly fishing.” It is not tenkara.

This was particularly disappointing, as Patagonia, usually working hard to truly engage locally with their marketing and environmental/business impact campaigns and to understand what they were getting involved in, didn’t do any of the necessary legwork at all. This helped to create a complete misunderstanding within the market, and helped to foster an idea that somehow, anything could be tenkara. I believe this is just one element of what created a lot of the early anti-tenkara “hate” from other fishing communities online, and is something I’d like to delve into deeper at another time in the future.

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It is clear there was no mal-intent in any of this, but the results were less than stellar on many levels, and some may argue that “damage” has been done. I’m glad to see other companies beginning to put effort into all of this, and I think it will go a long way to undoing some of the damage that may have been done early on. There’s more work to do.

But I digress, this article isn’t really a history lesson on the tenkara industry, it is meant to make people think. Furthermore, I truly love Patagonia as a company for many other reasons… I don’t bring this up to judge any company or person, or to be negative. I bring it up to paint a picture of how tenkara began to lose its way here in the USA, and how tenkara went from a style of fishing to a becoming a marketing term.

I believe that bringing this reality to attention is important, because it has the potential to be dangerous for the knowledge and the future of the sport. If we allow tenkara to simply become a marketing term to sell rods and gear, not only will we dilute the meaning of tenkara, but we will all be personally responsible for undoing decades of work that the masters such as Ishigaki-San, Sakakibara-San and countless others have worked so hard to create. Do we, the USA, want to be known for effectively destroying a well-defined niche sport with established teachers & sponsors, established methods and styles, and be happy about that? I certainly do not think so, and I believe most tenkara anglers here do not want to do that either. Do we?

What is it about? Honor. Honor is important in Japan. Honor is important everywhere. It would surely be dishonorable to have taken this wonderful sport from Japan and to then turn it into something completely different, simply because we don’t want to create new words for what we are doing now, do we? I don’t see how these shortcuts would benefit us, or the sport of tenkara here.

We have all advanced to the point where we understand why tenkara is not cane pole fishing, and how it is not simply dapping. I believe at this point, now, we have finally gotten to a point where we have learned enough to know that tenkara also is not fishing for bass or warm water species in slow and still water. There are enough Japanese anglers, facts and history to support this claim. Ishigaki-San and many others have defined tenkara – so yes, tenkara has a definition already.

As Ishigaki-San and many of the others have confirmed, tenkara means fishing for trout in bubbling brooks and raging rivers with some elevation change, using a fly, utilizing a long rod and a very light line. Tenkara is as much about casting as it is about drifting, something I used to incorrectly speak about by saying pretty much the opposite. I am just as guilty in doing damage to the definition and image of tenkara as any company or blogger or early adopter who decided to use western fly lines, floating lines or dry flies.

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Dr. Hisao Ishigaki
I didn’t mean to dilute tenkara by pitching bead heads, ultra-short lines and nymphing techniques… but I did – heck, they worked! But I now know more about how to cast correctly, how to fish a slightly longer line effectively, how to manipulate flies more effectively, as well as more about what tenkara actually is – and with this knowledge comes new understanding. What follows that for me is just a lot more good old fun while fishing, a lot more success catching the “hard to catch” fish, a more “zen” attitude on the stream, and a mission to spread this all to others.

Tenkara was defined by the most active, important anglers within the sport at that time, many of whom we know of today. They are the “masters.” The word tenkara was chosen by this group of existing, established Japanese tenkara anglers, some of those masters and their teachers, in order to help distinguish between the new western style of Kebari Tsuri (fly fishing,) and the traditional old style with a fixed line… then also called Kebari Tsuri.

Tenkara is not a broadly defined style. It is a niche that was created in order to describe something very specific – something that was evolving both alongside, and separately from, other methods of fly-fishing. So in effect, tenkara has evolved as a niche within a niche. It followed a path to that point that helped to define the techniques and the tools of the sport, and we have barely even begun to scratch the surface of all of this over here in the USA. We are lucky to be exposed to decades, if not centuries, of this knowledge from Japan; lucky to have friends in Japan to teach us the right ways, and lucky to have all found this wonderful sport.

So my question is, given these realities, do we, as a community, really want to go backwards in time and re-define tenkara as something broader that encompasses all kinds of fly-fishing? Do we really want to promote a train of thought that undoes the very ideas of why tenkara was defined in the first place? What good would it serve to be the ones who undermine the very people we are trying to learn from right now? Does this help us, and does this have a positive impact on the sport of tenkara?

