Interview with Shinichi Okada

Interview with Shinichi Okada
by Adam Trahan
Japanese translation by John Sachen

Like many of the people I meet, I found out about Shinichi Okada from a Facebook posting. It was one of his photographs and it was a picture of one of the processes in making a bamboo fly rod. I’ve made a few bamboo rods from raw materials and can appreciate the craft and the process. So I made a comment and Shinichi-san replied to the comment and we started a conversation. The end result was that we found out we have a lot in common with fishing although we live halfway across the globe. I asked Shinichi if he would contribute to Tenkara-Fisher in the form of an Interview and here we are about a year later…

Adam: Shinichi-san, it has been some time since we have communicated formally but the time is here! Thank you for being a part of Tenkara-Fisher. I think it is best to go over a few things for our readers and then the conversation between the two of us will be refreshed as well as helping the reader to become acquainted with our interests.

We both make bamboo fly rods and enjoy fishing them in a mountain stream. It’s a wonderful pursuit indeed. I came to making rods after a long history of chasing trout. In my passion of fly fishing, I began to wonder about making rods on my own and started to build graphite rods starting with a blank and used components that I purchased. I liked nice blanks from Sage and Thomas & Thomas but sometimes I didn’t like the stock components. I wanted a way that I could get the action of a blank that I liked and match it to the guides that I wanted in a placement that was customized by me. I want the function and form of the reel seat hardware to balance and place the mass where I wanted as well. Building a custom graphite rod was a great introduction for making bamboo rods from scratch. Learning to make bamboo rods actually lead me to meet many other rod makers that did the same thing and come to the craft nearly the same way.

“Shinichi-san, will you please tell us how you got into making bamboo rods?”

Shinichi Okada: The primary reason was the high cost made it prohibitive for me to buy bamboo rods. I began learning the process of making bamboo rods on December 1, 2008. When looking back, I began mountain stream bait fishing (keiryu) in 1991 and 3 years after learning to catch fish I taught myself how to fish using Tenkara. As there were hardly any other Tenkara anglers around, I relied on books and videos to learn and after about 6 years I became successful at catching fish. From that point until 2006 I continued bait fishing and Tenkara.

From time to time I would use fly fishing tackle but as I found it to be too much work, I would quickly go back to Tenkara fishing. However, at the end of the 2006 season, I went to a river with a fly fisherman who was an workplace friend and at that time I also fly fished with him. At that time I caught my first Iwana using a fly rod in a river. I promised myself beginning the next year to seriously learn fly fishing and not use use my Tenkara rod until I could proficiently catch fish with fly fishing. So, from the following year when I went to the rivers I only used fly fishing.

It was not so easy for me to catch fish, but with my experience casting with Tenkara I was able to cast without too much resistance. After venturing out again and again over a long while, I reached a certain level of proficiency by the time the 2007 season ended. When the season finished I heard some talk about an unusual casting technique from a friend, which led me to a fly shop called Fly-Inagaki in the city of Seto in Aichi prefecture. The shop's owner, Kawamoto san was the person who was known for his unusual casting. Since I had my own casting style, I listened to Kawamoto san and decided I wanted to learn his casting technique so in the following seasons I often went out to practice.

I had previously known of bamboo rods but I saw one for the first time at the Fly-Inagaki shop. I always wanted one of these rods but the price was too high for me to buy. The amount of work I was doing (civil engineering construction) at the time was quickly being reduced and the future did not look so promising so I decided to look for a job I could do outside of the construction industry, and it was at that time I decided to make bamboo rods.

Fly-Inagaki carries all the tools, materials, token cane and so forth for making rods, and regardless of materials, I understood Kawamoto san possessed much knowledge, experience and his provided supervision would be invaluable (he is also a Hardy certified casting instructor and advisor. Kawamoto san was an exclusive import agent for Hardy, Orvis, R.L. Winston and others, has many contacts in America and other countries who were manufactures, bamboo rod builders, friends and partners).

