Interview with Keiichi Okushi

Interview with Keiichi Okushi
by Adam Trahan

Keiichi and I meet online in January of 2013. He approached me on Facebook after seeing one of my posts about a Japanese book that I have in common with his friend Jun Maeda. He asked me if I liked Tenkara and we became friends and continued our conversation there. Keiichi immediately began to give me tips and hints to the secrets of his Tenkara. We are about the same age and we also have other common interests. Some of our early conversations were about music...

The pictures and stories that I have online about my visit to Japan prompted Keiichi to invite me to visit him at his home. “Adam, just like the pictures in Headwaters Keiryu magazine. We will camp and fish.” And I knew at that point that our long distance friendship would become a real one where we will fish together in his country or I will host a trip for him here in mine.

Keiichi owns a fly shop; he does other types of fishing but mostly fly-fishing and Tenkara. He asked me if I would assist him setting up shop for the American Tenkara market of which I did and now the shop is doing good business to our American friends and beyond…

So without any further fan fare, I would like to begin our interview.

Adam: Keiichi, I went back and looked at the beginning of our conversations at Facebook. It’s all on there. We are almost two years old now in our friendship. You approached me with some tips and reading deeper, I forget how much we have in common. Now that we know more about each other, I would like to ask a little bit deeper questions about fishing.

“Please tell us a little about where you grew up and who taught you to fish.”

Keiichi Okushi: I was born and grew up in Mito. Mito is the capital city of Ibaraki prefecture located 100km north east of Tokyo. It is the big city but we can go to the Pacific Ocean in 15 minutes to the east by car, and there are low mountain ranges about one hour's drive to the north. Yes, We were blessed with decent nature.

Fishing was a common hobby of father and me. Father taught me coarse fishing when was about 6 years old. It was the beginning of my long fishing life. As I became to be able to swim, I was allowed to go fishing alone in nearby river and pond when I was 8 years old. After that, I did carp fishing in lakes or bigger river, saltwater fishing. When I was in my 20s I was away from fishing once but started fishing with father again when I was 30 years old. This fishing became a thing that dictate the subsequent my fishing life. It was mountain stream fishing with flies. It was a meeting with fly fishing.

Adam: My Grandfather taught me the basics of it.

I’ve read your “Genryu Fishing” story, keeping up with it at Tenkara-Fisher with much interest. I’ve learned a lot with each installment and I look forward to more but I must tell you this, you are not confusing but the language barrier and the different types of fishing are a little confusing. Please allow me to ask you a different way to clear up my confusion.

If you could describe the gear and techniques used in these terms: Tenkara, Keiryu, Seiryu, Honryu, Genryu and any others in this genre? I’m familiar with each but I have been looking for an excuse to ask and have all of them in one spot.

For instance, if I were to answer about Tenkara; “Tenkara is fixed line fishing in mountain streams from headwaters to the mainstream. Rods are typically telescoping from 2.7 to 4.5m, level line or furled lines are used with artificial flys.

Genryu is mountain headwater stream fishing whether it be fly, keiryu or tenkara."

"Can you give us a basic description?"

Keiichi Okushi: Basically Keiryu, Genryu, Honryu and Seiryu are words that express a part or form of rivers.

Keiryu : Mountain stream.

Genryu : Headstream. Most upper part of a river. Upper part of Keiryu.

Honryu : When two or more of the rivers are joined, the flow that forms the most fundamental.

Seiryu : Pure water flow, a river that has very clear water. But when we say Keiryu-zuri (Keiryu Fishing) or Honryu-zuri (Honryu Fishing), it has slightly different meanings.

Tenkara-zuri : (Tenkara Fishing) Traditional Japanese fly fishing. Japanese fly fishing using only a rod, line and fly mainly in Keiryu or Honryu. We mostly use telescoping carbon fiber rods, and rarely some people use bamboo rods.

Keiryu-zuri : Fishing (Tenkara fshing, Fly fishing, Bait fisng, Lure fishing) done in Keiryu area. Mainly Iwana, Yamame fishing.

Honryu-zuri : Fishing done in Honryu. If you say Honryu-zuri, this Honryu means big stream like lower part of Keiryu or middle part of a river. Tenkara fishing, Bait fishing, Fly fishing and Lure fishing all can be Honryu-zuri, but Honryu-zuri originally has strong image of bait fishing.

