The Tenkara USA guarantee means we’ll make sure your tenkara rod bearing our name gets fixed quickly and conveniently. Do not mail anything back to us, we will send you just the part(s) you need for your tenkara rod. […]
I love writing stories of serendipity, so it surprised me that I hadn’t shared this one with you yet.
Earlier this year I was very focused on writing an (still) upcoming book on tenkara. I established a ritual; every morning I’d wake up, make myself some coffee, and for the first couple of hours in the day I’d turn off my email and internet, and focus on writing. I found that I loved the peace and quiet of early morning, but I felt that I couldn’t fully wake up on the merits of coffee alone, so I started turning on the music. Since I do not have an extensive music library, I turned to the internet radio service Pandora.
One day in the middle of writing, a song caught my attention. It was an instrumental song, and it also had a very distinct feel to it. It was relatively fast, played mostly on a cello, it had a folksy/bluegrassy feel to it, but for some reason I thought I could hear Japanese influence within the song. I stopped writing and went to see what song it was. It was called ” Fishin’ “!!! And, the artist had a Japanese name, Takénobu. Wow!
Never in a million years would I guess that a peaceful streamside tea ceremony would draw the attention of local law enforcement, but the day before this year’s Tenkara Summit, several tenkara anglers (including yours truly) almost spent the night in the slammer.
We all arrived at the stream, but the complicated ceremony takes time to set up. There was a lot of gear to carry down and prepare so John did that while the rest of us went fishing. The idea was to meet up later when the water was heated up and the tatami mats laid out (among other preparations).
In the meantime, John practiced one of his other hobbies while waiting for us to return: Japanese swordplay. Here’s a shocker: a guy dressed in a black ninja outfit wielding a sword in the middle of the woods is considered “suspicious” by some people in Utah.
I guess I can see how this might look suspicious
I was taking a quick break from filming the ceremony (video to come) when I was approached by four very serious looking police officers. They told me they had a report of a guy with a “big sword” and and “urn”. The conversation went something like this:
Police: What’s going on here?
Me: We are hosting an event with some Japanese fly fishermen and are having a traditional tea ceremony.
Police: We got a report about someone with a sword.
Me: It’s part of the ceremony. It’s not a real sword. (complete lie. It was a real sword and wasn’t part of the ceremony).
Police: Do you have an urn? Someone reported seeing an urn.
Me: An urn? No. You’re welcome to go and check it out if you want.
Police: No, that’s OK. (after scanning the situation from a distance).
Dr. Ishigaki trades his tenkara rod for a Samurai sword
And with that, they left. I can only think whoever reported the “urn” must have mistaken that for the pot the tea is heated in. At any rate, the SLC cops were pretty cool about it even though it probably did look pretty suspicious. It’s a good thing too. Because I couldn’t really come up with a good answer to the requisite question, “what are you in for?”.
Here are a few more pics:
Daniel also participated
The ritual is beautiful but so complicated, you might just die of thirst before getting your tea
Ishimaru Shotaro, an 89 year old tenkara angler in Japan, offered to give me some of his tenkara flies. He opened the box and out came an unexpected tenkara fly pattern. Why unexpected? For most of my fly-fishing life I had come to somewhat expect the look of a fly to improve in proportion with the time an angler had been tying it. Mr. Shotaro has been tenkara fishing for over 77 years and is the longest practitioner of the method I have met. Yet, his flies were, for lack of a better term, the sloppiest I have ever seen.
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.
Oregon has some truly overlooked, yet world-class tenkara waters! As I mentioned on my last post, I had been invited to come speak in Bend, Oregon and decided to stay for a week and enjoy my time here.
The day after my presentation I was joined by eight folks from the Central Oregon Fly Fishers club for a day on the Crooked River. Only one person already had experience with tenkara, and the group’s interest for the method was contagious. It made for a very enjoyable day on the water.
One of the best things about these gathering is how much I get to digest what I have learned of tenkara by explaining and perhaps defending it. A simple question, like “how would you approach this section?”, or “what technique would you use here?” turns into an opportunity to learn more about why I do what I do in some situations.
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.
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.
Over two years ago my friend Masaki and I went fishing together to shot the first video for this website. It was then that I was exposed to my first glimpse of a rich tenkara culture, and a part of it that has become some kind of a ritual in my outings: kotsuzake, a drink which requires only sake and the lightly charred bones of an eaten fish.
