To break up our series of posts introducing characters from the collection of tenkara addicts that we met on our trip to Japan – we thought we’d drop in a short video to get your mouth watering (literally). As we have stressed a few times, the strong social bonds shown during continually-shared food, drink and […]
This latter point is very important – not only are we talking about the days before blogs, tweets and facebook – tenkara’s original practitioners would have been simply unable to read and write (not much chance of a recorded history there then!). What is more, the only requirement for communication of its secrets would be that it could be passed down family lines through an oral tradition and practical demonstration. For these reasons, the actual history of what became known as tenkara is a rather tantalising mystery. Though the obscure “black box” origins have been forever lost, its remarkable similarities to methods from other parts of the globe that are thousands of years old are impossible to ignore. It is important to flag up, though, that there is NO RECORD of the samurai ever having practiced tenkara. This is a common misconception - and may have arisen because of drawings of samurai with fishing rods used to catch lowland species of fish. Tenkara was born in the mountains and was a means of subsistence for peasants, rather than leisure for the higher classes
The famous entry in Satow's diary reads “Last night we had for dinner capital fish called iwana caught in the Kurobe-gawa, with a fly made of cock’s feathers, weighing ¾ lbs”. The existence of the very rod owned by Satow’s guide Shinaemon Toyama (picture kindly provided with permission to use by the Omachi Alpine Museum) lends great credibility to this reference as the first written description of tenkara-style fishing in Japan. In fact, further investigation of Satow’s diary (who was a British Diplomat to Japan for over two decades) reveals clues to an even earlier reference to tenkara fly fishing. For example, an entry on September 22nd 1877 reads “Source of the Tonegawa at the root of a Tilia cordata [small-leaved linden] (shina) on a mountain called Kasayama, whence named formerly Kasashinagawa. Bears, deer, wild boar and hare taken in the winter months; yamame (trout) with artificial flies. Chief production silk.”
We believe that, given the subsequent diary entries, we may be justified in suggesting an even earlier reference that comes from the notes in the margins of Satow's diary from April 12th 1873 Note in the margin on p100 of Prof. Ian Ruxton’s 2009 transcription reads: “Mulberries, paper, Wood and tobacco, very little, no corn, potatoes of all kinds. Trout, fly fishing, sulphur baths. Water comes up bank on right hand side of road.”
Satow's unwitting association with tenkara's history is even multi-layered when we consider that the very syllabary (katakana) used to write "tenkara" in Japanese is a modern development that enabled the incorporation of foreign or "loan" words. Satow's diplomatic work brought him into contact with many of the changes that occurred during the conversion of Japan's "closed" society into a country that opened its doors to the rest of the world. Remarkably, he was actually party to the conversations that foreshadowed the abandonment of the older and more complex written symbols with what ultimately became hiragana and katakana (the two major modern syllabaries) "September 19th 1871 – Visit fr. Yamada Keigo of Taishiu. He says that a project is on foot to abolish the use of Chinese characters and using only kana. To commence with the elementary schools and gradually work upwards; to translate the Classics into Kana and form an iroha dictionary in which the Chinese origin of Sinico-Japanese words will be shown.". The significance of using katakana to write "tenkara" is that it effectively shows that the word is a modern invention. It probably simply became necessary to describe a school of traditional angling that had been carried out for centuries by people who had no need of a neat definition or specific name.Between fly fishing’s first ever recorded mention in Macedonia by Ælian in around 200AD and the 1450 AD earliest manuscripts of the “Treatyse of Fishing with an Angle” in Britain and the more recent records of tenkara - there are striking resemblances. All feature horse hair lines, no reel and simply dressed flies (likely as not tied on bent sewing needles). It is inconceivable that the methods witnessed by Satow from 1873 onwards had sprung, fully formed, just in time for his visits to Ontakeyama (Mount Ontake) and Tateyama (Mount Tate)! Exactly how long these isolated mountain communities had been independently developing their methods is literally anyone’s guess. They have certainly left a rich heritage of varied tactics and fly patterns that are characteristic of the widely-spread regions in which they were developed. We will look to expand on the regional variation in tactics and flies as we develop the website content along with our own knowledge.
The modern rediscovery and western debut
Finally on the adoption of the term “tenkara”, there is a tremendous example of total coincidence to be found in another of Satow’s diary entries - although it has absolutely nothing to do with how tenkara actually got its name. It concerns a local legend on the origin of fish that Satow encounters on his travels. On arriving at lake Chuzenji on March 17th 1872 -, Satow recounts: “Tiffined seated on a ledge of a pilgrim lodging, warmed in door. Coolie said the fish about a foot long rained from heaven”. N.B. “Tiffin” is any light lunch or meal – it originated as a term in British India.
The coincidence is apparent when we hear that the translation of “Rained from heaven” is “Ten kara fu~tsu”.
Much of what is now known about the distinction between “general” flyfishing (or kebari tsuri in Japanese) and the “tenkara” styles inherited from the landless mountain peasant classes is what has been “re-discovered” and recorded since the 1960s by authors and practitioners such as Yamamoto Soseki, Sakakibara Masami, Katsutoshi Amano, Yoshikazu Fujioka and Dr. Hisao Ishigaki. The prospect that, without such coverage, these mountain styles may potentially have died out completely is a sobering thought. Instead, we must be thankful that there is now a growing band of enthusiasts across the globe which whom to share our passion for tenkara. Of course, at this stage it would be extremely remiss for a western website to avoid mention of Daniel Galhardo at Tenkara USA (established in 2009) and Chris Stewart at Tenkarabum for their respective research and travels to Japan in pursuit of bringing tenkara to the western world.
Thanks to the passion of such enthusiasts over the years, tenkara has an unbroken lineage of continual practice that stretches from its originators to the present day. Perhaps the greatest personification of this bridge between tenkara’s ancient origins and the modern world was Bunpei Sonehara – the last professional tenkara fisherman on the Kurobe river (or “Kurobe-gawa”, mentioned in Ernest Satow’s diary entries above). A translation from the web page at Sonehara Bunpei gives some detail about his life. Born in 1915, he was an extremely successful tenkara fisherman – catching (and smoking) as many as 200 fish per day. This skill, his hard work ethic and the changing world of the 20th century, allowed him to earn a salary that was comparable to that of a “white collar” worker of the day. It seems a great shame that the building of several dams caused him to exchange his career as a professional angler for that of a construction site worker
A treasure trove of stream fishing technique
- Exploration day DETAILS
Carrying on from yesterday’s post, another really remarkable character in Japanese tenkara is “Ajari” a human database of river conditions for hundreds and hundreds of fishing spots! For any given time and weather/river-flow conditions he can tell you what species will be feeding where/when, for how long and how best to catch them. It is […]
So far our blog posts on our trip of discovery to Japan have concentrated mainly on Masami Sakakibara and Hisao Ishigaki – probably the two best known ambassadors of tenkara to the rest of the world. However, there is a whole host of other characters that make up a rich and vibrant community with a […]
The chunky rainbow in the image above was captured from (and returned to) a section of “Honryu” or main river in Japan using tenkara techniques that are not yet, to our knowledge, documented outside of Japan. Well, that may be about to change… One of the most interesting things that we can pass on from […]
One very common fear about trying tenkara is that “It won’t work on my stream because there are trees around it”. Well, it is often possible to thread casts (side-casts, catapult casts, water-hauls etc.) under, between, over and around some surprisingly challenging vegetation. Thanks to Makino-san taking the snaps above and below, you can see […]