Tenkara Fishing – From Ancient Japan to A Popular Sport With 80 Outlets in the United States
Gold Nuggets of Japanese Culture Prospected by Fans Overseas
On a summer hike with a family friend in Winter Park, Colorado, we meandered into a conversation about Japan, my home for 29 years. Wow, Japan! That is so great! Tenkara is one of my favorite fishing styles! I love it!” My Cousin’s best friend’s husband from Boulder Colorado lit up with excitement as he spoke. I’m sure he assumed everyone with any relation at all to Japan would be fond of and fully knowledgeable about Tenkara fly-fishing. Well, I had to disappoint.
Hmmmm. Despite all these years living in Kanagawa and travelling the country for speeches, functioning in Japanese and writing three books about Japan (in Japanese), I’ve never once heard of Tenkara.
It is like when my friend from San Francisco comes to Japan to have “authentic” green tea ice cream or a teenager from Germany remembers my lines from voice work I did for Rockman Megaman in the early 90s. Or maybe Sudoku, Origami and Wasabi. So many precious pieces of Japan finding their home with people who appreciate their beauty and meaning without full knowledge of the words they come with. Similar to receiving a brand new toy but not being able to read the directions…you figure it out by trying it out, working with it and learning it your own way.
Simple yet technical, "Waza" is the Key to Tenkara
The origin of Tenkara fishing is actually unknown. No one knows where the name came from but to my Japanese ear it sounds like “From the Heavens”, actually an accurate description of this unique top to bottom fishing style. Passed down generation to generation in mountain villages, Tenkara is a perfect fishing style for the rocky rivers and streams that riddle Japan. Using a single, simple fly, a reel-less rod that extends after the cast and retracts back to 20 centimeters for easy transport, and a small basket for scooping up the fish, this style is as simple as wielding a Samurai sword. Exactly, it looks simple, but the whole process is based on high level “waza” or technique that is honed by the fisherman as they stand on the river’s edge and learn from their Senpai. Believe it or not, the ultimate technique is actually coaxing the fish up and out of the water after the “fly” and hooking their upper lip in one dexterous flit of the wrist.
While the typical fly fisherman stands on the bank and fishes from afar with a horizontal motion, the Tenkara fisherman stands hidden behind huge river stones in a starting gun stance until the moment his fish stretches for that fly. Fish are not stupid. So the minute the jig is up, that fish will quickly sink back underwater unscathed. It is the Tenkara fishermen’s blink-of-an-eye moment when the fish is just there and the fly is just right.
Mr. Yuzo Sebata who is the Senpai in this video from Tenkara.USA (now boasting 80 locations across the US and a huge fan base including my friend Scott and David Letterman who spoke of receiving his first Tenkara fishing rod in Rolling Stone magazine and how he was excited to try it out in Montana) on a fishing trip in the mountains in Japan explains it simply. He describes the balance of fast and slow, being in the moment and focused on the fish, but yet feeling the movement of nature from the running stream and wind in the trees. You can see his collection of flies tucked neatly inside his hat and the height of the line as it comes down from the heavens. I love that there are photos on the same site of my American compatriots in the same hat. What a great moment when something cool and meaningful is shared from this corner of the world to that like a precious love letter passed hand to eager hand across a crowded schoolroom. There is something lovely in that secret message quietly finding a new home.
Tenkara "From the Heavens" is Something to be Shared
My favorite images from both sides of the world are when the fishermen gently hold their catch for a quick photo and then ease them back into their freshwater abode. Obviously, keeping some for dinner, but most are saved and protected as not to over consume or be wasteful.
I used to think of my home in the USA as a place of overconsumption and waste…that has all changed on this trip as I see Americans more fit and more aware of the earth and how they treat their environment than I have ever seen before. I’m sure this concern for the earth and attention to health and clean living was here from the start, maybe we were simply lax for many years? I am still trying to figure out where this renaissance in awareness, recycling, organic food, healthy living and exercise has come from, but on this trip through Seattle, Salt Lake City, Hawaii, Colorado and with family members from Pennsylvania, San Francisco and DC, regular contact with cousins in Florida, and with friends in the Midwest, I feel my observation might be on the money. We all know one cant generalize about either Japan or the US, but I dare to submit that the fundamental desire to be close to our earth, in tune with nature and master a survival technique that is both kind and exhilarating is something the few in Japan have maintained and the many in America have rediscovered.
It is pure joy for me to see my home and my adopted home coming together via a lovely, simple and artistic skill. When something beautiful, meaningful and simple can span borders and bring people of different backgrounds together, it is nothing other than a gift from the Heavens. 天からの贈り物である。
Former Deep Japan Writer