Genryu-zuri : Fisning (Tenkara fshing, Fly fishing, Bait fishing, Lure fishing) done in Genryu area. Mainly it is Iwana fishing in central and north east of Japan. Also it is Yamame fishing in south west of Japan.

Seiryu : I usually do not say Seiryu-zuri. Seiryu means clear current and a river which has clear water. It does not mean a part of a river, but some people mean Seiryu for middle part of river where we can fish Ayu or Yamame. So Ayu fishing or Yamame fishing can be said Seiryu-zuri.

I still feel a sense of incongruity.

Adam: I really do appreciate it; this has been something that I’ve wanted to ask you to detail for me since you started the Genryu story.

Recently, I’ve read Daniel Galhardo introduce a word: “gyakuyunyu” This is something that originated in Japan, lost it’s popularity and became popular in another country and then Japan again embraces it and it becomes popular again in Japan.

Tenkara is a good example of gyakuyunyu.

That being said, I now can address something that I have been pointing at for the last 5 years. I’ve observed fly fishing in Japan since 1996 when I meet Yoshikazu Fujioka online and began promoting his web site, “Trout and Seasons of the Mountain Village” Like anything I am interested in, I began to study fly fishing in Japan back in the late 90’s. From afar, I could see that Japan was much like America with all the famous “American brands” being represented. Much of the Japanese people that I saw online and in Japanese magazines was dressed in the American fly-fishing fashion of the advertisements. I see much commercialism in Japan’s representation of fly-fishing in your media just as I do in America.

In contrast to this, in America, many of the people that I find very knowledgeable about fly-fishing do not look like a magazine advertisement. Yes, they may have the waders of a couple of years ago and a dirty vest and a well used hat, old equipment, things that fly fishers have but they are not outfitted in the latest equipment.

I’ll try to explain a little more.

I know fishing is more normal to the culture of the Japanese people. A larger percentage of Japan’s people have fished for a meal and fishing is much more popular to a greater percentage of the population in comparison to the American public.

I should tell you, I have great respect for the people of Japan and the country itself. I know for a fact that Japan’s people are much more knowledgeable in comparison to American anglers as a whole. So with all due respect I ask this question.

“Do you feel that Japan has lost its identity in fly-fishing with the proliferation of Western gear and fashion stereotype? I can hardly tell the difference in the Japanese and American fly fisher and it’s not all about function.”

Keiichi Okushi: Basically Gyakuyunyu = re-importation is a word that is used for products. It was not the word that is used for actions like fishing. OK I understand it. Nowadays even we Japanese people use Gyakuyunyu for actions sometimes. I can understand what you are meaning, but still Tenkara Fishing has been done in Japan without interruption, so with this situation we do not say Tenkara fishing was re-imported from foreign countries. We should say that Tenkara fishing became popular overseas and it was noted again in Japan.

Well, concerning the main subject Fly fishing, we imported Fly fishing from USA and UK mainly from 1960s. In those days Old Japanese fly fishers wanted to wear fishing cloths completely same as Western fly fishers and aimed at exactly the same tackles, and it is all same now. In other words identity of Japanese Fly fishing is almost same as western Fly fishing.

Daiwa, Shimano and other Japanese manufacturers make many fly fishing rods, reels, gears but they are mostly following the Western styles.

If there is little thing which is Japanese, for instance when we do fly fishing in Genryu area, we do not wear waders or fly fishing vests. We wear Genryu fishing style cloths or Sawanobori wears. This is because we take clothes that match the climate of Japan.

Adam: Also, I have always made sure that my writing on Tenkara has been central to its origins in Japan. For me, Tenkara is Japan’s contribution to fly-fishing and the fishing culture. By far, I believe that Tenkara is much more pure to fly fishing than Western fly-fishing with a reel. Tenkara just isn’t popular in the media but that is changing.

Please let me explain some more (again) so that you might understand.

I believe that the media i.e. magazines and the editorial choices found within these magazines do not reflect a balance. Magazines are driven by sales and advertising is a big portion of the money that is coming into the magazine.

