“Is it not delightful to have friends coming from distant quarters?”
- Confucius, China, 551-479BC
American Tenkara Fisher, Japanese Fly Fisher
Story by Satoshi Miwa
Adam arrived at Nagoya Airport in the previous evening. “At last”, I thought, when he appeared from the customs gate at the airport. He had planned this visit for years, but the huge earthquake that occurred in Japan in 2011 had made him postpone his plan. When I first heard from him that he would like to come to Japan to fish with me, I thought he was just being diplomatic. For me, it seemed crazy that a trout fisherman from the U.S. comes to Japan to fish trout. Trout in this country is generally small. I guess many of you know it from my posts (Well, …it is also true that I’m not good enough to catch many big ones, though.). The nature itself in this country is also small as well as the streams where trout dwell, and the scenery, though beautiful, is not so spectacular as you find in famous trout countries like the Mountain West of the U.S. He was serious, however, and materialized his plan steadily. He had a desire to stay at an old Japanese house in Shirakawago, which is a famous sightseeing destination and very crowded almost like in Tokyo on weekends. Instead, I suggested Gokayama, which is close to Shirakawago, but much quieter. Since Shirakawago/Gokayama is in the central mountain region, I planned to fish in this area accordingly, and reserved ReRise as our base. In addition, I had suggested him to come in early June, which is the best season for iwana fishing.
Since Nagawa runs through a village, it receives a fair amount of fishing pressure, but the season had just started for this river and a lot of fish still remained. Besides, the majority of people who fish this stream are fly fishers, who usually don’t kill their catch, whereas in many Japanese trout streams, fish are quickly taken away by bait fishers after the opening day. In the morning, fishing was tough; there were frequent responses from fish but we were rather played by trout than we played them. Nevertheless, both of us caught some nice fish in the end. He was very tired in the evening, since it was midnight in his home. I fished alone while he was resting in the car and caught some more. At dinner, we drank a toast with beer to Adam’s first trout in Japan. Nahuji-san, the owner of the inn, added delicious tempura of wild vegetables he had picked for us to our dinner. What a wonderful night! We still had four days of fishing, and they would be weekdays.
On the next day, Nahuji-san took us to one of his secret streams. I had asked him for guided fishing for the day. The stream itself is not a secret at all. There cannot be a secret stream in this small, densely populated country. What was secret was the information that the fishing was very good there then. At the gate of the logging road along the stream, there was already a car for fishing. It seemed the person(s) of the car hiked further upriver, so we started fishing just after a short walk from the gate. The bottom of the stream is rather clean and not very slippery, probably because the stream is covered with thick forest that limits the sunshine within a short period of time, which in turn limits the growth of moss on the bottom.
Iwana were plenty, and we took turns or “leapfrogged” to fish. At times fish were not interested in my dry fly on the water surface, particularly in pools with smooth, glassy surface. In such places, Nahuji-san gave priority to Adam. The fish that showed no interest in a surface fly were often seduced by Adam’s underwater tenkara flies, and he caught a lot more fish than I did on this day. On the other hand, Nahuji-san let me fish occasional large pools where relatively long casts were required to reach good spots. Average size of the fish was large (in the Japanese standard, of course). I caught one fish over 12 inches, and lost some very nice ones as usual.
As I wrote before, a fish over 12 inches (or 30 cm) is considered to be a trophy by Japanese trout fishers. Adam also caught one that was apparently over 12 inches, but, as a fisherman from the U.S., he wasn’t interested in 12 inch-size at all and released it immediately giving me no time to ask him to let me measure the trout.
On day 3, we went over a mountain pass to a stream where yamame and amago were also possibilities as well as iwana, since we had caught only iwana till then. Nahuji-san joined us also on this day and took us to the stream “as a friend”, which meant he would also fish with us. At the stream, we inspected water from some bridges, and each time found some fish staying in pools.
I thought they were all ours. Nevertheless, Nahuji-san told us that the stream had been well fished by many good fly fishers and that the trout were well educated. Indeed, it was more difficult than expected to entice trout to take flies on that day. Adam and I only caught a few fish, though I caught one amago fortunately. Well, there are good times and bad times.