Taking all this into consideration, I attended a bamboo rod making class, and at that point I decided that I would like to become a skilled bamboo rod maker rather than just buy one. I discussed the idea with my wife and she gave me the approval I had hoped for so I approached Kawamoto san and he advised I aim for making a commercial rod by learning the process from the starting point. This was the beginning of my bamboo rod making.

With my father being a professional wood craftsman and combining my passion for making things and combining skills I learned from sculpturing furniture and working in civil engineering, I believed I had the skills needed for making bamboo rods. I made a few rods but then I changed jobs working for a different construction company and was soon thereafter transferred to work a long while in Tokyo. When working on a tunnel road development project, I experienced the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011 and after that project completed, I returned to Nagoya.

Being the only man in the house I contemplated many things and decided to quit my job. After this, I was involved with metal work and through vocational training I learned to operate a lathe and began experimenting with increasing the making of rod models (of course, while seeking advice from Kawamoto san) and prepared for the launch of my business over the next 3 years. Finally last year (June 2014) through the support of my wife I started a business called JADE (竹竿工房). We not only make fine split cane rods, but we also offer repair and remodeling services. Up until now we have been limited to rod repair and remaking and restoration for H.L. Leonard, E.F. Payne Rod Co., Hardy, Farlow, Pezon et Michel, R.L. Winston, Marc Aroner etc but now we offer reel repair services.

Adam: I bought my bamboo, Arundinaria Amabilis (Tonkin Cane) from Andy Royer. He is a bamboo broker that lives in the Northwest (America) Each year he goes to China and picks the bamboo culms to be shipped to America and then distributes the bamboo in bundles to the rod makers here. We pick and choose out of our bundles to get the best culms to make our best rods.

“How do you guys do it? What kind of bamboo do you use Where do you get it?”

Shinichi Okada: I use only tonkin cane. Other rod builders in Japan use Japanese bamboo (Madake, Hachiku, Yadake) among other materials, but since I want to make rods with tension so at this point I am not using Japanese bamboo. I have been buying Tonkin cane from Fly-Inagaki (but their stock is getting low and there are not many good choices remaining, though there were previously some high quality pieces) and a couple suppliers in Saitama and Oita prefectures. Besides the bamboo I have been getting from Fly-Inagaki, it is difficult for me to find the high quality bamboo I really want to use. Andy Royer knows well about one of the issues for sourcing good bamboo. His bamboo broker requires a minimum order of several hundred sticks at a time in order to reduce the unit cost when buying from Japan. I have a connection through Andy but this is not so easy. Additionally, the current relations between Japan and China is not so great, so I contemplate about how things will go. It is a difficult problem for me.

Adam: I’ve seen for myself, the high level of fly angler’s skills in the Alpine streams of Japan. I took a two week trip to the mountains around Takayama and toured around with a fly fisher as I fished Tenkara. My friend, Satoshi Miwa was using a quiver of bamboo and graphite fly rods and we stayed at Nafuji-san’s lodge, “RE-RISE” Nafuji-san is a Master Class fly angler as he ties all kinds of flys, makes bamboo rods, guides fly fishers from Japan and around the globe and built the fly fishing lodge from the ground up of his own design. He guided us on one day and on another, he just went fishing with the crazy American that was fishing Tenkara. It was not odd, it was as it should be, all of us fishing the way we wanted and sharing our time and skill together.

“I think Tenkara and fly fishing are the same as far as fly angling goes. Sure, there are obvious differences in the equipment but the two are closer than they are apart. What do you think?”

Shinichi Okada: Yes, I agree with your opinion. Long ago it was said that English fly fishing and Tenkara had the same system and interestingly enough the line used in Japan and England used horse hair (twisted horse tail hair) and use of silkworm guts for the tippet. I find the similarities very interesting. Of course there are drawbacks and advantages to each, but I think both are interesting and fun. It is my wish for everyone to try both. By doing so, I think there must be something that can be learned. Some purists will shy away from one type of fishing but I think this is their loss.

Adam: “I’m curious, do you fish from a lodge or do you fish Genryu? How do you go fishing, are your places near your house?”

