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Tenkara

A conversation with Ishigaki sensei

On July 31, 2010
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Ishigaki sensei and Chikara helping with translation

After knowing Ishigaki sensei for about a year and having  had many communications with him via email, and after spending several days talking and fishing with him while visiting Japan, I thought there were some questions I should ask him “for the record”. An interview was in order. On the 3-hour drive back from the Itoshiro to Nagoya, I turned on the recorder and had a nice conversation with Ishigaki sensei. We had so many other lengthy conversations in my time there, and we covered many specific aspects of tenkara, this time I had some slightly broader questions to ask him.

NOTE: Ishigaki sensei gifted us with a few tenkara flies he tied himself, which are now available here for the benefit to an environmental non-profit.

CONVERSATION:

Daniel: Dr. Ishigaki, could you describe your path to tenkara? What led you to pursue this simpler way of fishing? What is your story with tenkara?’

Ishigaki sensei: I first learned about tenkara through a book, “Keiryu no tsuri” (stream fishing). The book was published about 40 years ago by the company “Tsuribitosha”. This book covered  3 types of fishing: lure fishing, live bait fishing and tenkara. In the book, tenkara was not called tenkara, but rather “kebari tsuri” [kebari = fly, tsuri=fishing, but different from western fly–fishing which is specifically referred to in Japanese as “fly fishing”]. I learned about it through that book, but didn’t start tenkara right away; I was into bait fishing back then. One day, while bait fishing, I saw the first person practicing tenkara; that day, I wasn’t catching anything, but the tenkara angler caught 2 fish in front of me. I was surprised, so this is tenkara! When I returned home, I remembered the book mentioned tenkara, so I picked it up and started reading that section again. Based on the book, I tied my first fly, and made a tapered line. Back at that time there were no tenkara rods available to purchase. So, as a substitute I used a “hera rod” [rod for a type of carp fishing]. The rod was a bit too short.  Thus, I started tenkara, but barely caught any fish in the beginning. There was no information on tenkara besides that book, so I thought I couldn’t catch fish because there was no information about it. At that time I was doing lure fishing, bait fishing and also tenkara, but didn’t do much tenkara in the beginning. I was 27 years old at that time, the same age as Daniel.

I gradually started getting better at tenkara,  and then tenkara rods started becoming available, at first made of fiberglass.

Daniel: Were tenkara rods really not available at that time, or were they just hard to find?

Ishigaki sensei: I couldn’t find the fishing rod in stores, sometimes there were rods advertised in magazines, but very hard to find.About 30 years ago, gradually books on tenkara started being sold, and magazines slowly started introducing tenkara, and then rods started becoming available. But, I rarely saw anyone doing tenkara at that time. I couldn’t catch many fish, but I still thought it was a very fun way of fishing. So, I started thinking hard about why I couldn’t catch fish.  I just assumed that fish held the bait longer, but spit the fly right away.  Out of curiosity  I decided to conduct an experiment about how quickly the fish would spit the fly and how fast a fisherman could react.

I went to a hatchery that had 3 ponds, one with Amago, one with Iwana [two types of Japanese trout] and one with Rainbow trout.  Using photo-sensors connected to a hookless fly, I analyzed how long a trout held the fly in its mouth before spitting it out. The fly was held right on the surface of the water, so a fish would jump to it, hold it in its mouth and spit it out.  Then, I did an experiment with anglers to measure their reaction time between seeing a flashing light and trying to set a hook with a fishing rod. The average time for the fish to spit out the fly was 0.2 seconds, but the shortest reaction time for a fisherman was 0.3 seconds.  In other words, by the time someone reacts to the visual cue of a fish, it’s usually already too late because the fish has already spit the fly out.  So, I though be best way to catch a fish would be to make the fish hold the fly in its mouth longer; one way I thought would increase the time a fish held the fly in its mouth would be to have the fly in the water, not on the surface. Doing an experiment with the fly under water, the time a fish held the fly in its mouth increased to 0.6 to 0.7 seconds.

I conducted several experiments in this fashion.  Once a month for a period of 6 months I conducted similar experiments and wrote a report for a popular fishing magazine published by “Tsuribitosha”. Then, NHK, a very popular tv station,  decided to make a program on these experiments. The experiment was shown on one of the most popular tv shows at that time, which was watched by about 20% of the people in Japan. Many tenkara anglers watched the show, and then many of these people contacted me with their opinions on the research.  So, Tsuribitosha and other fishing magazines contacted me to conduct similar experiments, and they offered put me in touch with many tenkara experts and to interview them. For the very first time I had the opportunity to see several tenkara experts doing tenkara. I was 38 years old at this time [about 25 years ago].  As a result, I became good friends of many of these tenkara experts.  With these tenkara experts, we made several videos on tenkara.  This is how tenkara started spreading out, now people could learn from these videos we made.

