Tenkara rods were originally made out of bamboo, unsplit bamboo. The Japanese angler always had the advantage of having, close to his home, wild bamboo. That allowed him to select each piece, which from the ground already looked like it would work as a perfect fishing rod.
We can say these rods were the predecessors of the modern telescopic rod, with alternating pieces being fit inside thicker segments for transport. Usually they were 3 or 4 piece rods, so a 12ft rod would be transported at about 3 to 4 ft in length. The bamboo rod being hollow also didn’t see a need for ferrules as we know them. The end of each segment was simple wrapped in something like silk to reinforce it. This comprised a ferrule of sorts, but it was a part of the bamboo, not separate piece.
Tenkara rods made out of bamboo are not telescopic, and pieces are difficult, if not impossible, to replace. Thus, tenkara bamboo rods have fallen out of favor in the last few decades, and not that many people use them nowadays.
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.
One of my favorite things about the rods may have been the handles crafted for them:
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).
Dr. Ichi Hashi shows us how to make a tenkara bamboo rodBecause the Japanese angler had at his disposal so much bamboo, he could hand-pick what he wanted and didn’t have to concern himself with “manufacturing” his bamboo tenkara rod by splitting it and then regluing it. Rather, he concerned himself with selecting the best possible bamboo, drying it for a long period of time (amateur tenkara rod makers let it dry for 2 years on average, professional bamboo tenkara rod makers have been known to let the bamboo dry for 10 years or more). Bamboo tenkara rods are typically made from 3 species of bamboo. The tip of the rod is made from “Hoteichiku” bamboo, the middle parts typically from Suzutake bamboo, and finally the butt section typically from Yatake bamboo (note, “take” is the Japanese word for bamboo). From there on he would proceed to drill the inside of each segment of bamboo to make it hollow, and thus lighter and able to accept the thinner segments.
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.
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.
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 they were found on the ground.