Shinichi Okada: Usually I go for day trips from my home, travelling by car. With day trips, it is difficult to make it to the headstream. In my case, I rarely stay in lodges or inns when going fishing. Getting home by dinner time limits my time of evening fishing. When I stay overnight, I use camp sites or set up a tent along the river. When camping I get to eat whenever I decide. However, I only do overnighter’s a few times a year. I go to the headwater 1-2 times a year with a friend who lives nearby (he is a mountain climber specialist and has climbed most of Japan’s peaks, but he is currently more interested in fly fishing than mountain climbing).

We take 60-70 liter packs with our fishing equipment, tent, sleeping bags, food and alcohol weighing about 25kg and hike beyond the mountains to the headwater. We stay at least 2 nights and as long as 3 nights and 4 days. When reaching the headwater, there are no other people and it is enjoyable and refreshing to fish and camp. The fish are pure and beautiful and we can catch a lot of fish. We think it is a heavenly world. However, the reward only comes before and after the hike in and out carrying the heavy load.

Adam: I always enjoy knowing how my friends came to angling. I was taught by my Grandfather. He did not really go fishing but he knew it was something that I should do. He showed me a little bit about it on the ponds of our farm in Tennessee and in the streams of Arizona. He was the spark that got me started but I really learned from people that were better than me. I also learned on my own.

“Shinichi-san, who taught you to fish?”

Shinichi Okada: My first experience fishing was surf cast fishing in the ocean. My hometown is in the town of Nyuzen which is on the east side of the Kurobe river estuary in Toyama prefecture. From my home it was a 1 minute walk is the shore of the Sea of Japan, Kurobe river (Adam, I noticed you have a book on Kurobe river on your bookshelf, which is the same one near my hometown, but it is the river mouth) which is about 8 minutes away.

My dad often took me there while I was a young schoolboy (2nd-3rd grade) of 8-9 years old. My dad taught me all about casting, rigging, setting the bait, taking care of the reel and so forth. On my days off from school my friend and I would go by bait and fish along the coast near my home using my dad’s tackle. Even though Kurobe river was nearby I never fished there. I don’t think many people fished the rivermouth as I never saw people fishing there. I can’t remember the local fishing shop even carrying poles for river fishing. As humans are the animals of our environment, if we don’t see or hear about something then we have no interest in something we don’t know about. Thinking about it know, it was such a pity. I found out later that the river has many big Yamame, Iwana and Sakura Trout.

When I was in the 4th grade I learned about Jacques Cousteau and Jacques Mayol which led me to skin diving and I found little time to go fishing. By the time I graduated from high school and moving to Nagoya, I lost total interest in fishing as my focus was on music and scuba diving. As ocean fisherman were a nuisance to divers, I suddenly looked down on fishing. At the age of 30 I changed jobs and move to Gifu prefecture, and the company president liked mountain stream fishing and he took me Amago fishing the following Spring and this was the time I began mountain stream fishing. The company president taught me to river fish and let me use his equipment and on my first river fishing outing I caught 2 beautiful Amago. Those 2 Amago mark the starting point for me.

Adam: I’ve learned so much from the Japanese about Tenkara, Keiryu and the other fixed line disciplines. For the Japanese, it is really a specialty for each type of fish, there is a special rod and equipment. There are some anglers over here that take Keiryu rods and use them for Tenkara (fly fishing) casts to catch carp. They call it Tencarpa.

“Have you ever heard of anglers in Japan using equipment for mountain streams (Keiryu, Tenkara, Seiryu rods) for warm water species or using Tenkara rods in the ocean? I’m curious to understand if some anglers in Japan use Tenkara rods for other types of fishing.”

Shinichi Okada: Hmm, all I know is one guy who uses Tenkara rods for carp fishing. Some others fish for Oikawa (Pale Chub or Zacco). Downstream and in the ocean it is too wide for Tenkara lines and I don’t think is can be very effective. I have never seen or heard about Tenkara used in these environments.

