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.
We’re happy to share that the film has been completed and is opening soon in several theaters. I had the pleasure of watching a pre-opening showing a couple of months ago and it is a touching story that is very well told by the film-makers and those who tell us their personal stories.
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:
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.
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.
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.