That’s fishing. Nahuji-san probably caught more than 10 fish, both iwana and yamame. Even in a pool covered with overhanging trees, he could make very low and long distance casts. At times, he picked up a long line from water surface by a strong roll cast, and after one towering circular back cast to avoid the trees on his back, made a long forward cast without a false cast. It’s always good to watch an expert working.
On day 4, we left ReRise and headed for Gokayama. On our way, we did some shopping in the city of Takayama. We also stopped by a river to fish, but fishing wasn’t very good. I saw a rising fish under a small dam, and after a few casts, the fish took my fly. It was ugui (Japanese dace, Tribolodon hakonensis). At the river, I parked the car on a causeway. When we were leaving the river, I drove back carelessly, and the rear tires slipped down from the bank. The car stopped without being turned over, fortunately, but, because it’s front-wheel drive, I couldn’t move the car. The front tires were lifted up from the ground. The left front tire was almost 2 feet up in the air. I was upset, but then Adam got out of the car, put his both hands on the corner of the left front of my car, and put his weight on his hands, and lo and behold, the front of my car went down by his weight and the front tires regained grip. I immediately started the engine and the car moved slowly forward carrying Adam on the corner of the hood, getting out of danger.
We stayed next two nights at the hamlet of Ainokura, which is in the Gokayama region. It was a kind of homestay experience and the house we stayed was a very traditional, straw-thatched building, as well as most of the other houses in the village. The master told that the house was 300 years old.
On Friday, the last day of our fishing trip, we met a master tenkara fisher, Masami Sakakibara and his wife Coco, as planned. He is known as “tenkara no oni” in Japan. “Oni” (pronounced as oh-nee) originally means a monster that is a symbol of power, but in this case, it means a person who is extremely enthusiastic in something. The word “oni” gives you impressions like “stubborn” or “mulish”, but he turned out to be a very nice, sociable person. In the morning, we watched him fishing tenkara with a dry fly.
This is because he wanted to show us where and how he controls the fly: he told us there was no difference in where to cast regardless of the fly type you use. His fishing or his movement looked very smooth and efficient. The part of the stream was designated as “no kill” and bait fishing was prohibited. Because such a place is scarce in Japan, the stream attracts many fly fishers, and fish are very spooky accordingly. Even Sakakibara-san caught only one fish with a dry fly while we were watching for about 1 hour, though he fished underwater with an ordinary tenkara fly for the last hole and immediately caught a trout. After his demonstration, he let Adam fish. It was a private lesson for Adam. There was also a guy who is a disciple of Sakakibara-san. He spoke very fluent English, and he interpreted what Sakakibara-san said to Adam. I guess Sakakibara-san had called him for Adam. I fished by myself with a nymph, because it was obvious that the trout in the stream weren’t in a mood to rise to the water surface. I caught some nice iwana by the lunch time, when it was starting to rain. We sat in a garage of a family who are friends of the Sakakibaras, talked about tenkara over a gourmet lunch (with beer) which was prepared by Coco. After lunch, I returned to fishing, while others were still talking, waiting for the rain to stop. It rained hard at times, but I caught several nice native iwana and some amago that had apparently escaped from a nearby fish farm. (There supposed to be no stocking of fish in the stream.) The rain had stopped by the time I quit fishing.
When I came back, Sakakibara-san was still giving a lesson to Adam. Even in my view, Adam was casting much more smoothly than before. Sakakibara-san said if Adam could fish with him throughout a whole season, he would become a master tenkara fisher. Also, Sakakibara-san said the “evening rise” in the main stem of the river would be great, but unfortunately, we had to go back to Gokayama, since we had a reservation for dinner. He said he wanted to show Adam how he fish a large river with tenkara during the evening rise. Indeed, they seemed to have a great time in that evening; URL. Adam told me meeting with Sakakibara-san was the highlight of the trip. It was also a very stimulating experience for me.
On Saturday, we drove to my house, and on Sunday, I took Adam to the Ninja Museum, and then to Nagoya station, where he left for Tokyo alone.
I’m not sure what impressions he had about the fishing or the overall experience in his trip, though I hope all his memories during his stay are good ones.
At least I am sure what impressed him most in Japan, however. He said he would definitely buy it for his house. Want to know what it is? Ask Adam.