Adam: Back to the fly fishing and Tenkara disciplines, the primary differences are obvious; fly rods have a reel and a variable length line where as Tenkara is a fixed line. I see that some people are using hollow tipped Tenkara rods to thread the line inside and out the tip. The systems that I have seen are all homemade and the small reel is not for pulling in the fish, it is to simply store the line when adjusting the length of the line. Personally, the idea of a zoom rod is a good choice for varying the line length and threading the line through the rod is a challenge. Most of the anglers that I see that do this system online in blogs and HP do not appear to be leading experts in Tenkara, they are enthusiasts but not masters of Tenkara.

“What do you think of these interline Tenkara rod systems? Are they worthy of developing further?”

Shinichi Okada: I think it is interesting. There are also people in Japan doing this. However, it cannot be used in the same way as fly fishing. We just want to avoid having several lines winding. Actually, I have thought about doing this myself. Being that the rod would need to be modified and a reasonably priced reel could not be found, I gave up thinking about it. It would also add significant weight.

I really think that Tenkara is the most ideal system. If the line length is insufficient, then simply changing to a longer line solves the problem. It is a small inconvenience. The lack of a reel can be supplemented by using your feet. You can get closer to the fish by polishing your stalking skills so that the fish are not startled and present your fly to the target area. Professional anglers have be known to say, ‘Tenkara is feet fishing’. It is also said that if your horse hair line is not long enough, you will scare the fish and won’t catch anything, and if you think you will be catching a lot of fish, then you will need to move along quite a distance while fishing and if bait fishing the same point for a long while, you will not be an efficient fisherman. Therefore, it is best to quickly move from point to point and bang away. That is how I approach the opportunity.

I think an inter line system is useful but strongly believe it is more efficient to use your feet and improve your stalking skills. Inter line systems may develop further but don’t you think using such a system for a full day would be tiring? I think the light weight is what gives Tenkara a strong position. If your interest is in using extended lines to fish over long distance, then carrying fly fishing tackle will be a more suitable choice. For someone like myself who fishes both types of rods, this is how I divide and conquer the respective objectives.

Adam: Because I enjoy Tenkara so much, I allow myself a little bit of time to think about the future of it. Not too much though, I am more interested in the past and the present. But when I think of the future of Tenkara, what comes to mind isn’t really a change in the system, rod line and fly, it’s more of an improvement in the materials. Better carbon fiber, line materials and such.

“Do you think Tenkara will change in the future?”

Shinichi Okada: Well, I have no idea and have never thought about it. I don’t think there will be much change with the system of having a rod with a lilian where the line is attached but year to year we will likely see more effective rod materials, building methods as well as new varieties of lines which improve the effectiveness. I think that kind of change would be sufficient. If possible, I would prefer if there were not too many big changes.

Adam: Looking back where I came from, fly fishing was something that I was always looking to improve for small streams. My favorite rods where a 0-weight at about 8’, a 3-weight at about 6’ and a 3-weight at about 8.5’ The 0-weight was my favorite all around rod but it was difficult in the bush with its light line and the length. The short rod was really fun and versatile because it handled bushy streams where accuracy was demanded of the angler. The long 3-weight was for letting it rip, long casts, and light presentations.

“What are some of your favorite rod lines and weights?”

Shinichi Okada: Frankly speaking, the only well known rod I have is a R.D. Taylor, 7 foot, 2 section #4. All the other rods are the ones shown to me at Fly-Inagaki as noted above. Fly-Inagaki is the number 1 shop in Japan for carrying a large amount of tackle. The shop has a department that buys and sells used tackle and they get daily shipments of rods, reels and so forth from all across Japan. Bamboo rods as well. Fly fishers from all across Japan are visiting their web site and when something popular shows up, it is sold immediately.

When a nice bamboo rod shows up, the shop owner Kawamoto san calls me immediately and I head to the shop to check it out, noting the taper values and node position for my reference. This is very helpful for me to improve my own rods. Some of the rods I have seen which I really like are the rods from Jim Payne and E. Garrison. I also like the P.H. Young rods. Especially nice ones include the Payne model 98, 96 and the Garrison 201. As for line weight, my preference is #3 and #4.