Kotsuzake, to me, is underpinned with ceremonial and philosophical significance – though you should not picture a tea ceremony here. It is primitive and raw. The bones of the precious trout, after being separated from the meat, are placed over the coals of the fire and lightly roasted to bring out oils and flavor, after which they are immersed into the warm sake. The result is sake with subtle and tantalizing fish flavors, and a practice that is a personal routine if I must eat a trout that I catch.
The only way I ever prepare trout nowadays is with a simple coating of sea-salt over its skin, what is called “shioyaki” (or salt-grilled). The trout is skewered firmly, with a skewer never puncturing its flesh until the end. The absence of other seasonings, only salt enhancing its flavor, and the skillful use of a skewer preserving the integrity of its flesh are the best way to honor its meat.
Small trout from a fish-farm in Japan, lunch for 5.
Kotsu means “bone”, zake is just a modified version of “sake”. However, while the traditional drink, and even the drinks’s name imply the use of the bones only, another common way of drinking it is to use the entire fish, cooked, and submerged in sake. The correct name for that being “Iwanazake“, after the fish more commonly used for such a drink the Iwana. I have not yet tried this way of drinking it, thinking of it as a waste of trout.
In the mountain areas I spent time in, kotsuzake made this way (whole fish) is somewhat a staple. In a few local farmers’ markets I even found the neat prepackaged kotsuzake sets of the picture below. The package on the left side contained a piece of hollow bamboo that would serve as a cup along with a dried Iwana. The instructions illustrated heating the fish, putting it in the container, and finally pouring sake over it. The one of the right, I have no idea, I gave it to a friend as a gift. It looked like a cup with pieces of dried Iwana, not the entire fish. When shaken, it rattled. The package was neat, a good souvenir.
Preparing and drinking kotsuzake, is an act of homage to the principle of not wasting the resources that nature provides. I wish I had a better, cleaner picture of kotsuzake. The image below, in contrast with the sterile packages above, will automatically make you think “disgusting!” As I said, it is primitive, particularly when done stream-side. However, do not be taken back by it, it tastes much better than it looks. The ritual feels even better.
Even those who really like Japanese food and enjoy eating slices of raw fish, known as sashimi, are often surprised to learn that trout can also make awesome sashimi. This includes people from the big cities of Japan, who are accustomed to eating sashimi from ocean fish. This picture was taken soon after I arrived in Japan in May, and the two friends from Tokyo that accompanied me were trying iwana (Japanese char) sashimi for their first time. I had eaten iwana as well as amago sashimi before, and was in agreement when they said it was their new favorite sashimi.
In the mountain areas of Japan, where trout are raised in farms with cold and very clean water, residents have access to some of the best sashimi anywhere. Iwana, a Japanese char, is the preferred fish for sashimi as it is slightly fatter. Other trout, such as Amago, can also be used and are delicious to eat as well, but their leaner meat has slightly less flavor. In fact, the availability of trout in these areas, and the long distance a sea fish would have to be carried to be served, also make trout sashimi the preferred option in more isolated mountain regions of Japan.
I do wish I had the opportunity to enjoy freshly caught sashimi on the stream-side. But near the end of my trip, when the opportunity did arise, I was feeling very bad with the idea of eating even one of the few wild trout left in Japan. Fishing had been poor, primarily because the idea of catch-and-release is still not a normal part of the culture, and I certainly preferred not to contribute to the diminishing stock of fish in the streams. I wonder, however, how often the professional tenkara anglers of old times enjoyed uncooked, fresh iwana and amago sashimi to nourish their bodies during a day of hard fishing.
The leaf below the slices of fish is the shiso leaf, a mint-like leaf often eaten with sushi and sashimi. I actually have been growing shiso at home for a few months as it is a bit expensive to buy, but very handy when my wife and I make sushi at home. The flower stem on the left of the slices of Iwana are the shiso flowers. The small petals were taken out and placed on the small tray of soy sauce for added flavor.
There will be some new content for those of you who have been reading our blog for over a year. I do not want to keep duplicating entries, but, this one is a timely one for our area of Japan.
Last year I talked about how the Fuji flower (藤花, fuji flower, wisteria japonica), is considered to be the “tenkara flower”. This is because when the fuji flower’s blossom is an indication that fishing is good. I have been in Japan for over 15 days now. Sadly, the fishing in this area has been very poor, and, tellingly, until yesterday I had not noticed the Fuji flowers in the area I’m staying. Today, they seem to have bloomed and are starting to appear in many places. While I still suspect the fishing here won’t improve all that much (I’ll talk some other time about the poor management of fisheries in Japan), the almost overnight flower’s blossom is a sign for hope.
