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Tenkara

Tenkara bamboo rod

On June 15, 2010
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There is something to be said about using a natural material as a tool.  Particularly if this is simply crafted. Particularly if the focus is not on manufacturing it, but on selecting the best, most natural and suitable material there is, and simply touching it up to make it a long-lasting tool. Such is the tenkara bamboo rod, as well as the original tenkara net (more on this later). Non-split, non-manufactured, very rare, just incredible.

Dr. Ichihashi, tenkara bamboo rod maker

I had briefly seen a tenkara bamboo rod when Ishigaki sensei visited the Catskills last year, and I had read about it, but had not, until now, had a chance to feel a real tenkara bamboo rod. Then, I got to feel each of a group of some 12 rods, “feel them and pick the one that fits you best”, said Dr. Ichihashi, 市橋 寛, a local pediatric doctor who has been crafting tenkara bamboo rods forseveral years. What? Pick one? How could I? These are just incredible. But, how can I possibly say no and mean it? I had to feel the rods, I found my match, or as the cliche goes, it found me. All I could say was “domo arigatou gozaimasu”, while bowing very deeply for such generous gift, and hoping a gift of a hat and shirt could express a little gratitude.

Gorgeous handles, made of natural bamboo, or wrapped.

These are not the usual cane-pole rod. Yes, they are cane, but their action, weight, balance, are all those of a fly rod. The tenkara bamboo rods are made with 3 or 4 pieces of bamboo. Each rod uses 3 different species of bamboo, selected to be used as the rod butt, the middle of the rod, or for the tip. Plus the handle, which is often made from bamboo rhizome (roots). The selection and matching process is long. Dr. Ichi Hashi goes on his “expeditions” to the hills of Gifu prefecture, not far from Gujo, and selects the best bamboo for his rod. He does this during the late fall/early winter, when the humidity level in the bamboo is at its lowest. Then, he’ll dry the bamboo for up to 2 years in the attic of his clinic. At that point he’ll match the bamboo pieces to be used for the different segments of the rod. He’ll then clean the inside of the rod, opening the nodes to allow the thinner pieces to slip in; he’ll wrap the ends of the segments to strengthen then and lacquer them. And, finally, apply his mastery to finishing each rod. It’s pretty incredible that his rods look like they are all made from one single bamboo, the nodes often look identical, and the taper is flawless.

Incredibly, the nodes of these rod were perfectly aligned. A hard feat.

A 4-piece rod. Pieces are alternated to fit inside a thicker one.

Dr. Ichi Hashi also enjoys fishing with his bamboo rods the most, and I can see why. They are generally slower rods, but like our tenkara rods they come in a variety of flavors, there are the very thin/light rods that are soft (5:5) and there are those that feel stiffer/faster (6:4 or 7:3) , there are some rods that are slightly heavier, but can also be slow (5:5) or faster (6:4 or 7:3). Regardless of their action or weight, one striking feature of bamboo tenkara rods is their recovery. This is also different from the good’ol’cane pole.  Since a tenkara bamboo rod is made for casting a line, the bamboo selected and used for them has great recovery. When you shake them (e.g. cast) the rod will flex as much as it’s made to flex, but it will recover and stop shaking promptly, thus it does not dampen the cast.

Dr. Ichi Hashi has extended me a serious invitation to come spend time with him learning how to make tenkara bamboo rods. There are not many people who make these nowadays. After feeling these rods, I believe there is a lot to be learned from them that can and should be applied to modern rods. Plus, how could I say no to that, when at 14 years old I was trying to learn how to select bamboo to make a cane-pole? Dr. Ichi Hashi, please expect me in Gujo again in the near future. And, domo arigatou gozaimasu.

To learn more about bamboo rods (is this a tenkara rod? and the point of divergence), click below.

Is this a tenkara rod?

Very often we receive emails and messages from people saying they believe they have a tenkara bamboo rod. To date we have not seen one. It’s important to note  there are many methods of freshwater fishing in Japan that look similar (e.g. no reel, line attached to the tip, etc), but are not tenkara.  Most of these rods, though beautifully crafted, are cane poles for use with bait, not tenkara rods. The main distinctive characteristic is the handle, which for tenkara is important. Tenkara rods have distinctive handles for comfortable casting. In addition, tenkara bamboo rods are seldom more than 4 pieces, they are between 10 and 15ft, and need to be flexible enough for casting.
Point-of-divergence: wood v. bamboo

Western fly fishing started much like tenkara looks like today, rod, line and fly. No reel. It is believed that the divergence between western countries starting to use reels, but Japan continued to use a long rod without a reel, may have been caused by the different materials available for their rods. In Europe, the angler needed to use different woods as his fishing rod. In the beginning, all the European angler had in his disposal was the wood fishing rod and horsehair for a line.Without a reel, the ideal length for the rod was not today’s 9ft, but rather close to 15ft long. While that may have been the length used by Dame Juliana Berners or Charles Cotton, those rods were heavy! 15ft long rods made of any wood available in the west was too heavy for comfortable use. Thus, ingenious anglers started developing ways to shorten their rods and, instead, use longer lines. Later on Europeans  “discovered” bamboo, and started using bamboo to make their rods, but by then it was already too late.