Daniel: So, Ishigaki sensei was one of the main drivers in introducing tenkara in Japan.

Ishigaki sensei: That’s right, with several friends we started spreading out tenkara in Japan. This was the beginning of tenkara becoming popular in Japan.

Young Dr. Ishigaki featured in a magazine

Daniel:  Was this research in any way related to his profession, as a scientific researcher in the field of Visual studies, or purely a hobby?

Ishigaki sensei: Just a hobby. But, this is what got me started in tenkara, and was related to my interests too.

Daniel: What motivates Dr. Ishigaki to introduce others to tenkara, and teach tenkara to others since he makes no money from it?

Ishigaki sensei: Tenkara, compared to other methods of fishing, is a very fun, and fairer way of fishing. Above all, it’s fairer as the angler really needs to depend more on his technique. It’s also a simpler way. I like to introduce people to this. I’m also a professor, so I like to teach others.

Daniel:  Since you didn’t catch so many fish with tenkara in the beginning, why didn’t you give it up and just continue fishing with bait?

Ishigaki sensei:  I didn’t catch many fish with tenkara, but at the same time I could see that many fish were coming up to the fly, but I was wondering why they didn’t bite. This was very fun . I wondered why they came to the fly, but didn’t bite, and that made me conduct the experiments.

Daniel:  Dr. Ishigaki, you often say the main reason you like tenkara is its simplicity. Why did simplicity become the main appeal of tenkara to you?

Ishigaki sensei: About 15 years ago, my thoughts and philosophy on fishing got really solid. Fishing is really simple, you only need three things: fishing rod, line and fly. Even for fly, only one type is really necessary.  How you catch fish, with that simplicity, is based on a person’s experience and techniques. In my opinion, that’s a very interesting thing. If one’s skills improves, then he can catch fish. It doesn’t depend on the fishing gear. I really like that you do not have to depend on the fishing gear to catch fish. To me, that’s the most important thing about fishing, to think.  For example, to think about where the fish will be in certain conditions, and how I’ll go about catching it in that condition. It all depends on the person’s experience and his technique. To think about where the fish is, and then implement a technique, that’s the most important thing.

Daniel: When I watched Dr. Ishigaki fishing, I could see the thoughts going through his mind, and him trying different techniques to entice the fish.

Daniel:  Did you have any mentors when you were learning tenkara?

Ishigaki sensei: I didn’t really have one mentor, but I met and fished with many experts. I learned much from each of them, and picked the best things from each of them and tried to use that knowledge.

Daniel:  Nowadays, Dr. Ishigaki only uses one fly pattern. In the beginning, did you use many different fly patterns? When did you realize he could use only one fly?

Ishigaki sensei: I met many different experts, and I saw their flies. Everyone  was using different flies, but each of these tenkara experts used only one fly style.  To me, that meant that any fly could catch fish, so only one fly should be fine. So, I started using only one fly [later Dr. Ishigaki would come across the fly he now uses in a tackle shop, he really liked its simplicity and adopted that fly as his own].

The first book I read said that you should change flies. It even had different suggestions based on the time of year, “summertime use a black fly and use a big fly, in the spring use a green fly and small”, the book said. A different book mentioned the same thing, so I kept changing flies when I couldn’t catch fish. But, then I saw the different experts’ flies, and realized one type was fine.

Daniel: While learning tenkara, Dr. Ishigaki did a lot of different things to learn more about its history and where tenkara came from. As tenkara was originated by professional (i.e. commercial) fisherman in the mountains of Japan, this included dressing up as a professional angler from decades ago. What did you learn from these experiences?

Ishigaki sensei:  I wanted to learn and experience what they may have experienced on my own. The first thing I learned is that a long time ago the job of a professional fisherman in these mountain streams was a very tough job. For example, I wore the “waraji” (a type of straw sandal), where the toes are exposed. When in the water, I hit my toes on the rock.  There weren’t waders, but they wore very thin pants.  It was very cold, the feet hurt, but under their circumstances they had to do it for a living.  I did this 4 or 5 times, once for personal reasons, then the TV program asked me to do it again.

