Tenkara with Mr. Yuzo Sebata, story via Storehouse

On June 11, 2015 • Comments (5)

I’m testing out a new platform to continue “sharing the tenkara story”. A friend of mind recently turned me on to Storehouse. Here’s a short photo story with Mr. Yuzo Sebata. What do you think?

Direct link to Tenkara story on Storehouse
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The Tenkara Industry

On October 13, 2014 • Comments (14)

In 2008/2009 I started creating the business of Tenkara USA. The objective was to show people how simple fly-fishing could be by introducing the method of tenkara outside of Japan. In the course of developing the business, before I officially launched it, I realized I was about to create a brand new category within the fly-fishing industry. I also realized a new category would eventually become bigger than ourselves.

A new category within an industry is not something that happens very often, but when it does it has the potential to create a movement. And, of course, it also has an even greater potential of not taking hold. When a new category successfully gets established, one clear sign of its success is that it supports an entire range of companies entering the market to support it and to compete in the space.

One day, as I started working on Tenkara USA, I was talking to a colleague at my previous career and talked about my vision for what would happen. I told him I suspected there would be a range of companies that would emerge in support of tenkara: backpacks, guides, accessories, lines, flies, and eventually others would compete by offering rods too. It was far fetched at the time, but I believed one measure of success would be when more companies started offering tenkara too. Fast-forward 5 years and that original vision has started to realize.

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The Tenkara Timeline

On February 14, 2014 • Comments (6)

Much has been happening as we continue our mission of sharing the tenkara story here. Here’s a timeline I started putting together earlier this year. I just updated it with some more milestones.

Original Post; February 14th, 2014:

I just found a very neat tool online to help us tell our story and the story of the introduction of tenkara in the USA and beyond. Here’s the beginning of the tenkara timeline. I’ll continue working on this to make it a complete overview of how tenkara has spread outside of Japan. What do you think?

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Our 12 favorite tenkara blog posts in 2013

On December 30, 2013 • Comments (1)

I may say this every year when December 30th comes, but I’ll say it again, “I just can’t believe the year has already come to an end!” So much has happened through one more year of introducing tenkara to the US that a big chunk of it just blurs together. It is a strange feeling. But, luckily we can look back at all our 2013 blog posts and relive the year. Here are the posts that saw the most view and/or most comments this year:

1) The More You Know the Less You Need: Some specific examples of things which tenkara show you you do not need.
2) Tenkara Podcast: If you’re looking for something to listen to while you drive or work, checkout the first Tenkara USA podcast which we recorded with Jason Klass from Tenkara Talk.
3)Tenkara Testimonials: With the Fly Fishing Show season just about to start again, checkout this video we made the last year’s Fly Fishing Show where we asked people what they thought about tenkara. Tenkara Testimonials video

4) In Search of Tenkara [VIDEOS]: In 2013 I made a series of 3 videos titled “In Search of Tenkara” where I tried understanding more of what made tenkara, tenkara.

5) The Last Commercial Tenkara Angler, Bunpei Sonehara: one of our most popular posts this year was the story written by Bunpei Sonehara, largely considered to be the last commercial tenkara anglers in Japan. We translated the story to give folks a glimpse of what tenkara was like back in the day.

6) The 30-second tenkara pronunciation guide [VIDEO]: This was a fun video where we asked several tenkara anglers in Japan to show us how to say certain words, including “Ten-car-ah!”

Tenkara pronunciation guide

7) 2013 Japan Trip, 1st photographs: Every year I go back to Japan to learn more about tenkara and share its story here. This is my first post of this year’s trip. I love the photographs and memories of that trip, which I took with Mr. Yuzo Sebata.

8) Tenkara Flies Map: A map with the placement of some of the most recognizable tenkara flies of Japanese tenkara anglers.

Tenkara Flies Map

9) Shower Climbing (Canyoneering) and Tenkara: This is probably just my personal favorite as it combined two of my great passions, climbing adventure and tenkara.

10) Tenkara Techniques and How to Cast with Tenkara videos:  two of our most recent videos highlighting how to cast with tenkara and 6 main techniques used with tenkara

11) Release of two new rods, the Sato and Rhodo triple-zoom rods: After 2 years of working on 2 rod models, we were finally able to release them. Very proud of their successful launch.