Tenkara, as it is defined from Japan, is well established for these reasons – and there is a lot we have left to learn before we are ready to go off and take it to the next level ourselves. For if we cannot first fully learn and understand the myriad of techniques and knowledge that has already been accumulated, all we will be doing is throwing that out the window, by letting tenkara become a marketing term.

In Japan, they define the fishing style by the kind of fishing you do, not the rod you have. Because of that, each style of fishing has developed its own gear… carp fishing for Herabuna carp is called Herabuna fishing. There are “Hera rods” for that. Chub fishing for Hae in mountain streams is called Hae fishing. Did you know there’s a whole category of rods that are sold for this too? The Daiwa Rinfu is one of them. Ayu fishing utilizes insanely expensive and much longer rods, and you use a half of a fish as the bait. Most of us have heard of Keiryu fishing too, as Chris Stewart has largely been responsible for making people aware of this style and marketing it as its own unique thing – as well as selling the rods to us here in the US.

So I believe that it is time for us to begin to communicate more accurately about modern Japanese tenkara, to accept its definition more clearly, to think about using Japanese carp rods for carp, salmon rods for salmon, and calling each method of fishing by its own name as has already been defined. Maybe it is even time for us to be creative and to make our own names as well. There is no reason that anyone cannot use their tenkara rod to fish however they’d like and for whatever species of fish they’d like to fish for. But I do believe it is as good a time as any to begin to re-define that stuff for what it is, instead of pretending that it is all actually called tenkara.

Japanese tenkara anglers I have met and watched interviews about have always seemed to say that we in the USA will have a profound impact on tenkara, and suggested that many of the next great innovations within the sport would come from us here, not from within Japan. I am sure these innovations didn’t involve re-defining the entire sport for the sake of marketing. Do we not want to make the best impact on tenkara that we can? Can’t we still do that while also, at the same time, creating new names for the fishing we like to do with fixed line rods that doesn’t fit the definition of tenkara? I believe that we can.

I’m very much looking forward to the evolution of our fixed line fishing industry here, of Tenkara, Keiryu, and of the people involved in it. I’m looking forward to continuing this journey of knowledge among all of you, no matter what kind of fish you want to catch or what kind of line you like to use. But most importantly, I’m looking forward to doing a better job honoring those from which we took and learned this wonderful Japanese sport here in the USA.

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This article originally appeared in the Winter 2016-17 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

Conversing in Japanese

Conversing in Japanese
by Isaac Tait

Perhaps you are planning a trip to Japan, or maybe you are just interested in the Japanese language to help you harvest information from the complex Japanese worldwide web. Whatever the reason Japanese is a fascinating, yet distinctly different from the English language to learn. With well over 2,000 characters in three different alphabets called Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji it is no small task to undertake.

While I am hardly an expert, I have put together a little of what I have learned here in Tenkara Angler. My goal for writing this article is two-fold. First, I would like to spark an interest in those, who prior to reading this, may have had little to no interest in the language and perhaps even the country of Japan. Secondly, my overall goal is to assist those with an already developed affinity for Japan and its language get off on the right foot.

I believe that every Tenkara angler should make a pilgrimage to Japan not just for the fishing but to immerse themselves in another culture. Too many of the problems currently facing the “west” today, I believe could be easily resolved with a little perspective, grace, and respect. Something that Japan, its people, and its culture can offer in spades.

So without further ado, let’s dive right in!

Asking Questions in Japanese:

In the English language if you come across a “WH” word it typically indicates that the sentence is a question (e.g. Why, Where, When, What, etc.).

In the Japanese language if a question is being asked the character “か” pronounced ka will be appended to the end of a sentence.

For example –

  • Daijobu desuka? (Are you okay?)
  • Anatano namae wa nandesuka? (What is your name?)

Please Note: desu often precedes the ka, but not always. When it is, the pronunciation is “des-ka” The U is silent.

 Toire wa doko desuka? “トイレはどこですか“. While this is the correct English way of asking the question “Where is the toilet” it is infrequently (almost never?) used in Japan. Instead, they will just say toire “トイレ”  pronounced “Toy-re” with a  question inflection.

Whole and complete sentences are not the norm in Japan, something that took my English speaking brain a while to wrap itself around. In that regard, it is a very efficient language.

Intro to Correct Pronunciation of Japanese words:

A common English mistake is to pronounce the Japanese with English consonants and vowel sounds as it is written.

