Elektronik Sigara - E Sigara
“Tenkara” – a modern word for an old fishing method

Earliest records

We have found great enjoyment in researching the origins of tenkara - and it has enhanced our appreciation for its modern, sporting incarnation. Many aspects of the overall ethos were shaped by the constraints that the original practitioners faced and their spirit is very evident in the high value that is still placed on angler skill and knowledge. Some elements of tenkara's history are recorded here so that, however you choose to fish, there is an opportunity to reflect on the approaches adopted by Japanese mountain subsistence fishers. It is fascinating to compare the angling of necessity to the very similar techniques developed by the leisure classes elsewhere in the world.

Ernest Satow - aged 60 (courtesy of Yokohama Archives of history)

The currently accepted earliest written reference to describe tenkara-style fishing comes in 1878 from Sir Ernest Satow’s diaries (A Diplomat in Japan, Part II: The diaries of Ernest Satow 1870 – 1883). This British diplomat was a keen mountaineer who spent over 20 years in Japan. He describes the capture of Iwana (white spotted char; Salvelinus leucomaenis) from mountain streams by the use of bamboo rods and flies dressed with rooster feathers. It is instructive that it took a visitor to Japan, rather than a local resident, to set down these observations – as it speaks to the peasant origins of this method of harvesting fish from steep mountain streams.

The actual bamboo rod and tree bark creel (kawabachi) belonging to Shinaemon Toyama (1851-1920) who was Ernest Satow's guide © By kind permission of Omachi Alpine Museum

Ernest Satow at 26 years of age. Picture use by kind permission of Yokohama Archives of History

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.

Un-dated picture of a young Ernest Satow (by permission of Yokohama Archives of History)

Shaping forces

Dr Hisao Ishigaki (leading Japanese practitioner and authority on tenkara) remarks that the way of life for a historical tenkara “professional” would have been very hard and often tedious. Trips between the high altitude rivers and small smoke-house hut to process their catch would have made arduous work. Consequently, the simplicity of the tackle and the lack of requirement for expensive (or hard to obtain/maintain) bait were ideal, and probably very welcome, efficiencies. It is easy to speculate, therefore, that the use of fly patterns that were very quick and simple to tie would make the least possible demands on the already short supply of spare time.
Historic tenkara angler

Dr. Hisao Ishigaki recreated the traditional dress and equipment of historic tenkara anglers. The image is provided by kind permission of Daniel Galhardo of Tenkara USA

Similarly, the premium placed on “tippet” material would make minimal fly changes and/or fly losses a high priority. It is thought that this could be a strong contributory factor to the development of the approach of sticking to a single fly pattern. It may also have been a driving force behind the design of relatively large and mobile fly patterns that could entice fish to strike from the streambed without risking getting the fly snagged - as could happen with weighted patterns used for lowland fish like Ayu (sweetfish, Plecoglossus altivelis) that were fished for more widely by the general population (where methods termed “Dobu” or “Korogashi” were used). Here, then, are the origins of the modern (aesthetic) codification of tenkara approaches of limited numbers of fly patterns and the focus on presentation and manipulation of those simple patterns to provoke fish to take.

The tippet (harisu) with flies attached belonging to Bunpei Sonehara (1915 - 2000) © By kind permission of Omachi Alpine Museum

The modern rediscovery and western debut

The most commonly suggested meaning is the literal translation of Ten (heaven or sky) kara (from) as a description of the artificial fly landing delicately onto the water. However there are a number of other interpretations that include, for example, a suggested derivation from the child’s hopping game “Chingara” as a reflection of the jumping between boulders undertaken by anglers in fast streams. Our favourite story (whether true or just fanciful) is that it arose from a misunderstanding when someone asked a tenkara angler what the name of their fishing style was. The story has it that the angler mistook the question to mean “how are you presenting your fly?” – and gave the highly descriptive answer “from the sky”.

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”.

Shachihoko talisman to ward off fire

Shachihoko are fish-shaped talismans that are often seen on the roofs of traditional buildings in Japan. They are said to douse the flames and ward off fire - which would have been a great risk because of the extensive use of wood as a building material! There are lots of legends featuring fish in Japan.

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

The regional variations that have been reported during the modern rebirth of tenkara are the surviving examples of a number of independent lineages. In this sense, we have the gift of the most recent descendants – but not the accompanying “fossil record” available for scrutiny. Nevertheless, it is fascinating to learn about the multitude of tricks and techniques that the originators of tenkara had independently developed and passed down. No doubt there will be many skills in there that would be very familiar to ancient western fly fishers. The fact that, nowadays, we may have forgotten some (or many!) of these things due to changes in tackle design and technology is a tantalising prospect. We hope to introduce many more people to those that we have already learned about – and look forward with even greater eagerness to those that we have yet to rediscover ourselves.
O-Torii gate, Miyajima

Preparing for Japan!

The excitement is now definitely building! Only a month out from heading over to Japan to absorb as much as we can from the dedicated and passionate tenkara practitioners over there. It will be John’s first time in the country and only my (Paul) second visit – and this time will have a very different […]

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Landing a larger fish on tenkara gear

To complement some of the thoughts in our “fish playing” guidance page (http://www.discovertenkara.co.uk/about-tenkara/playing-fish/) – here’s a short video showing John hooking into a good-sized rainbow just as he is lifting off to make a new cast. Even when you factor in the fish’s athletic leap off the rim of the net, the duration of the […]

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TitleSlide

Steven the Human Communications Hub and the “places less fished”

It is fair to say that Steven Wheeler, who acted as translator for Dr. Ishigaki’s visit last year, worked like a Trojan on our behalf. The video below is just one example of a conversation in which he is performing at least three roles! The video of this very short example conversation shows that it […]

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Tenkara Events-3

Discover Tenkara Events Day Dates for Spring and Early Summer

We are delighted to announce a number of tenkara experience and tuition days that we have been able to schedule for the upcoming trout season. You can find listings on our tuition page here: http://www.discovertenkara.co.uk/tenkara-guide/group-tenkara-experience-days/ All events confirmed here will be held on our syndicate waters on the moorland streams of Derbyshire. Feel free to […]

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3D DVD wrap for web

Launch of Discovering Tenkara Vol. 1 DVD

So, there will be some late nights/early mornings to get everything tied off – but we are racing to have the “Discovering Tenkara – An Introduction to Tenkara: Fundamentals and Basics” Volume 1 DVD launched at the BFFI this weekend. Presented by Paul Gaskell, John Pearson and Dr. Hisao Ishigaki – it is the first […]

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New Rods-3

A small sample of our full evening talk for Worcestershire Fly Dressers Guild

The title says it all really, although (obviously) we’ve kept our powder dry on the real killer content. What is shown is also, necessarily, a very tiny fraction of the total presentation. Incidentally, we will be doing a totally different presentation at the British Fly Fair International on 8th and 9th of February entitled “A […]

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