Adam: I love bamboo, my favorite rod being a 6’6” 4-weight by Dickerson, the 6611.

“Do you make rods from famous maker’s tapers? What are some of your favorite tapers and by whom?”

Shinichi Okada: My rods are made based on E. Garrison tapers, namely model 201. I also use models 193, 204E and 206 as references, but mainly use the 201 for converting for other models. The node position is converted based on the Garrison design. At the moment the 201 taper is my favorite. My calculation for conversion is based on his formula and I believe I have it right. For example, a 4 piece Headwater Series I began making last year, came from a friend’s request who I fish the headwater with. I based the design on the 201 taper and made the conversion to 6’03 #4 & 6’06 #4 and after that developed the 7’00 #4.

I am now working towards an improved action model, #3 model development. The focus is not the taper value, rather the flexibility of a Payne rod and its fine style. It is easy to find taper values for various rods in books and on the web but that is not the case with node placement values. I completely understand why this is the case which would be troublesome for the manufactures if a comprehensive data table became available. Even having the taper data to make rods, it is unlikely they will have the same action. This is due to the interdependency between the taper and the node configuration. It is therefore not possible to replicate a rod even with the accurate taper data. Given you have accurate data for these 2 factors, will it be possible to replicate a rod with the same action? I think it is widely understood that it is very difficult. Other factors involve the materials which define its strength making the replication all the more unlikely.

To replicate the action of a rod is based on the unique knowledge, experience of the individual rod maker and moreover is largely influenced by ones sensitivity or feeling. I think the extreme argument can be said that only Garrison can reproduce the action of his rods and only Payne can reproduce a Payne rod. Now, if this is the case, you would think that you should just make your own original rod, but in reality if we consider an old saying here in Japan (or China) that we should draw on past experiences. We should consider the past, and design based on characteristics you consider good and build upon that with the aim of getting as close as possible to the intended design to make your own original rod. This is how I approach it but I don’t have a good grasp on everyone’s theories and struggle with the realization of rods I envision, which is unfortunate.

Adam: I love fishing a silk fly line on a bamboo rod. I’ve used plenty and their cost to use ratio is actually better than a PVC line. The silk line just lasts longer, they take a little maintenance but man are they fun and beautiful to cast.

“Silk or Plastic? What is your favorite fly line?”

Shinichi Okada: Regretfully I don’t own any silk lines. I have cast them on occasion and they provide very flexible action. All my lines are PVC plastic. I really don’t have a specific favorite line. The #3,4,5 are double taper. The #5,6 are used for weight forward. I would say that most of my lines are from 3M and Hardy. I would like to test various lines to find the best match for the rod, but the high cost is prohibitive for me. For double-hand use, I have a few #9 lines. I also use various medium berry, short berry and shooting berry lines. Incidentally, all of them are floating lines.

Adam: I have really asked you some hard questions; I’m going to try something that I have never tried with any of my other Interviews.

“Shinichi, do you have any questions for me? Tenkara or bamboo? Any questions at all, please feel free.”

Shinichi Okada: Yes, I have a couple questions for you Adam. What was the reason and initial driving point behind you first making bamboo rods? Was there someone who taught you? Next, please let me know how you got into Tenkara? And, what do you think the contributing factor was for Tenkara to reach a worldwide following? What was the reason for this? How did you get all the Japanese language fishing books? Did you order them from Japan? That’s all my questions.

Adam: My decision to start making bamboo rods was two fold. 1.) It was a natural progression to start making rods as I had been fishing stream, river lake and sea and had a good foundation of fly fishing. I wanted to take my fishing to the next level and making graphite fly rods from pre-peg cloth on a mandrel was nothing short of impossible. Very few home makers in graphite to reflect on the process with. 2.) I was offered a position as a student or apprentice by Mike Shay. He invited me to his shop and I began a education on bamboo rod making. He helped me build a web site that collected many many bamboo rod makers to share in techniques. Much of that site was secret and august, it was so much fun learning from Mike and many other American bamboo rod makers.

Mike took me to a couple of the Colorado Rod Makers Reunion which was a bamboo rod making work shop. It was an amazing experience and I am still in awe of the makers that I meet.