For example –

Onigiri “おにぎり”. The well-loved rice ball food is very often mispronounced as – “O-ni-gear-ee”

The correct pronunciation is – “O-knee-gee-ree” (make sure to make the ree sound with a hard almost D sound too)

The city where I live 横須賀 (Yokosuka) is often mispronounced “yo-ko-sue-ka”. This is incorrect, it is pronounced “yo-kos-ka” Again the U is silent. The city Asakusa in Tokyo is pronounced “A-sock-sa” Noticing a pattern yet? 9 times out of 10 the U will be silent (especially when it comes at the end of a word) but not always.

I tend to pronounce the U silent first and if I get a blank stare I try adding in a subtle U sound.

Counting in Japanese:

In English, there are very few counters – one, first, single. While in the Japanese language there are hundreds of counters for everything from beer(s), people, paper, and even farts! Knowing all the counters is probably impossible, as some are fairly obscure and hardly used. If you use the wrong counter (something I do frequently) no one will understand what you’re asking. The most important counter to know is the tsu counter as it works pretty well for anything you might need to communicate an amount for.

Here are just a few of the counters that I use regularly.

2016-09-20 22_22_22-Conversing in Japanese (1) - Word

There is a counter for swimming fish, captured fish, deboned fish, fish cut into chunks, fish wrapped for sale in a supermarket, and fish cut into bite-sized pieces – to name just a few (and I won’t list them here, because it’s confusing I think).

Beware of useful phrases that many “helpful” sources will try and teach you. Japanese is not a romance language (meaning it is not based on Latin). Therefore, the language’s grammar and sentence structure is totally different from English. This makes the translation process often times very messy.

Keep your questions/remarks short, simple, and sweet – and you will be fine. Most of the time what you are asking or talking about is readily apparent in the context of the situation.

Scenario:

You are standing next to a river with your Tenkara rod and you ask another fisherman “つりチケットどこですか“ Tsu ri chiketto doko desu ka which when translated literally means “Fishing ticket where is?” However, it is understood to mean “Where can I buy a fishing ticket?” If you tried to ask the question in perfect English but translated into Japanese, you could say something like this:

Doko de tsuri no chiketto o kōnyū suru koto ga dekimasu But, after all that work they would almost certainly look at you with a blank stare, uncertain what the heck you were trying to ask.

The following list is a few helpful words that I use almost every day. These words make most daily interactions go pretty smoothly. Whether it be at the train station, the convenience store, or on the trail if you know these few words you’ll be able to get through many interactions with as little awkwardness as possible.

2016-09-20 22_51_02-Conversing in Japanese (1) - Word

Notes for use                                                     

  • If you accidentally bump into someone Sumimasen (excuse me) will often suffice. If they are in obvious pain, you bumped them pretty hard, or they are much older than you a Gomen’nasai (I am sorry) will go a long way. This is pretty common interaction, especially during the morning rush hour.
  • There is no need to preface Wakarimasen (I don’t understand) with a Gomen’nasai (I am sorry). While it sounds right in English it is a tad too formal for day to day Japanese. Prefacing the (Wakarimasen) (I don’t understand) with a Sumimasen (excuse me) is best.
  • Onegaishimasu (Please) is very formal/polite. I tend to use it when requesting the check after dining – O kai kei onegaishimasu (check please)

Kudasai (please) is more common for day to day interactions e.g. when they offer to bag your food at a convenience store.

The Intricacies of the Japanese Language

One of the more confusing Japanese words that I hear all the time is So-so. My research has turned up that a lot of Japanese people when they say this word, believe that they are actually speaking in English. For example:

“How was work today?”

“So-so”

“How are you today?”

“So-so”

From this, you could deduce that the word So-so would mean more or less okay, undecided, or eh (with a shrug of indifference). Basically what it means in English (which is, incidentally, some Japanese speakers intent).

However, I have also heard the word So-so used in such a manner that it would imply that its meaning is It is! or That is correct.

For example:

“So, this is where we are going to camp tonight?”

“So-so”

“Is that an Iwana?”

“So-so”

Things get even more confusing as the Japanese for So-so would seem to be まあまあ. Obviously, this does not match the pronunciation (if pronounced as it is spelled it would be Maa Maa). To further add to my confusion when I search for the definition of まあまあ it takes me down a whole other path of meaning.

I have been living in Japan for 18 months and I’m still not sure what the word means, because depending on who I ask I get a different answer… So I don’t really say it very much.

