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Living a dream – Learning tenkara from the masters

On June 8, 2010
Comments (5)

I just landed back in San Francisco a few hours ago. I find myself a bit dizzy from all the travelling and the jet-lag. And, to be honest, my entire experience in these last 2 weeks has just been so beyond my expectations that it is a bit overwhelming trying to digest it all. But, I figure I have to start somewhere. I plan to slowly publish my experiences, techniques I learned, new insights, interviews, videos, and anything I can share with you.

Daniel with an Amago

Maybe it was growing up watching Karate Kid and other martial arts movies where the pupil goes off to live in a remote mountain village in Asia to train with a well-known master, but for many days I felt like I was living a dream that had been engrained in my mind from my early years, the stuff of a movie. Now that I think of it, it is natural it would be fishing, not martial arts, that I’d be pursuing knowledge of. A couple of days ago my mind brought back the memory of fishing with my dad, watching someone catching a lot of fish, and my dad telling me that if I wanted to learn how to fish I should ask a Japanese person how he does it – the region I grew up in has a very large Japanese immigrant population, and there has always been a stereotype held by my dad, possibly a fact, that the Japanese were incredible anglers. Many years later I am blessed to have the opportunity to go to Japan specifically to learn tenkara directly from the master, Ishigaki-sensei, as well as many other very gifted anglers such as Yoshikazu Fujioka and Sakakibara Masami (aka Tenkarano-oni). I may be the first westerner to have ever received such in-depth focused training in the art and techniques of tenkara. For most of the last 2 weeks I was taken under the wings of the most renowned authority on tenkara in Japan, Dr. Hisao Ishigaki (hereby referred to as Ishigaki-sensei, as he has become my de facto teacher). I learned more about pure tenkara than I could ever have imagined I would.

Ishigaki sensei focusing on the water


Daniel, Ishigaki-sensei, Fujioka-sensei, Chikara

Sakakibara Masami (aka Tenkara no Oni)

I spent many days fishing with Ishigaki-sensei: observing, learning, being observed and unequivocally taught. I also met some of the most well-known people in the world of tenkara at in Japan and was extremelly welcomed by the anglers and communites of the Itoshiro and Mase (Masegawa) rivers: being interviewed a couple of times and appearing at a local newspaper. I was also received as a guest of honor at the “Itoshiro Fisher’s Holiday”, an annual gathering cellebrating the beautiful Itoshiro river, one of the first “Catch-and-Release” rivers in Japan, and even gave a brief speech at one of the biggest tenkara events in the country.

One of the events founders and organizer

Saitou Shouichi, one of the event's founders and organizer

Angler's barbecue - very well organized

During the event I sought feedback from many people present, and Tenkara USA’s rods, lines and flies were carefully reviewed by some of the most demanding tenkara anglers in the world, dully critiqued (which will only make our rods even better in the future), but an attestment to our products, they received a big nod of approval by people who take tenkara very seriously! Receiving this type of feedback is extremelly valuable, and I’m grateful to have made those connections.
A few of the things I plan to write about in coming days are:

Interview with Ishigaki-sensei: We spent many hours driving around and having very in-depth conversations about tenkara in the car. These conversations allowed me to ask some questions that bring out a lot of insight and philosophy from the master, as well as the modern history of tenkara in Japan and other things. He also discusses his scientific experiments on fish and anglers.

Tenkara nets: Japanese design has yet to disappoint me, specially when it comes to its “practical simple elegance”. I have not been so enamoured with something since my “discovery” of tenkara rods. Being in the center of tenkara in Japan, I was able to learn quite a bit about tenkara nets, and their extremelly simple nature, and very organic design has left me in awe, which I hope to share with you.

Tenkara flies: The simplicity of tenkara is summed by the fact that all you need is a rod, line and A fly. More commonly than I had thought almost all tenkara anglers use one pattern only (whatever their chosen one is). It is very common practice among all tenkara anglers to rely purely on their techniques to find and entice fish, not on changing flies. At this point I have become a firm believe in this approach on faster flowing streams. While anglers will debate which fly works best – some may prefer a fly tied using the skin of a poisonous snake (more on this later), others may use the natural dubbing from the flowering fern (zenmai), and others may just use cheap thread and a simple hackle – it’s widely accepted that one fly is all you need.

Fishing techniques: The techniques used in tenkara are generally simple, but they are the main pillar of tenkara fly-fishing. Technique, not gear, should be the focus of any activity, although modern society has tended to put a premium on the latter. Relying on gear, even on changing fly patterns, not only detracts from the experience, but also from one’s growth as an angler. I plan to share the techniques I learned in Japan, they work on any faster flowing stream. And, anyone can do well with them and one fly.


Tenkara bamboo rods: You used to think split-cane rods are nice, well, I’ll tell you, tenkara bamboo rods crafted by a good craftsmen, are just masterpieces. I have next to me what are probably 2 of less than a handful of tenkara rods outside of Japan, and they are just sweet, simple crafts. Made by Dr. Ichi Hashi, a Pediatrician in nearby Gujo, they are wonderful works. Why split something that works so well as given by nature?

Landing fish technique: While very intuitive, the big lessons here were slow it down! Bring the fish to a shallower part of the water. Let it calm down by holding the line (trust the tippet) and net it. No more lost fish at the last second.


Travelling and fishing in Japan: Japan is likely the best country in the world for small stream fishing. Many people I talk to say their first love is small stream fishing, but if they ever travel is to pursue big fish in tropical countries. Japan is a wonderful country to experience, and the small stream fishing there is top-notch. I’ll try sharing some advice.

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5 Responses to Living a dream – Learning tenkara from the masters

  1. Karen DeVoogd says:

    This is an incredible accounting of your time in Japan Daniel! i doubt I could be so articulate on a jet lag!
    I look forward to seeing the bamboo rods and the Japanese nets.
    FANTASTIC sojourn Daniel!

  2. David says:

    WOW!! What a trip! This brings back fond memories of my trips to Japan in the mid 80s. I didn’t do any fishing, but really enjoyed the people and the country and the hospitality I was shown. I stayed about a month in the small town of Mito (about an hour north of Tokyo and the hotel was on the banks of a beautiful small river.

  3. Rick Setina says:

    This is a wonderful article Daniel. It sounds like you had a great time and have brought back with you a wealth of information. I’ll look forward to you presenting to us that knowledge in the hope I will learn something that will advance my own knowledge of Tenkara and it’s techniques. I’d love to see the bamboo tenkara rods in person. They must be beautiful.

  4. ERiK says:

    Ecstatically waiting for more, specially more on all the Tenkara accessories the Japanese use – nets, line holders etc…

  5. Jim says:

    I do any search on tenkara and there you and your company are. ME, ME ,MY, MY, MINE……….. ‘getting a little (actually very) sick of the veiled trips and articles which end use is to promote your company. As you say (so very many times and in so very many ways) all you need is a rod, line, fly and net. Enough!

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