I started making web sites on small stream fly fishing in 1996. In 97 I meet Yoshikazu Fujioka and started promoting his web site. He spoke of Tenkara but I did not realize it. At the time, I was gunning around on my small streams with a 1-weight Orvis rod hunting the largest trout in the smallest stream. As my skills in fly fishing increased, I became sponsored by Loop Fly Reels and helped organize the first version of Loop North American Team.

Sage began making the 0-weight and I switched over to that along with using a Loop "Midge" fly reel... Fast forward to my setting up a bamboo rod making shop and I wanted to make a 12' three piece split cane rod that simulated a "whole cane" rod that the line was tied to the tip to fish for catfish and sunfish in our family farm ponds. A fellow maker, Tom Smithwick told me about Daniel Galhardo and Tenkara USA. I purchased one of his rods and started this web site.

Since then, I have made friends with many Japanese Tenkara anglers and have researched much of the history of Tenkara with the help of those Japanese anglers. I had my friends purchase old Tenkara books by Yamamoto Soselki and Hiromichi Fuji and had them translate them into English. I wanted to know about Tenkara's history.

I approached Sakura to represent their line of Tenkara rods which they accepted my request. I believe I started importing the second Tenkara rod into America, the first Japanese made rod. I knew Tenkara was developed and perfected for decades before Daniel had introduced it to America and the world. I found out from Yuzo Sebata that he had come to America in 1992 with Toshiba EMI and produced a video of Tenkara fishing on the most famous fly fishing rivers in the American West.

I believe this was the first time that Tenkara was introduced to America but the timing was not right. The media did not pick up on Sebata-san and his version of fly fishing. There was no money to be made by it and with no media support or rod sales in America, there was no way to continue to spread the good word of Tenkara.

Fly fishing continued to grow in popularity and the movie, "A River Runs Through It" came out that same year that Sebata-san visited. Fly fishing was taking OFF!!! But it was not time for Tenkara to be popular, the planets did not align for Sebata-san in America, many things were working against Tenkara to become popular, mainly the $ that was in fly fishing and the movie making it popular.

In 2009 when Daniel introduced his company, fly fishing was on the decline with high prices and the complexity of learning. The Internet was gaining popularity, fly fishing magazines where declining, the distribution and representation of fly rod companies rods was choked by middle men (so to speak) fly fishing was not really growing and was just treading water. Daniel's Tenkara was primed for success, the timing was right and Daniel did an excellent job at bringing a couple of his competitors with him.

In short, the Internet and his skills in creating good content online, describing the simplicity of Tenkara and then supporting it with his web site, his hard work in building the community and others like myself sort of competing but also contributing to the knowledge base all helped with the success of building the Tenkara wave. I believe the second wave of Tenkara is upon us now, the wave of competition and growth.

Timing and hard work by Daniel Galhardo are the two biggest contributors to the success of Tenkara in America. Those things and the history of it in Japan. The books, the living masters like Ishigaki sensei, Demon Oni, Hiromichi Fuji and Yuzo Sebata's work in Tenkara. It all adds up but I still say it was all timing and hard work by Daniel that got the ball rolling.

Adam: I would like to offer you this opportunity to say anything you want to our readers.

“Thank you very much for your time.”

Shinichi Okada: No problem. Thank you very much. I am sorry that my answers are so long. Actually I have many more things on my mind I would like discuss with you but for now, we will draw the line here. The translation work for you will be challenging. I have been involved with Tenkara for many years and have enjoyed the world of fly fishing. I still keep one foot firmly planted in the world of Tenkara. I don’t think I will ever become an expert fly fisherman. I am very happy to see Tenkara be recognized and approved around the world which makes me feel proud and I hope that more and more people can enjoy Tenkara fishing. I am very thankful to you Adam for giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts with the fisherman around the world. I also appreciate the Tenkara-Fisher community who patiently read the articles. Domo Arigatou Gozaimashita. I wish everyone has a great Tenkara experience tomorrow.

This interview was originally published on March 21st, 2015