I also learned the line and tippet was very weak. Back in the day, the line and tippet were very weak. The line was made with horse-hair and tippet were made with silk-worm gut, which is hard to stretch. So, people had to fish with the line in the water as much as possible to keep its strength. If you kept the fly in the surface it would break the line, but if you kept the fly under water, then the line will not break. When the fly is in the surface the fish will come up and fall down, that’s a lot of pressure and the line will break, but if the fish grabs the fly under water, then the line won’t break.

Ishigaki sensei reenacts a professional tenkara angler

Daniel:  Many people in the US talking about tenkara, and because it is a type of fishing from Japan, they immediately think of it as a type of “zen” experience.  What does he think of that? Are anglers in Japan conscious and aware of the philosophies that tenkara ecompasses, e.g. its simplicity, enjoying nature more and depending less on gear, etc?

Ishigaki sensei: [lots of laughter] Americans think of Japan, they immediately think of “samurai”, “geisha”, etc, but most people in Japan are not really religious, there are very few Buddhists in Japan.  Tenkara is simply a method of fishing.

Daniel: Tenkara was never practiced by samurai, yet some people stick with the idea that tenkara is “samurai fishing”. It’s hard to dispel some perpetuated myths and stereotypes.

Daniel: With tenkara being introduced to the US and several other countries, some anglers will inevitable adapt tenkara to their idea of fishing, not really accepting it as is. Many anglers think they have to change flies or use weight, floatant, and indicators. How do you feel about people adapting tenkara and making tenkara more complex and complicated than it really is?

Ishigaki sensei: The really good thing about tenkara is that you don’t really have to change flies and you don’t need to use weight for sinking the fly or floatant. Using weight, or changing flies means that people will be missing out on some of the most important aspects of tenkara.  In Japan, using weight to sink the fly is considered not to be real tenkara. Some tenkara anglers in Japan use bead-head flies, but real tenkara anglers do not consider that to be tenkara. But, people are free to enjoy things they enjoy. Using weight and changing flies, may be a type of enjoyment for some people. All I want is for people to know they don not need to change flies or use weight, indicators, etc.  As long as people know and understand these are not necessary to catch fish, they can do what pleases them most. I believe it may be difficult to have Americans understand pure tenkara.  It will be important to make videos showing tenkara to continue showing people that it is simple and that you don’t need to use weight, floatant, etc.

Daniel: Do you think it is in human nature to make things more complicated than they really are?

Ishigaki sensei: Yes.  People tend to believe that the gear will help them catch fish more easily, instead of focusing on learning technique. That’s [western] fly-fishing; even though originally [western] fly-fishing was much like tenkara, people started thinking of things to make it easier for them to catch fish, like using weight and indicators or many flies.  Amateurs  (i.e. recreational fisherman) will use money and think of easier ways to catch fish. But, commercial fisherman in Japan tried not to spend any money for fishing, such as not using weight or indicators or many flies, they used only the basic tackle rod, line and hook, and they tried to think of ways to catch fish with only the basic tackle.  I believe Japanese tenkara fishing is the most effective type of fishing for stream fishing, because you learn the technique and don’t need unnecessary things.

Daniel: For some people, simplicity equals minimalism (carrying as few things as possible). The first thing many people want to get rid of is their fishing vest or a wader. Does wearing a fishing vest compromise simplicity in fishing?

Ishigaki sensei: No, not at all. Simplicity in fishing is using the basic tackle, only rod, line and fly. Fishing simplicity. That is the real simple thing. Wearing a vest, waders, wading boots, etc, these things are necessary for comfort and should not be compromised. For one, wader, wading belt and good shoes are needed for safety. The vest is good for keeping things organized inside of it. To me, having a vest is necessary to carry things. What one needs to simplify is fishing, with only rod, line and fly, but the other things shouldn’t be compromised in my opinion.  Not wearing a vest or waders is considered “cheap” in Japan; there is a joke that fly fisherman are rich, and tenkara anglers are poor [laughing].

Daniel: For some people, catching the big (or biggest) fish is all that matters. Is it all about the biggest fish?

Ishigaki sensei: Tenkara is not really a method for big fish. The most fun part of tenkara is to be in a stream, and catch many fish. If all you want is to catch the very big fish, then tenkara may not be appropriate.

Daniel: How would you describe your perfect stream?

Ishigaki sensei: Very clean water, beautiful scenery, where it feels relaxing and peaceful, a running stream with faster water [honryu], not very flat or slow.

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