What you see in the magazine is NOT a clear reflection of what naturally occurs in the fly fisher, especially the expert. The editors pick and choose their content to reflect advertising, it is like a money engine that is always idling. People buy magazines for the content but also to find out what they can buy that is new. It is natural for people to want good equipment but the media is powered by the advertising money engine.

A top of the line fly reel with so few parts, it is very minimal in comparison to the top of the line spin or bait casting reel and the fly reel costs a whole lot more. The best composite fly rods are approaching a thousand dollars. The advertising engine has people believing that you have to have the best equipment in order to perform at your best, to catch the largest and most fish.

It’s killing the growth of fly-fishing.

Not all people are independent thinkers. They just go to the fly shop and look at the magazines in order to learn the equipment. Fly-fishing is not easy to get into and it is very expensive and it doesn’t have to be.

I believe it is this reason that fly-fishing in America is on the decline.

The Internet has helped stop progress to some degree, it reduced many of the small community fly shops with the large availability of online shopping with discounted prices on expensive equipment.

Tenkara by design is simple, utilitarian. The skill of the angler is more important than the equipment. The equipment is designed to enhance skill and it is easy to learn, even alone a person can learn quickly. There is much more “fishing” in Tenkara than fashion and for me, that is important.

Tenkara is really more about fishing and it is Japan’s contribution to the fly-fishing culture.

A comparison would be how snowboarding saved the skiing industry. It was this little wild child in skiing in the early days but now it has grown to help save and maintain growth of ski and mountain winter destinations.

I believe Tenkara is doing the same thing for fly-fishing. I’m not so sure how many will go on to fish a reel, but I do know the community will need basic fishing equipment to support Tenkara.

Keiichi, I hope this gyakuyunyu of Tenkara continues to grow. I love my country but I feel that it is important to give credit where credit is due. I feel Tenkara is much more “fly fishing” than Western Fly Fishing and Tenkara is Japanese.

I am beating a dead horse.

“What do you think about it?”

Keiichi Okushi: The thing you want to point out about fly fishing is right. The information that media such as magazines provided to us is skewed for propaganda, and prices of tackles are getting more and more expensive and advertising articles for selling those tackles incite readers more and more. Similar things can be seen often in Japan.

In recent years in Japan, fly fishing population has decrease greatly. It can be considered that the captioned thing have become one of the major causes. I think Tenkara fishing is, by its simple tackles and simple fishing method, the fishing that you can enjoy without spending the money and time than fly fishing. I hope that Tenkara fishing will spread to the world more as one of the categories of fly fishing.

I think it is great if many of Japanese anglers re-recognize the goodness of Tenkara fishing by looking at Tenkara fishing spreading to the world, and it makes us to inherit the fishing culture to the future.

More than anything, I feel very honored that our loving Japanese fishing will spread to many anglers of the world.

Adam: I would like to talk to you about Yuzo Sebata. This interview is about you and you and Sebata-san do a little fishing.

Some people have a sensei, a person that is in a teacher role, others use the term master, which I see, is the same thing.

“How do you relate to Sabata-san?”

Keiichi Okushi: My relationship with Yuzo Sebata is not very long. Actually our relationship was started about a little before I got to know Adam-san. Of course I knew him since long time ago because he was very famous person among us who love Genryu fishing. He was our hero.

We started our relationship by Facebook. One day I found that Sebata-san was doing Face Book. I normally do not request to the people that I have never met especially famous people, but I had a request immediately because it was Sebata-san. Then Sebata-san kindly send me message and we began to communicate frequently. We have hit it off in that both of us love Genryu fishing very much and our birthplaces are close.

After that I joined Sansai picking & party that was organized by Sebata-san, and we planned Genryu fishing trip twice in the last summer, but unfortunately both trips were cancelled once due to Typhoon and once because of Sebata-san’s backache.

Also just the other days I visited him in the old mountain village house and had Sebata-san’s mushroom cuisines.

I think his experiences of Genryu fishing, skills of Tenkara fishing and knowledge about mountains are surprisingly rich. I know nobody like him. Despite of it, I feel most wonderful thing of Sebata-san is that he treats everybody as a friend. So there are always many people gathering around him.

I really hope that I will be able to go Genryu fishing trip with Sebata-san next season. Sebata-san is the hero of Genryu fishing and irreplaceable friend that I have met in my life.