12) Tenkara Magazine: another successful item, we finally created the first magazine in the world dedicated exclusively to tenkara. Very proud of that 2013 accomplishment.

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Why the Reverse Hackle on Tenkara Flies?

On November 16, 2013 • Comments (2)

While not all tenkara flies have the hackle facing forward (away from the bend of the hook / “reverse”), the most popular and most easily recognizable tenkara flies do. These are called the “sakasa kebari”, or “reverse [hackle] flies”. As a result that’s a question often asked: What is the reasoning behind the reverse hackle on tenkara flies?

Reverse Hackle Tenkara flies by Mr. Amano

There are three main theories for why tenkara flies came into being (as well as why some of the flies used in the Italian method of fishing called Pesca Alla Valsesiana turned out to be tied in similar fashion).

Tenkara fly with reverse hackle

1) Speed: Tying flies with the hackle facing forward, away from the bend of the hook, may be one of the quickest ways to do it. You simply wind some thread on the head, wind it back a bit, secure a feather and wind it, brush the feather forward, then build the body of the fly with the thread and finish the fly on the body of the fly where there is a lot of room to do so. This would have especially been important before vises came about.

2) Body: When a fly with hackle pointed toward to the bend of the hook hits the water and is pulled toward the angler, the hackle brushes back against the hook. The fly becomes slimmer. When the reverse hackle is forced back a bit, it actually opens up and the fly has even more “body”, or more visibility, than in its dry state. Flies will vary in how pronounced their reverse hackle will be, but for the most part they retain the reverse hackle fly quality. This is the photo of a reverse hackle fly when it is wet, the hackle is back a bit, but it still has body to it.

3) Motion For the most part western flies have been designed with aesthetic imitation, not motion, in mind. Perhaps because it is very difficult to impart motion to a fly that is very far away or tied to the end of a very heavy line or a line that has to go through guides of a rod. Tenkara on the other hand was developed to be fished with lighter lines, normally closer range, and with the line tied right to the tip of the rod. These characteristics allowed for the fly to respond to any movement imparted on the rod. Whether the reverse hackle flies were deliberately “invented” that way because or motion or not we will never know. What I do know is that this is probably one of my favorite reasons for the reverse hackle. When I want to, and if the situation calls for it, I can pulse my fly. I can impart motion to it. When I pull it a bit, the hackle opens, when I relax it it closes. When tenkara flies are imparted with motion they are very buggy and lively. This is one of my favorite reasons for tenkara flies, and the fact that they are quick to tie, retain some body when in the water, and are very versatile as I can fish them on the surface by keeping line off the water or under by allowing it to sink a bit.

Stay tuned for an upcoming video on different techniques for tenkara.

Tenkara fly with reverse hackle

Photo by Brian Flemming

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Weekend reading: Sebata-san Go deeper upstream with skill

On July 19, 2013 • Comments (14)

Last year I was honored to be featured in the Japanese magazine Fishing Cafe alongside some of the great names in tenkara in Japan. Among these names is Yuzo Sebata, who’s been featured in almost all Japanese magazines that discussed tenkara. I would see pictures of him wearing crampons while fishing from steep sloping cliffs, casting his simple fly into saphire-colored waters for Yamame, hoping to join him one day. Dr. Ishigaki told me he was in his 70s, and was frequently fishing some of the most inaccessible places in Japan.

I have not yet had the fortune of meeting him in person. Two years ago, when I spent a couple of months in Japan I was supposed to meet him. But Sebata-san, who is from the Fukushima region, was volunteering in the recovery efforts after the devastating tsunami, earthquake and nuclear disaster that affected his hometown. I admired him for that.

In about a month I’ll be returning to Japan once again. As with my yearly trips over the last 4 years, I intend to learn more from the long-time practitioners of the method (yes, I do still feel there is a lot to learn). I’m supposed to spend 4 days camping, climbing, rappeling and fishing with Sebata-san, who is now researching places where he can take me that won’t have many of the huge and venomous Japanese giant hornets common at that time of year. In the meantime, I figured I should do a little more research on him, so I asked my friend Akira to translate the article he wrote for Fishing Cafe. I learned that besides tenkara, Sebata-san is very interested in foraging for wild edibles. In fact, I heard that about 3 years ago he got lost in the mountains. He spent an entire week lost in the mountains but surviving with his skills at picking wild vegetables and catching fish. His family and friends were worried about him because of his age, but after a week he appeared in a town, with no idea where he was, and hitched a ride and go back home. Hope you enjoy the reading.