Originally posted on June 10, 2010, after fishing in Japan at this exact time of year last year.
This time of year is considered the best time for tenkara fishing in the mountain streams of Japan. One of the main indicators of this is the Fuji hana (藤花, fuji flower, wisteria japonica). The fuji flower is commonly found near streams in Japan at this time of year, and when it’s blooming it’s said to be tenkara fishing time. So, I’ll call the fuji flower, the tenkara flower. Now we need to find one for tenkara in the US.
The character for the fuji flower (藤) is the same character as Fujioka-san (藤岡), so they joke that’s his flower. This is the fish he caught just about an hour earlier:
Fujioka-san with a nice Iwana
One morning I was able to get very close to the fuji flowers, they tend to be found a bit high, but a few hours before I was able to I had dunked my camera’s lens, a big SLR lens, into the water as I landed a fish. It’s what I call my karma neutralizer. I didn’t realize it until later, but the picture I took was a bit foggy. Luckily I was able to get back there before the trip was over and take a better picture.
As I spend time in Japan, I realize how much I have already covered in our blog in regards to tenkara. This blog has a wealth of information regarding tenkara, unmatched anywhere. Yesterday a local reporter came to speak to me about tenkara as he’s helping put together some type of museum of fishing . I started bringing up all these things that he wasn’t aware of, and pulled my computer to show him what I was talking about. Among these posts was one about the use of the Zenmai Fern dubbing material on some old flies.
It seems like I’m too late to collect zenmai fern in this area (they came up in early March this year), but I thought some of you may have not read this post before and may be interested in reading it.
Originally posted on June 16, 2010 after my last year’s visit to Japan.
I love the idea of using natural materials on all my flies. Through tenkara I learned about a material most people accustomed to the western fly-tying traditions have never heard of and very few have used, even though its properties make it a great material and it’s available in most parts of the world, including the US: the zenmai.
The zenmai was first introduced to me by Fujioka sensei, my teacher of tenkara flies, through his excellent website. A few months ago he sent me some flies, and also a small bit of zenmai, which I would not dare use as they belong to the “museum”. While fishing with Fujioka sensei, I asked if he had seen any zenmai around, “it’s a bit too late in the season”, he replied. Usually the zenmai comes out in very early spring and the fleece falls off soon after. However, as luck would have it, Fujioka sensei later went to an onsen (hot springs) at a higher elevation and there he was able to find some.
Fly tied by Fujioka sensei using the zenmai dubbing material.
The zenmai is a type of fern that, in early spring, has a cotton-like material on its body. This cotton-like material makes for excellent dubbing material, it is relatively waterproof, and can be easily made into a tight thread. Depending on the time it is picked or the plant it is picked from, the zenmai will vary slightly in color, with some being darker, and more commonly found in a light tan color.
Usually referred to as “flowering fern”, the zenmai belongs to the Osmunda family. The Japanese species is the Osmunda japonica, but according to Fujioka sensei the zenmai may be found worldwide, except for Australasia. The plant can be found in two stages with fleece still on its body: more commonly it’s found as a fiddlehead fern, a young shoot coming out of the ground and still curled up with fleece covering it almost entirely. Or, as a grown plant with the fleece material still on its stems, like in this video.
Though a bit hard to find at this time of year, there were still a few plants around during my visit (late May-early June). The day after Fujioka sensei gave me some zenmai, I found one plant with the fleece still attached to its body. The following week, as I visited my wife’s grandparents farther north in Yamagata, they found some more zenmai stalks while picking sansai (mountain vegetables). That’s another cool thing about this plant, the Japanese zenmai is an edible plant, a sansai, which is commonly picked by people in the mountains areas of Japan. The cotton-like material is discarded, and the meaty vegetable prepared and eaten. On this day, vegetable picking proved to be more productive than fishing (the water was too cold, I believe). Among a couple of enormous bags we picked of warabi, and fuki were a few young fiddlehead ferns still fully covered in zenmai fleece.
After being dried for a while, the zenmai can be prepared as a delicious mountain vegetable. We had some awesome meals with these on the side.
Hands full of sansai. In this case, warabi.
I know some tenkara anglers in the US have already picked North American zenmai this year, for their own flies. But, I’m afraid this post may be too late for most people to be able to find it now.