Adam: I really like what I read and how Sebata-san lives his life. I enjoy his interests in mountain life.

“Can you tell me who the masters of Tenkara are now in Japan?”

Keiichi Okushi: It depends on the fishing method or fishing field, but firstly In terms of spreading Tenkara fishing, which was hidden technique of mountain fishermen, to general fishers, it would be Sebata-san. He produced Daiwa’s Tenkara rods of the originator period. He is also the pioneer of Genryu fishing. He is the man who opened up the headwaters of untracked for fishing.

To talk about level line fishing it would be Dr. Ishigaki. I think Mr. Amano, Mr. Sakakibara and Mr. Yoshida are very famous too.

I personally liked Mr. Keigu Horie. He was probably the first man who used western dry flies for Tenkara fishing. It worked well. Many fishers entered to Tenkara fishing from his style. It was easy for fly fishers to start Tenkara fishing. I am one of them.

Adam: Outside of Japan, we have a few guys in the media that write about tenkara. The write about their own experiences, their version of tenkara and they sell a little equipment. In America, our tenkara blogs are largely centered in commerce. It seems to be a part of the recipe, the reason to write about it. I see a lot of Japanese blogs on tenkara being more like diaries. Where people are going to fish, what they fixed for lunch, the friends they went with. I far prefer the Japanese blogs even though I cannot read them very easy. The Japanese blogs are more fishy.

“If you have looked at the American blogs, even this one, what do you think? Are we doing a good job or are we too commercialized?”

You are such a good guy, not a good question for you but will you try?

Keiichi Okushi: This is a very difficult question for me, because I have not read so many blogs of foreign Tenkara fishers. I am sorry about that. Anyway I agree with you Adam-san. Japanese fisher’s blogs are more like diaries. Do you think blogs of foreign Tenkara fishers are more about tackles or fishing methods or techniques? Even so, I think foreign Tenkara fishers do not have experiences of long years and deep knowledge about Japanese fishing that we have cultivated from childhood. So for those foreign anglers, it is very meaning to transmit and exchange information about tackles or fishing methods.

Adam: I didn’t mean for your interview to be a comparison of Japanese and American fishing culture but the comparison and contrast is all about the players on the same team.

Both you and I have a common love in music. In my life, I live the music. When I was growing up in the 70’s, I was doing a lot of skateboarding and the music of that was hard rock. Led Zepplin, Jimi Hendrix and the like. I had long hair, hippy clothes and I looked the part. Later on at the turn of the decade, punk rock emerged and it was the Sex Pistols, Devo and others, it was punk rock attire for me then too. A little later, Duran Duran and New Wave and I got to dress up a little. What I’m getting at is that music imprints a time period with me. I went to clubs and concerts and music had fashion influence on what we wore and the styles we chose. Albums have memories attached of what I did at the time they came out.

Last summer when I visited your country, I had the newest Daft Punk album going during a lot of my trip. On the shinkansen, I listened to it and to Frank Ocean “Orange” album. Music is so important to memories, it’s important at the time I am listening but even more so in the memories imprinted.

“Keiichi, what is music to you? I ask because I want to know what your perspective is since we enjoy much of the same music”

Keiichi Okushi: Oh, music! OK. Music is one of my most important hobbies. I would say it was a part of my life if I were younger.

I had my first music revolution when I was 15 or 16 years old. Some of close friends and I liked listening to British rock music then. It was punk rock generation. I liked The Clash or The Stranglers, but not Sex Pistols. Afterwards I moved to 60’s music. I liked The Who, not The Rolling Stones or The Beatles. I also once loved progressive rock such as Pink Floyd or King Crimson, and I still listen to them sometimes. There were some good Japanese bands in those days. I like reggae too but only old ones.

I think rock music used to have much power to the people. Music was not only music. It also led our fashion and influenced our lifestyle. I think it was only until late 70’s.

When listening to nostalgic music occasionally, the memories of the time I have been listening to those songs revive one after another. In that sense, I think music is necessary for my life.

Adam: Alright alright, let’s get back to Tenkara.

Do you think Americans are contributing to the progression of Tenkara or are we just re-inventing it for ourselves? I see a whole lot of different directions but it all still adds up to a rod, a line and a fly. People are using different equipment and fishing broader fishing areas but I’m not so sure if we are doing anything differently or better.