Go deeper and deeper upstream with ultimate skill

By Yuzo Sebata

My fly-fishing style is generally called “Nikko Tenkara”. Tenkara fishing around this area has a long history and it’s been passed from generation to generation for couple hundred years. The Gorocho fly is famous in Nikko, But the “fly” being used in Nikko tenkara is different from “Gorocho fly”. The meaning of “Gorocho” is “long beard caddisflies” (Latin name: Stenopsyche marmorata). The fly which imitates the “long beard caddisflies” is called the Gorocho fly. People who do tenkara around here keep chicken varieties as pets so that they can get feathers from them to make flies, but they are different from the Gorocho fly.

An Incident of “Delayed Timing”

I started tenkara fishing about 50 years ago. The reason I started is that my friend from Tochigi prefecture, Isamu Tanaka’s grandfather, Juntaro Tanaka was a master of tenkara fishing. When I stayed with my friend, Isamu-chan, his grandfather, Juntaro told me “If you catch 5 fish, you won’t be able to stop fishing, so why don’t you try it?” His explanation of fishing was very abstract. It was, “Just throw the fly in the river, play it in with good timing, and then you can catch a fish,” so I didn’t really understand what he meant at that time. But once I started mastering some of the techniques, what he was saying was exactly right.

The night I stayed at their house, he showed me how to make flies while we are chatting about random things. I was able to understand how to make them just by watching him do it. How fishing line is made around here is that they repeat the process of dipping kite string made out of cotton in persimmon juice, and then tan it. I used to use the same process to make it, but I was not totally satisfied. So through my own trial and error, I figured out nylon twine worked the best.

Some people were using horse tail hair, but it wasn’t easy to get even in my generation. I was looking for something similar to horse tail hair, and I found nylon. In fishing magazines in those days, they were showing how to connect horse tail hair to make a taper line. Since this taper line has heavy knots, there is a benefit of being able to throw the line in, but it didn’t look good. I myself wanted to make smoother fishing line, and when I finally succeeded, I had to shout “I did it!” My journey to making perfect fishing line was completed before mastering my fishing skills.

I tried fly fishing before making my own fishing line, but I was not able to fish as I hoped. I still clearly remember when I was able to catch my first fish. As soon as the fly touched the water, a Yamame fish about 30 cm long jumped out the water then disappeared. I was surprised by it and lifted my hand with the fishing rod, but the fly was strongly pulled under water. Before this, I would pull the rod as fast as I could, thinking “I can’t be faster than this”, but I was not able to catch any fish. But this time I was surprised, so I was not able to control my timing as quickly as I want to, but I was able to catch a fish anyway. Later on, I really thought though why I was able to catch that fish, and I started to understand why.

At that time, the line didn’t go so far and the fly landed on the water while the line was still slack and floated on the water. That Yamame appeared where the line was slack and floating on the water, and the Yamame bit it and tried to take it away. As a result, I was not able to quickly adjust the timing of pulling up, but rather it became a “slow adjustment”. That made me realize “Ah ha, I need to slow down by one breath. This is the secret of tenkara fishing”.

The power of life I got while fishing at the headwaters

The time I started to go the headwaters of streams was around the time I learned how to make flies. I have hiked a lot since I was young, and I had confidence in my physical strength. My motivation was that I would be able to catch lots of fish if I got to the headwaters where nobody else goes. I just wanted to catch a lot of fish and catch big ones; it was “fishing greed”. I looked at the map and decided to go over the mountains on my own two feet. Once I gained more confidence in doing this, I started going to the next valley and deeper into the forest. As soon as I heard someone say, “If you go deep into that forest, you will be able to find Iwana (Char).”, I immediately looked at maps to find out more about that place.

To tell you honestly, I went some places where I would have been dead if I was not careful enough. I have experienced slipping off of cliffs, and lost my sense of direction and was about to be completely lost several times. When we fall into those kind of emergency situations, whether we live or die depends on the “destiny of your own life,” NOT “fate”. Fate is something decided by God, but I think destiny of your own life can be controlled by your own effort. When I have narrow escapes, I believe “this is not my fate; my own life power must be much stronger”.

