What is Tenkara? Who the Hell Knows?

After a lengthy string of threads and conversations about what tenkara is, how it is to be done, how it is done in Japan, I came up with what I hope is a working definition of one of the many versions of tenkara as it is practiced in Japan by some master tenkara anglers and their students.

This is the most commonly understood definition of modern tenkara as practiced in Japan used in the United States. It is not the only definition of tenkara in Japan. There are tenkara methods that use multiple flies, modified keiryu rods, and a whole bag of other techniques that are just coming to light here in America.

When it comes to the definition of the word tenkara, none of the current recognized tenkara masters in Japan really even knows the etiology of the word. It just is. They accept it as such. The best english interpretation of the kanji tenkara is "from heaven".

Modern tenkara (post 1970) is a system of fishing skills and equipment that has come to be based on a telescopic carbon fiber or carbon/fiberglass matrix rod with cork, wood, bamboo, EVA foam or other grip added to the butt section to make a handle for more comfortable casting. The lines used are twisted or furled lines made from monofilament nylon, nylon thread, fluorocarbon, and most recently spectra and kevlar. Level lines made from fluorocarbon or nylon monofilament are also preferred. According to my friends in Japan, line type preference is about 50/50 level line or furled lines. The use of one unweighted fly on the tippet is the current modern tenkara practice.

This is the evoloution of tenkara as a sport and not a commercial fishing endeavor.

Tenkara as a style or method of fishing is using the above mentioned equipment in very specific stream types and regions of Japan fishing for trout or char. Fly manipulation is one of the most iconic skills to tenkara.

It is important to know that there are 3 distinctly different tenkara methods. With rods, flies, and methods designed specifically for those.

In Japan mountain streams are divided into 3 categories:

1. Headstreams. Head water streams with low canopies of vegetation and swift currents. Rods used for head water streams are 3.0-3.3 meters in length and are typically fast action rods (7:3) Sakura Kongo is a headwater stream rod.

2. Tenkara streams. Steep gradient pocket water streams with swift currents. Rods most commonly used are 3.6-4.0 meters in length and vary from 7:3, 6:4, 5:5 action rods. Rod action is whatever the angler prefers.

3. Mainstreams. Wide shallower gradient streams. In Japan most mainstreams are along roads with no overhead vegetation canopy. This is where the mountain streams begin to enter the populated areas. Rods most commonly used are 4.0-4.6 meters in length, 6:4, 7:3, and 8:2 action using long lines 7-10 meters in length.

What most of us in the US consider tenkara is only 1/3 of what makes up the entire tenkara system. It really depends on where you live and fish. I live in a place that Dr. Ishigaki and several other Japanese tenkara anglers consider our mountain streams "Just like Japan" meaning the areas I have taken them to are tenkara streams. For Americans who live in places like Pennsylvania or other eastern states the fishing is more headstream. For many tailwater rivers, it would be most accurately described as mainstreams.

So, even within modern Japanese tenkara there are multiple disciplines, methods, and techniques. In Japan, these are very segregated and specialized. In America it is all lumped together as simply tenkara and that includes all the hybrid methods. We in the West are starting to differentiate tenkara from hybrid methods.

I think it is important to realize that Japan is roughly the geographic size of the state of California and the regions that tenkara is fished are very small. Just look at a map of the United States and see how large and diverse our country is. Japanese style fixed line fly fishing will adapt to meet the huge array of climates, topography, fish species, and personal preferences of all who grab a telescopic carbon fiber fixed line rod and cast a fly.

The typical American tenkara angler's perception of what tenkara is, is really narrow as compared to what it is in Japan. That is simply because we are just starting to gain an understanding of the tenkara system as a whole. What we have been exposed to is just a fraction of what is out there.

In Japan there are many anglers who choose to specialize in one single discipline of tenkara, ie, headstream, tenkara stream, mainstream.

So that is my current understanding of what constitutes Modern Japanese Tenkara.

One thing we have done to ourselves is over use the words "traditional tenkara". Modern Japanese tenkara is so very different from actual traditional tenkara.

Odds are that because the traditional commercial tenkara anglers had to catch fish in order to feed their families, multiple kebari on a single line would have been the best way to increase the catch rate. Bamboo rods, horsehair lines, and crude flies have given way to space age technology and the luxury of not having to make a living with a tenkara rod has lead to constant evoloution and refinement of skills and equipment to the current state of modern tenkara.

Now with that in mind there are a whole host of other Japanese fixed line fly fishing methods that are not tenkara and not "pole fishing" they are just as specialized and refined as tenkara but my research on that is minimal at best. Chris Stewart has a better grasp on it than I do.

Now about the whole rods with grips and single fly on the line.

There are forms of tenkara that use multiple fly rigs. After some further research, here are a couple of examples I received from Eiji Yamakawa and Kiyoshi Ishimura:



As far as I know, there are two methods using multiple flies.

One is "盛岡毛ばり"(Morioka kebari), which uses 5-6 flies and a wood bobber. The bobber is used not for detecting fish bite but for easy casting. Morioka kebari is not called "tenkara" but called just Morioka kebari, I think.

The other method uses two flies. One is tied at the end of the line, and the other is tied about two feet above the other like a dropper. But in this method, only the fly at the end of the line is put on the water, and the other is kept above the surface only to lure fish.

This method has been handed only in a part of Nara prefecture and is of course called tenkara.

I tried this method last summer and confirmed the effectiveness of the second fly.



And another response from Kiyoshi Ishimura:


Hello John,

It's an interesting question for me.

I probably think that the ancient tenkara fishermen have used more than 1 kebari lived in Tohoku‐area.

We call it "Nagashi-kebari" in Morioka Iwate prefecture. I hear that a few anglers use Nagashi-kebari even now.

I am afraid I don't know using more kebari is advantageous (or not) than 1kebari.

That's a case by case ? Depending on condtiton, I guess.



Anthony Naples posted a very interesting discussion he has had with a tenkara angler in Japan about using keiryu or seiryu rods for tenkara. It all ties into my thoughts written here that tenkara in Japan is both strictly defined and freely experimented with.

Some people have commented that the definition of tenkara as it has been presented here in America is slanted to a marketing perspective by those who have a vested financial interest in promoting the products they manufacture or sell. I cannot speak for those companies or individuals.

I can speak on behalf of my company which does have a financial interest in tenkara. The way modern tenkara will be defined in America is important to us as a business because we have to tailor our services to the expectation of our customers. Even though I know tenkara is much more broad and deeper than the definitions that have been presented by the US tenkara industry, we as a company will have to choose a definition of what modern tenkara is to us and move forward with using one definition as a base teaching model. We are working very hard to understand as much as possible the many different methods and definitions of modern tenkara as it is practiced in not only Japan but here in America.

In the end it really does not matter how tenkara is defined in Japan, Utah, Colorado, New York, or your own living room.

What matters is that we, as individual tenkara anglers, define what tenkara is to us, not let someone else's definition of tenkara define us.

John Vetterli

Tenkara Guides LLC

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