Today, the cane fly rod is highly prized by many anglers, but while bamboo looks like a perfectly suitable material to make a fishing rod as it is, I think there are a couple of reasons. Since selecting the best bamboo for making a fishing rod takes a long time, as does drying an entire bamboo rod. I believe the best solution for people in the west to make large quantities of more consistent fly rods without ready access to the sources of bamboo, was to split it and manufacture their own rods (as opposed to simply selecting the best looking bamboo).

In Japan, on the other hand, the hills are covered in a very lightweight material: bamboo. Bamboo allowed anglers in Japan to continue using their long rods, without ever having a need to devise running lines to shorten their rods. They continued using bamboo, natural bamboo, unsplit, just natural. The angler focused on finding the perfect bamboo, one that already looked like and felt like a good fishing rod. With time, he also worked on the handle for his rod, making it comfortable for casting a fly, then he worked on opening the nodes so he could store pieces inside of each other. From there he could only improve on this simple fishing tool. For centuries the angler worked on improving it and the tenkara bamboo rods are a result of this work. They feel great, yet they were never split. They are much like there were on the ground.

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» Japan, Tenkara, Tenkara Rods » Tenkara bamboo rod
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12 Responses to Tenkara bamboo rod

  1. Ronald says:

    Hi Daniel,

    many thanks for this wonderful insight to the make of bamboo tenkara rods.
    Maybe you can answer the questions I have on the making of these rods.
    Is the inside of the bamboo tubes filed to reduce the wallthickness of the bamboo and to reduce weight?
    In which way are the ferrules prepared? The bamboo isn´t complete round. Are the outside of the male and the inside of the female ferule filed or sanded, so that they fit without any play together?

    Best regards Ronald

    • Hi Ronald,
      – Is the inside of the bamboo tubes filed to reduce the wallthickness of the bamboo and to reduce weight?
      A. The inside of the bamboo is not as much filed as it is “drilled”, but not to reduce wall thickness, rather to clean up the nodes and smooth out the rod. This is done not to reduce the weight of the rod as to allow the other pieces to slide in. I do not know the process he uses to do this.

      – In which way are the ferrules prepared? The bamboo isn´t complete round. Are the outside of the male and the inside of the female ferule filed or sanded, so that they fit without any play together?
      A. From very careful observation of the two rods I have, it doesn’t look like there is any filing or sanding (I suspected they were sanded, but then I went to check on them), though there could be just a little bit of sanding, which is imperceptible. It seems like the pieces are selected to fit into each other just right! Then, a thin layer of lacquer is applied on the male side (the thinner segment above), and since the lacquer feels a little rubbery, this seems to provide the final “grip” for the male to be engaged in the female.
      To be honest, I do not yet know the exact details of how this is finished, but they really do not seem to be filed. And, they fit perfectly without any type of play. I’ll see if I can get some pictures taken of this if it will help you.

  2. Sebastiano says:

    Hi Daniel,

    Really enjoyed reading your artical and it’s inspired me to have a try myself!
    Please could you give me some details as to the internal and external diameters of each individual rod section and there approximate length?
    When you say the rods slot together with male and female joints the handle has which part, male or female?
    You mention that the rod is made of several different types of bamboo do you know what types they are? I’ve done some research and i’ve found 90+ species so if you’ve got an idea that would be fantastic!
    Thanks in advance for any help you can give.
    regards

    Sebastiano

    • Hi Sebastiano,
      The rod handle is normally the female area, which is also used to store the thinner segment (they alternate, so the handle will hold the 3 segment, and if it’s a 4-piece rod the second segment will hold the 4th).
      I do not know the species used in each segment, but my understanding is that at least 2 of the species are not really available, but rather grow in a small part of Japan. I will try to learn more about that in the future, but unfortunately don’t have too many of the specifics right now.
      The 3.7 meter, 4 piece rod I have is split as follows:
      Segment 1 (handle segment) = 48 inches (122cm), Outer diameter: 13.7mm>10.2
      Segment 2 = 48 inches (122cm), Outer diameter: 8mm > 7.25mm
      Segment 3 = 31 1/4 inches (79.38cm), Outer diameter 5.1mm > 4.9mm
      Segment 4 (tip) = 25 1/2 inches (64.7cm), Outer diameter 3.6mm > 2.2mm

  3. Eric says:

    Hey Daniel,

    Huge fan of all that you do! I’ve always crafted my own gear. So naturally making my own rod is the next step! Just a few questions:

    What were the different species of bamboo that were used for the rod segments? What properties made them a better selection for that section than others? Are there any good places in the states to get this bamboo or would it simply be best to hand select them?