When I just learned tenkara fishing, I always wanted to go farther and farther, which expanded the area where I could go. Once I could expand the area I could go, my skills of going to the upper valleys and living in the mountains improved. I am able to set a camp fire in the rain and I can cook rice very well over it.

Different natural foods grow season by season. If I want to eat them with rice, I need to learn about those natural foods like wild vegetables and mushrooms. I don’t learn about them by reading a book but through real life experience. By seeing someone who is hunting wild vegetables, I learn, “Ah, I can get those kinds of wild vegetables around here!”. This is how I keep learning.

By going through hard situations, you will be able to strengthen your physical and mental states. This is like improving our driving skills. Veteran drivers avoid dangers by realizing potential dangers in advance. If the road is slippery, then the driver slows down. If the driver starts to feel sleepy, then the driver takes a break. That is how avoid potential dangers. I believe being able to act on that kind of common sense is the power of living.

If I fall off of a steep cliff, I would die, too. Being able to judge whether I can climb up the cliff with my own ability or not, that is very important. If I judge this is something I can do, I will keep moving forward with courage. If you aren’t sure or hesitate, you will fall off from the cliff.

Fish teach me how to fish.

Going to the headwaters of a stream in a deep forest. My surroundings getting dark after the sun sets. Feeling sleepy while watching the camp fire. Waking up early in the next day. Getting up before dawn and making a camp fire and seeing my surrounding slowly get brighter. I really like these feelings. Tenkara fishing is very simple, which makes me feel I am a part of the mountains. If you want to submerge yourself deep in nature, it is the best fishing style. But just through the act of fishing, we won’t be able to enjoy real thrill and joy of tenkara fishing. Fishing becomes much more fun by experiencing the joy of being able to be a part of nature and learning something new in nature. I have been fishing for a long time so that I will be to master that kind of style of fishing.

During the long journey of fishing, you will start to feel that fish are adorable. When I started fishing, I used to feel that I wanted to catch as many fish as I could. But by going upstream, I started to feel that I didn’t need to fish more than I needed. I reached the conclusion that I will just catch as many fish as I can eat, then release the rest of the fish. It made me feel I won’t be able to kill more fish than I need.

The most important thing about fishing is that you need to fish “where fish exist”. If a fish is there, you will be able to catch a fish. We can’t learn anything from fishing that doesn’t let you catch a fish. By being able to catch fish, we will be able to learn new methods of fishing. That is all. It’s all that simple. If we think more than we need to, it will make us even more confused. You will be able to learn fishing from fish. You will be able to learn how to live in nature from nature. There are lessons I learned through tenkara fishing.

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The Last Commercial Tenkara Angler – Bunpei Sonehara

On April 4, 2013 • Comments (15)

For quite sometime I have known about the story of Mr. Bunpei Sonehara, who is largely considered to have been the last commercial tenkara angler in Japan. He recorded his story. It is a very interesting peak into the life of the last tenkara angler, who was forced to retire when the river he fished was dammed. The damming of the river caused commercial fishing – an activity that had been practiced on that river for centuries – to cease to be sustainable. My friend Masaki Nakano translated the story of Mr. Sonehara to share with you.

About Bunpei Sonehara: Born in 1915.  Started working for the South Manchurian Railway in 1937. Lost his wife during the WWII and returned Japan with two children in 1946. Started Tenkara fishing and it was commercially successful until the fourth dam was built at the Kurobe river.

Mr. Sonehara looking back on his fishing days

It was August 16th, 1946 when I left Harbin, China for Japan.  It took me long fifty five days to get back to my hometown, O-machi in Nagano.  My wife passed away from illness in utter chaos right after the war. Two of my little children were the only cheer and hope I had.

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Tenkara flies map

On April 3, 2013 • Comments (7)

I’ve been working on a project that will take me a while to complete, I actually started it almost two years ago,  inspired by My Best Mountain Streams – Yoshikazu Fujioka (my tenkara flies teacher) and incorporating flies from people I have met in Japan. It is starting to look cool. It is a map of Japan with tenkara flies from different areas. As I learn of new flies, and go through the flies gifted to me in my travels to Japan, the map will become fuller. I hope it will serve as a useful resource.