During a pleasant day of skiing with one of my female Japanese co-workers, I came to discover another Japanese word: Ne. This word is used as an exclamation of agreement. However, it is a distinctly female word. I was told that if I used it too much when conversing in Japanese, that Japanese men would assume that I learned my Japanese from women (not that this is a negative thing but my friend seemed to imply that it was). I guess it is the valley girls equivalent of ‘like’…

When I first moved to Japan I intended to speak, read, and write very good Japanese by the end of my second year of living here. With that anniversary rapidly approaching it is with a little regret that I feel I am a long way off from this goal. Languages have never been my strong suit, and the Japanese language can be very confusing at times. Still, I have not lost my original infatuation with the language. I love to listen to native speakers and imagine what they are saying based on the context of the situation; their intonation and facial expressions is a lot of fun to absorb.

Slowly but surely with tenacity and grace, I hope to one day hold my own in day to day conversational Japanese. Until that day I will just bask in the cordiality and understanding of the Japanese people while I fumble for my iPhone.

wayama sakai-tori kabuto-tenkara-nagano prefecture-shokuriyoshi-tori kabuto flowers

Authors Note: I have compiled a lot of helpful information, that didn’t fit here, on my site http://www.fallfishtenkara.com/information/learning-japanese/

Alternately, you can navigate to “Fallfish Tenkara” and click “Info” then scroll down to “Learning Japanese”.

I would be remiss if I did not give a hearty thank you to David Walker for his extensive assistance in compiling helpful resources at Tenkara Fisher, which I have utilized in creating this article. His extensive compilation of some very helpful information is a great resource for anglers, of any discipline, planning a trip to Japan or just for the further study of interested individuals. You can find a sampling of his useful information at the aforementioned link above.

This article was originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

How Can Being A Tenkara Geek Change Your Life?

How Can Being a Tenkara Geek Change Your Life?
Words: Paul Gaskell
Pictures: John Pearson & Paul Gaskell

Something struck me today. Isn’t it amazing just where in the world being a geek can take you? In my case, I somehow found myself with fellow fishing nut John Pearson in the mountains of Japan eating a fish (whole) and fumbling my rookie Japanese phrases – all while being filmed by a local TV crew. Which is pretty far-fetched by most peoples’ standards (and yes, they subtitled both my English AND Japanese speech in the broadcast)…

You might already have seen the following quote by Simon Pegg (thanks to Anthony Naples for reminding me by posting it on Facebook recently!). In case you don’t have it memorized it goes like this:

Being a geek is all about being honest about what you enjoy and not being afraid to demonstrate that affection. It means never having to play it cool about how much you like something. It’s basically a license to proudly emote on a somewhat childish level rather than behave like a supposed adult. Being a geek is extremely liberating

When it comes to tenkara, I know exactly what he means.

Of course, there is a huge role of plain ol’ blind good luck in all this too. But being passionate about tenkara beyond all rational limits – and not being able to help it – does seem to toss amazing things your way. Our route to Japan for the first time is one example…

It started when British angling journalist Jon Beer (who is a VP of the trout conservation charity I work for) phoned me with a curious request. Jon had been contacted by someone (Steven Wheeler, a really great guy) that he had previously chatted to about a net that featured in one of Jon’s articles – but that is not so important.

The real point is that Steven spends some of his working life in Japan and he’d had a fishing lesson from a Japanese teacher.  The teacher in question was interested in visiting England for his first time to fish tenkara and had contacted Steven to see if he could help him out. So Steven asked Jon Beer for help because Jon had written an article about tenkara in Trout & Salmon Magazine (I hope you are following this… the payoff is coming, I promise).

Now Jon cheerfully admitted to not really knowing too many fine details about tenkara (his article featured fascinating letters and tackle he had been sent by another Japanese angler and also an account of Jon’s enjoyment when fishing with his tenkara rod). But he certainly did know how much I’d been yammering on about how awesome tenkara is whenever we’d done any work together through the Wild Trout Trust.

Which is how I came to be chatting with Steven.

Who casually got round to mentioning the name of the very nice chap who had given him a fishing lesson, some flies, and a rather nice hand-carved spool.

And that is how we came to host Dr. Ishigaki for 10 days in England in 2013.

DrIshigaki

All that happened through a combination of blind chance and being “Really, Really Into Something”. A geek. During his stay with us, Dr. Ishigaki invited us on a return visit to Japan that he would organize, oh and he’d set it up so we could spend time with Masami Sakakibara and a whole gang of what turns out to be some of the best tenkara anglers on the planet. Amazing. I still can’t believe it even now.

Now, before I get to describing the fishing and try (and fail) to give you a small taste of the unique vibe of fishing a Japanese tenkara stream, I want to tell you why I had no business going to Japan.

It really should never have happened.