    Thank you!

    Eric

    • Eric, thanks for the comment and following our blog.
      I finally learned the specific species the bamboo tenkara rods are made from when I visited a maker in Japan this year. I do not know their scientific name, just the named used in Japan.
      The tip is usually made with “Hoteichiku”
      The butt section is mae with “Yatake”
      And, often, the middle section is made with “Suzutake”
      I suspect other bamboo would work okay with the rods, but these are used by the long-time makers in Japan. Unfortunately I do not know of sources here. If I were to make them I would hand select bamboo that is as straight as possible and thin as you want your rod to be.
      Hope this helps.

      • Sibadna Sukalma says:

        Daniel, I know I’m a bit late to the conversation but, I just stumbled over it recently.
        If you, or anyone else, still wishes to know the exact types of the 3 aforementioned bamboo then…
        Hoteichiku= phyllostachys Aurea- Golden Bamboo & commonly called fishing pole bamboo. This bamboo is the one with the varigated butt end pattern. Grows to around 25ft.
        Yatake or yadake= pseudosasa Japonica, commonly called Japanese arrow bamboo. Grows to around 15 ft.
        Suzutake = sasamorpha Borialis and grows to around 6ft.

        The first two will stay evergreen in USDA GROW ZONE 7a and the last, zone 6.

        • Wow, that’s awesome information Sibadna! Thanks so much for sharing that! I and I’m sure other folks will really appreciate this.

          • Sibadna Sukalma says:

            Welcome!
            I figured it may be hard for any US based individual to attempt try making a traditional bamboo rod.
            I want to try making a rod and other crafts but, due to either not knowing the individual bamboo used or to find and buy unseen pre cut bundles from 1 distant supplier of the quality to make a rod or other traditional craft, I found myself at a loss. I tried to research and then plant my own bamboo groves.
            It takes at least 3 to 5 years to establish a bamboo grove before even thinking of picking and harvesting any from small starter plants. Most growers classify all 3 above types as runners to indicate they would spread 3 to 5 foot yearly and quickly overrun a city lot plot without the time consuming trench diggng and expensive rubber barrier application to contain them. I don’t live in the city and am within the evergreen grow zone so, I won’t have to cut dead/damaged 1 year stalks before covering with mulch for the winter.
            I will let you know how it worked out in 3 to 5 years, lol. My 3 plants arrived today. Shipping price was a killer for 3, 2 year old plants but, I feel the ends will justify it even if I’m not successful at rod making or find it as enjoyable as it looks. At least I could help someone acquire the 3 bamboo types needed without a lot of shipping or hassle in a couple years time. (Yeah, I’m probably going to regret spending the $$ but, it’s the journey, not the destination)

          • Indeed it is fairly difficult. Having access to a grove to select bamboo seems to be an important thing. Also, it was funny, many years ago I attended an event where an octogenarian was talking about her life. The moderator for the event asked her what was the most important lesson she could share with younger people, she responded “never plant bamboo, because it will spread and take over your whole yard.” Gotta be careful with that :)
            Keep us posted…. :)

  4. BJ Ayers says:

    I have a question, I have recieved through passing of a family member a fishing rod that I have no idea what it is, I have read the article and done some research on Tenkara rods and it’s the closest yet still the farthest away, what I have is two nested sections that hol a total of 3 pieces so 8 pieces total at around 2 and hals ft long so when assembl;ed it reaches rouhly 20 ft in length. it looks old , feels brittle, and has a diameter of approximately 1″ at its base. there is a asian symbol at the base of what would be the handle. I would like to know what it is that I have, what the symbols mean, and weather or not i need to insure it, i know that this was a prized piece of my uncles who served in WW2 and that more than likely this is the time period to which he aquired the item. any help greatly appreciated, thanks!

    • Hi BJ, it’s always tough to know much about those older rods. There are not that many tenkara “vintage” rods out there for what I have seen. The description you give me (20ft with 8 sections) makes me think it could be a one of a couple of style rods that are used for bait fishing in Japan. 20ft long normally makes me think of keiryu rods, but 1″ diameter at the base sounds very skinny for that.
      I don’t know if we can help much, but if you have any photos you could email us, we could see if we spot any clues.

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