What I’m getting at is the progression of Tenkara as a fishing form.

“Is the new wave pushing Tenkara advancement or are we just reinventing fishing?”

Keiichi Okushi: Firstly, it is no doubt that the American anglers have popularized the Tenkara fishing in the world, but I do not know well if the American anglers have contributed to the progression of Tenkara fishing. On the other hand, I am quite sure that the American anglers or the European anglers will contribute to the progression of Tenkara fishing in the future. I guess you are just like on the testing stage of Tenkara fishing now. You are just studying and valuing Tenkara tackles, line systems and technic of Tenkara fishing.

Adam: Care to look into the future? I always say, “If you want to know what someone is going to do in the future, you only have to look at their past.” With Tenkara, have we seen our future?

“Do you think it will be more of the same? Are we going to improve the techniques? Do you think the equipment will get any better?”

Keiichi Okushi: I think the basic technique of Tenkara fishing will be same in the future. Probably I am hoping so, but on the other hand the equipment of Tenkara fishing will be improved in steps in the future.

We have been improving the equipment for Tenkara fishing in Japan. Long time ago Tenkara fisher was using one piece bamboo rod, but many years later a profession of fishing rod craftsmen was born and they invented multi-joint type bamboo rods. In 60s a big fishing tackle company made fiberglass Tenkara rods and it was take place to carbon rods in time. We can see same kind of evolution on the Tenkara lines. First it was furled horse tail hares, and later some anglers tried cotton line. Then fishing tackle companies made furled nylon lines and fluorocarbon level lines after that. I think this kind of progressions of equipment was very good thing. Tenkara fishing has become easy and comfortable thing and many people can feel free to take up.

The equipment of Tenkara fishing have been improved very much in many years, but basic style and method of Tenkara fishing has not been changed. I hope it will be same in the future.

Adam: You enjoy camping and hiking to go fishing in the mountains, I do too, I want to do more but I only end up going a couple of times per year. We have a year round season, you have a season and an off-season.

“What do you do in the off season?”

Keiichi Okushi: Fishing season for Keiryu in my fishing areas is from 1 April to 30 September. In some rivers we can start from March or even earlier. We also have special area where we can fish nearly all year round. I sometimes go there in off season.

I rarely go to the ocean for fly fishing for Sea-bass or bait fishing for other fish.

In recent years I feel I got older, so I take more exercise in the winter time as the training for Genryu fishing in the summer time. I ride a road bike and jog in between work.

I sometimes do a day hike to the mountains where no snow.

Adam: I’ve enjoyed creating this interview of you, thank you very much for submitting to it.

“I would like to offer you this opportunity to write about anything you want.”

Keiichi Okushi: I am afraid I am just an ordinary Genryu fishing enthusiast, not like Tenkara masters appeared on this site. So I thank you very much for giving me this opportunity of this interview.

I once lived in England for a couple of years when I was a student, and then I worked in overseas travel business for many years, actually I still work as travel coordinator now.

When I was on my 20s, to visit various overseas countries was my most favorite thing. The best travel for me was to visit foreign countries, but since I was past the 30 year old, the more I travelled foreign countries, the more I began to notice anew the Japanese beauty. It was history, food culture, architecture, and the most beautiful thing for me was the nature of Japan. I started Keiryu fishing around that time. For me, to wade upstream one beautiful mountain stream chasing Iwana and Yamame was just like travelling one country.

So, I felt really happy when I learned that the Japanese Tenkara fishing, that was nurtured in the beautiful rivers in Japan, had been recognized by many anglers around the world.

I thought that it was good if I could help those anglers of overseas even a little, and I opened a small web-shop for Tenkara fishing tackles. I would like to continue to introduce very good Japanese fishing equipment through this shop.

In addition, I think it will be great if we can create such a program that we guide the foreign anglers to the mountain streams in Japan someday in the future. If foreign anglers around the world and Japanese anglers have the opportunity to interact in the mountain stream in Japan, it will be wonderful. Maybe it is now my dream.

In the last place, more than anything, I would like to say to Adam-san and all the readers “Thank you very much for having interest in our fishing culture and beautiful nature of Japan.”

Adam: Thanks again my friend.

This interview was originally published on November 13th, 2014