You see, my first response in my head to the invite was “Amazing – but what a bitter pill to swallow because I can’t go”. I did not have the disposable cash, my young son had a hard start in life with his epilepsy and we were just getting into what turned out to be a year-long struggle to move house (while my partner was pregnant with our second son).

But here’s the thing. Because of the amazing support from my partner (huge thanks doesn’t really do it justice) and because I decided to keep my old car on the road and put off the (sensible) update and because we could make do with holidaying at home with our young family – I began to think, maybe it is possible? What would happen if we could offset some of the costs by publishing the stories of our trip? How about documenting our discoveries on video? Nah, that would never work.

The thing is, that requires a pretty big blind leap of faith. You need to suspend disbelief. You have to trust that it will “probably work out OK”. And that is even before the huge amount of support that you need to help you navigate the language barrier, geography, fishing permits and accommodation bookings in the strange and wonderful country of Japan. So, there is a massive debt of gratitude owed on top of the crazy good luck to even meet the series of people who had given us that opportunity.

This is the reason that www.discovertenkara.co.uk can even exist to share the stories and techniques of tenkara in Japan. Just geeks, kindness and good fortune…

I hope it is obvious, then, how overwhelming that feeling of good fortune becomes when you experience Japan’s tenkara rivers, the beautiful fish and the amazing camaraderie of the band of “tenkara nuts”.  These are the folks who drive anywhere between 4 and 14 hours across the country to gather for a few days, maybe over a weekend, to fish, eat and drink together.

JP_Masami_Miwa-san

I get why they do it though. The cool, clear-blue waters flowing in and around the rocks and big, smooth boulders are just impossibly perfect. Go Ishii tells me that Japan has more than 20,000 streams like this that you can tackle with tenkara gear. That means you could fish a different one every single day for 54 years with no repeats. I love the atmosphere and the character of these rivers and streams and the word “privilege” is really the only way to describe how it feels to fish them.

Even the way the streamside vegetation smells when the sun warms it in late spring and through summer makes me happy – which is extremely weird. The scent? In all honesty, the closest thing would be skunk (!) – and I don’t think I will ever get over the novelty of river banks that are covered in dense bamboo thicket… The Oriental reed warblers that flit and “chu-chuuk-churra” between the stems complete that scene and define the setting for me.

Then there are the fish – the different kinds of iwana (some rare native strains survive in spite of widespread stocking of the “nikko” variety of iwana), the yamame and amago. I love the slightly arched back and chrome, reptilian head of the more mature males of these last two species. They just look so exotic and prehistorically wild.

ChromeReptilianHead

It is also completely addictive to work out the characters of each fish in different streams. Yes, iwana from different streams tend to behave more like each other than they do compared to either amago or yamame…But the iwana in some streams seem much more “lazy” than others. OK, lazy is not the right word, they sometimes seem to need the fly to travel downstream reeeaaallly slowly though and that gives them a kind of “don’t work too hard” character in my mind’s eye.

Did I say that it is very common to need to present the fly slower than the true dead drift? The steep gradient of the streams means that, without weight, your fly would often be swept downstream too quickly to make an easy meal for the fish. This is one of the reasons that so many named presentation techniques have evolved in Japanese tenkara.

LazyIwana

You see? My inner fishing geek wouldn’t know something like that (not “bones-deep” anyway) unless I’d had the stupid good fortune to see it and talk about it with the amazing tenkara addicts (kei-kyo-jin; “mountain crazy people”). What is really cool is that these tactics work so brilliantly on my home rivers – and of those in different countries outside Japan that John and myself have fished too. It turns out that knowing many of these things completely changes the way that you view rivers, their character, features and ever-morphing current-structures. Did you know that Masami often waits until a favorable swirl of current “blooms” in the right way before dropping his fly into it? More stuff that means nothing to the fishing “nonaddict”.

Perhaps there is something that anyone with an ounce of soul (angler or not) could appreciate and has a similar quality of satisfaction? Maybe the feeling of fine drizzle at dusk on your face, sitting in a volcanic hot-spring “onsen” pool looking out across a darkening, forested valley with the dull, reassuring thud of your heartbeat in your chest? That you can sit there, scalding water up to your chin, after already showering to remove the day’s grime won during a tiring day of wet wading and catching perfect fish from perfect water… Well, that might just be the finest feeling on earth.

And without the realization that “yeah, I’m a geek for this stuff”, you could never have experienced the good fortune and kindness of strangers that put you there. That’s worth celebrating in my book.

This article was originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

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.

Photo 1

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.

Photo 2

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.

Photo 3

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.”

Photo 4

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. 

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.