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.

Tenkara Guides Host 2016 Oni Tenkara School

Friends of Tenkara Angler, the Tenkara Guides LLC, are hosting the Oni Tenkara School in the United States again this summer.  Featuring the teachings of “Tenkara no Oni” Masami Sakakibara, the 3-day session will take place at Sundance Mountain Resort, UT between July 7-9, 2016.

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Spaces are limited, so if you are interested, check out the Tenkara Guides’ website HERE for more information.

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