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Gyotaku, the Japanese art of fish prints

On June 18, 2012 • Comments (1)

When John Gierach contacted us expressing his interest in tenkara, I had no idea his interest in Japanese culture would extend so far beyond the type of fishing we were introducing here. In 2010 I had the pleasure of spending a couple of days at his home, where I learned that in college he enjoyed Japanese literature, not long after became interested in bonsai, and then even tried making his own gyotaku.

Recently I have been communicating with Kirby Wilson, a Canadian artist living in Lahti, Finland, who has mastered the technique and art of gyotaku. For those of you interested in elements of Japanese culture, especially elements of Japanese mountain culture and tenkara, I believe you’ll enjoy learning about this centuries-old form of art.

From Kirby’s site (freshcatchgyotaku.com):

“Gyotaku (gee-oh-tah-koo) is the Japanese art of making fish prints on delicate washi paper. This art form reproduces the exact features and characteristics of the actual fish. In Japanese, “gyo” translates to “fish” and “taku” translates to “stone rubbing” which refers to the technique of fish rubbing. Gyotaku began in Japan in the early 1800s as a means to measure and record a commercial fisherman’s catch.

Today gyotaku has evolved into an art form. I start by inking the freshly caught fish with a nontoxic, water-soluble ink, then the Japanese washi paper is placed on the fish and is hand-rubbed. After removal of the paper, the eye is hand-painted bringing the gyotaku to life. I hand color many of my monotone rubbings but also do rubbings using colored ink resulting in a scale-by-scale likeness of the fish. My “chop” or hanko with my signature are added to complete the artwork. Each print is a one-of-a-kind-original

Today, Gyotaku is an alternative to taxidermy and mounting fish, and has become a recognized form of fine art. It’s also agreat way for me to share memories of fun days on the water with friends.”

Who knows? Maybe some tenkara anglers back in the day may have even indulged in this art form. The commercial fisherman referred to above are most likely ocean fisherman and those living in the townships. Although we’ll never know whose hands pressed the fish agains the paper there are some pretty old gyotaku in the mountains of Japan.

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Manzanar Fishing Club (Movie)

On April 20, 2012 • Comments (4)

Quite sometime ago we talked about the beginnings of a fascinating film project, the Manzanar Fishing Club. This project documents the stories and history of Japanese and Japanese Americans who were imprisoned at the Manzanar internment camp (Eastern side of the Sierra Nevada) but would risk their lives to sneak out of the camp and pursue freedom in some moments of fishing.

We’re happy to share that the film has been completed and is opening soon in several theaters. I had the pleasure of watching a pre-opening showing a couple of months ago and it is a touching story that is very well told by the film-makers and those who tell us their personal stories.

Manzanar Fishing Camp film schedule

The angler pictured above was an angler from Japan who would disappear for days at a time to go fishing in the mountains nearby. In this particular stance he was gone for 2 weeks, leaving the camp with absolutely nothing on him, and for 2 weeks surviving off the harsh terrain of the Eastern Sierras. The fish he proudly displays are golden trout, which were only found miles and miles away from the camp.

We will never know whether he, or anyone else who suffered the injustice of being imprisoned, was aware of tenkara or not. It is actually irrelevant. If tenkara really means from heaven, then I’m certain they practiced their tenkara. Those who fished outside the camp found their tenkara, their moment of freedom and their gift from heaven, on the streams on the other side of the barbed wires.

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George Elliott Gregory, first mention of tenkara?

On April 13, 2012 • Comments (4)

Following my post on the first record of tenkara by Sir Ernest Satow, I received a response from Kevin Kelleher, author of the book Tenkara: Radically Simple, Ultralight Fly Fishing. I post his response below, and a few of my remarks on the bottom of this post.
I should have made it more clear on my post that Gregory’s writing could be of tenkara. However, as Gregory’s descriptions are vague and not very detailed (he does not mention where he saw it, nor what fish was being caught), it is difficult to conclude whether he was observing tenkara or a different method of fishing. Satow’s writing, on the other hand, is certainly describing tenkara and for this reason Japanese scholars give credit to Mr. Satow for the first record of tenkara. The most interesting thing, regardless of who first observed tenkara, was the fact that the method was likely practiced in Japan for a few hundred years, yet the first records appeared less than one year apart.

By Kevin Kelleher:

Though likely no one can prove unequivocally the first English reference to tenkara, I think you dismiss the discovery of George Elliott Gregory’s 1877 description in the Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan too easily. Let me defend.

First, Mr. Gregory’s report to the Society was in his own words “a thorough consideration of the subject of the fisheries of this country,” and includes a broad if not comprehensive description of at least 20 fresh water fishing techniques from hand line and net, to trap and cormorant fishing, in “lakes, rivers, and preserves.” One would anticipate that a “thorough” report to an academic society cataloguing fishing techniques in the “preserves” might contain an early reference to tenkara and Mr. Gregory states he has been studying the subject “for some years” in many different parts of Japan.

Second, the length of the rod in question is described as being between the 21-foot koi-tsuri-sao, and the 3 ½ foot haze zao, which at least fits the bill. More importantly, Gregory describes the rod in question as “a simple bamboo rod.” This resonates with my thinking on early tenkara rods, and Gregory himself contrasts this with multi-sectioned rods, lacquered and bound with silk found on other waters, and known to be used in Ayu fishing.

Further, Gregory calls both the rod and the fly it casts, Ke-bari. The undeniable explanation of the action of the kebari (the fly) seals the deal for me. Gregory describes the wings (sic. Hackle) as being rough and rigid when compared to European flies and made so they are able to “resist the pressure of the rapid streams of the country [so they do not] collapse and thus cause the artificial fly to lose all similitude to the real insect.” Surely this is a reference to the traditional tenkara fly. Mr. Gregory’s specific reference to “the rapid streams of the country” makes the description unlikely an Ayu fishing reference, which was practiced in larger rivers nearer urban areas. Later in his report he spends several pages on a translated work, describing the cormorant fishing for Ayu including recipes, implying he likely knew the difference.

In summary, Gregory’s description is a scholarly report of a fishing technique using a medium sized, simple, bamboo rod, fishing a kebari, whose hackle is designed to resist the high gradients, of the rapid streams of the country. Pretty convincing, I think.

(As an aside, Gregory presented this report to an open meeting of the Society, and since Sato was a founding member, would very likely have been in the room at its reading.) In the end though, it will be admitted, that neither Sato or Gregory were anglers, hence we shall be forever dissatisfied. As I said in Tenkara, the origins will likely remain a mountain mystery, which suits me just fine. More importantly, the friendly banter between tenkara enthusiasts in this uniquely open community should continue, God willing, as long as clear mountains streams dance with fish.



Notes by Daniel:
Just a few points:

1) Gregory chose to describe 5 methods: koi-tsuri-zao, ka-bari, nagashi-bari, dzudzugo and te-zuri. He writes ka-bari, not ke-bari. Ka is the word for mosquito, and is still used to describe the flies used in ayu fishing. Tenkara flies are not reffered to as ka-bari. This was something I discussed with Mr. Fujioka, who researches tenkara flies, when I was in Japan. He gave me a set of ka-bari, which are used for ayu-fishing because he thought I would be interested, but said ka-bari are not used for tenkara.
2) On the flies, he does mention they are stiff, but we’ll never really know if he was referring to tenkara flies or ayu flies. Here’s an image of an ayu fly. Some ayu flies are stiffer. Likewise, some tenkara flies are stiffer than others. Also, it is more common to see ayu flies made with bristles than tenkara flies. Not an overly important clue, I do not think.
Ayu fly
3)” “the rapid streams of the country” makes the description unlikely an Ayu fishing reference, which was practiced in larger rivers nearer urban areas. ” Ayu fishing is also done in what can be perceived as rapid streams. While more popular in some of the lower rivers, it is also done in higher faster streams. For example, this picture was taken in Gujo, Gifu, an area that would have been easier for him to reach and observe ayu fishing: , which is still plenty fast for someone who may have grown up by a chalk-stream. Ayu fishing was a big thing where I was living, and was done also on the Mazegawa, which is a great tenkara river. When the ayu season opened, this section was full of ayu anglers:

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First records of Tenkara

On April 11, 2012 • Comments (4)

The original tenkara angler was generally illiterate, and truth-be-told, not at all interested in making a record of his time fishing. It took a British diplomat, spending time in Japan, to write on paper what has come to be accepted as the first record of tenkara.

Mr. Ernest Satow, a British diplomat who spent over twenty years in Japan at the prime of his career and who was also a keen mountaineer, kept detailed diaries of his time in Japan. In his records of the years 1877 and 1878 we can find the first references to tenkara ever recorded. The references did not mention tenkara by name, simply the fact that flies were being used to catch the local trout.
Diary of Mr. Ernest Satow tenkara iwana kebari artificial fly
Based on the detailed descriptions in his diary, his records are the first that most likely indicate the observation of tenkara.

It was stated in Tenkara: Radically Simple, Ultralight Fly Fishing by Kevin Kelleher and Misako Ishimura, that the first description of tenkara was written by George Elliott Gregory on March 28, 1877. I do not believe, that Mr. Gregory was the first person to observe and write a record of tenkara. Mr. Gregory wrote a report titled “Japanese Fisheries” for the book Transactions of the Asiatic Societies of Japan. In his report, Gregory describes five methods of fishing practiced in Japan, one of which he calls ka-bari, where ka is a word for “mosquito” and bari is the word for hook. He writes, “The ka-bari is a simple bamboo rod. The line is used with a float but without any sink and the bait, as its name ka implies, is an artificial fly.” However, based on the vague description, and the fact that he does not mention the area where he observed this type of fishing, nor the species targeted, we can not be certain whether he was referring to tenkara or another method of fishing. Japan has an abundance of fresh-water fishing methods, at least two of which use flies (ayu fishing and tenkara). As tenkara was primarily practiced in the higher mountain streams, and ayu fishing much more common and at easier reach, it would be difficult for him to have observed the method. Furthermore, ayu fishing is normally referred to as “ka-bari”, not tenkara.

Mr. Satow, on the other hand, was in a good position to have witnessed tenkara first-hand. he frequently visited the areas far off the beaten path in Japan, and more importantly, spent time areas where tenkara would have been practiced. On numerous occasions he visited the mountains in what is now known as the Japanese Alps, with numerous mentions of Mt. Tate (or Tateyama) and Mt. Ontake. These areas are known for their cold streams and the long history of tenkara practice.

On September 22nd, 1877 Mr. Satow writes about his time near the river Katashinagawa (gawa = river), “Bears, deer, wild boar & hare taken in the winter months; yamame (trout) with artificial flies.”

Then, during a period of about ten days in 1878, Mr. Satow wrote three passages on his experiences around Tateyama and Mt. Ontake:

July 23 1878: “…Height about 7500 or 8000 ft… Below the top large yellow ranunculus 3 & black lilies in abundance 4; then rhododendrons in flower… Magnificent rocky cliffs tower above us all the way to the first hut at Futamata, then the sides of the ravine slope more, and are generally covered with trees. The ice cold stream boils along over rocks of grey granite, & so cold is it that in crossing one bridge we actually feel the consequent change of temperature.”
July 24, 1878: “Last night we had for dinner capital fish called iwana [a native Japanese trout], caught in the Kurobe-gawa with a fly made of cock’s feathers, weighing about 3/4 lbs.”[2]
July 28, 1878:”Our coolies[3] were provided with bamboo rods and flies to fish for iwana in a stream near Kamidaki.”
August 3, 1878: …”Fish caught in this stream iwana and tanabira, and artificial flies are used. From here to the top of [Mt.] Ontake is 7 ri.”[Edited by Ruxton, Ian. A Diplomat in Japan Part II: The Diaries of Ernest Satow, 1870-1883. Lulu Press Inc. September 1, 2009

One note: I have mentioned in this blog before that the first record of tenkara was in a book called “Diary of Climbing [Mt.] Tateyama”. This was a compilation of Mr. Satow’s diaries done in Japanese. Mr. Satow himself never gave his diaries that title. Thus, it is more accurate to state the first record was in Sir Ernest Satow’s diaries.

The full transcripts of Sir Ernest Satow’s diaries can be acquired and read in this pdf version of the book. The diaries themselves are a fascinating read for those interested in Japanese travel.

Ah, just as a reminder: tenkara was never practiced by samurai.

[1] From Japanese scholars, I heard of the existence of a book called “Diary of Climbing Mt. Tateyama”, but besides hearsay I could not confirm its existence. Diary of Climbing Tateyama (立山登山日記)
[2] [Note: the Kurobe river is not far from Tateyama, which is mentioned later in the same entry.]
[3] It is thought his guide in this areas was Mr. Shinaemon Toyama

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