|Me, Keiichi san, Go san, Kura san and Adam chan|
Interview with Kazuo Kurahashi
I met Kura-san in Tadami on my second tenkara trip to Japan. Our first acquaintance was filled with lots of drinking with many people and talking, partying. The Tadami Bansho were we hung out is a perfect setting for tenkara parties, it’s a very old Japanese building. We fished a couple of times, once on a day trip, another on a genryu adventure. Our initial introduction was through fishing and all the things about it. As we returned from fishing, I was able to talk to Kura-san a little more and I knew we would be connecting once I returned home to the USA.
Kura-san is kind, gentle and a passionate fisherman. He is also a craftsman that makes incredible fishing equipment. Recently, I asked him to make me a ridiculously small box to hold just a few kebari. Before I knew it, he had sent back a picture, “Adam-san, I think it may be a bit small?” No, it is exactly what I asked for and then some.
We share our memories on social media together. I often see more of the images I saw in Japan from his account. He crafts from very lightweight but strong Japanese wood, fishing with friends and I knew it was time to interview him.
Adam Trahan: I apologize for taking so long to do this. I remember outside of the bansho, we had a moment and I promised you and Ito-san that we would do this.
Welcome to Tenkara-Fisher. This is where I focus my interest in tenkara. Keichi joined me several years ago to help me keep my focus true to tenkara, where it came from, where it is at and where I would like to keep it.
The interviews are fun for me. They usually take about 10 hours to complete all inclusive. Often I will research the person that I am interviewing ever before I begin. In your case, I do not need to do this as we have fished together and spent some time with each other. Now we do social media and I appreciate who you are.
Let me give you this opportunity to just say hello and introduce yourself.
Kazuo Kurahashi: I started fishing when I was 6 years old. I fished various fish using bait and lure in the neighboring river, pond and sea. Anything was enough if I could catch it.
I began trout fishing when I was 25 years old. I was deeply impressed with the mountain stream and the beauty of the fish. I tried spinning, fly fishing and bait fishing.
When I was around 30 years old, I started tenkara fishing. Its simplicity and reasonableness matched well with my way of thinking. Since then, I have been doing only tenkara for about 23 years.
Recently, I have been making fly boxes for tenkara for about 6 years and also, I have just started making spools last year.
Adam Trahan: I am a lifelong fisherman. I have been doing tenkara only for about 12 years but I have been fly fishing since I was a child. Even with fly fishing, I would go through times where I had intense interest and then my passion would not be so strong. I still fish but I am not going as much and it does not occupy my mind like it does at other times. I’m very excited to finally be interviewing you. I know that my interest will be increased because I will be thinking of tenkara fishing in your area! I love travelling and fishing.
That little box for kebari that you made for me. This is one of my passions. To create a little kit that goes with me everywhere. Even to the office. That kit will be many things for me but the main thing it does is it allows me, wherever I am, to be able to go fishing or to show people tenkara. I’ve been thinking of making this box for myself for a long time but I knew that you would be able to make it very light and strong. When I got the picture, it was amazing and when I received the box, I knew the idea was true. Now the only thing I need is a small wooden spool…
When we fished together, I used the Keiru rod from Nissin, the Pocket Mini V3. I do not normally use these rods. I like them, but they are not primary tenkara fishing rods. I handed the rod to many people on my trip and everyone liked the action and the line that I created for the rod is balanced and good for tenkara.
The Pocket Mini and the Tenkara Mini are perfect for my idea of a travel rod. They fit inside my bags. They are perfect for everyday carry. They are small and fit inside of my small bag. Always there to show someone in the office, the bar, on the street or if I come upon some water, I can fish.
I have tenkara rods that I use for planned trips. I like the Nissin Zerosum and for honryu, I use the Suimu by Gamakatsu.
“Can you tell us a little bit about your equipment? How you choose it, how you have developed your collection?”
Kazuo Kurahashi: I choose the rod to match the river and how to fish, so I have some rods which have different lengths and characteristics.
Basically, I use 4.0-4.5m with 5-8m line for the wide river, 3.2-4.0m with 3-5m line for the narrow river.
I like medium-slow taper (6:4) rods, but catching the fish is sometimes difficult for the river with many obstacles such as trees or big rocks. In such a river, I use fast taper (7:3) rods.
It is good to have a light weight, but it is a trade-off with strength.
I think it is important that the rod has the character of “Nebari”. It is difficult to explain “Nebari” even in Japanese. It bends well but does not break, keeping enough power at the bat part. It makes fighting easy with a big fish. It might be “the rod which has enough strength of the bat, and moderate stiffness and elasticity”. Is it the proper expression? I don’t confident.
Some information is obtained from the fishing rod catalog or other fisher’s evaluation. However, I can't judge whether it fits for me unless I get it and actually use it in the river. So, I tried many rods, not only new ones but many used ones. Also I often borrowed rods from my friends which I do not have and checked them.
I sold the rods I didn't like to a second-hand store and used the money to buy the next one. What I have now is their survival. I have not counted how many, there must be more than 15.
Adam Trahan: I have two rods that are a little different, the Karasu by Go Ishii, Paul Gaskell and John Pearson. I really like them, the 4m is an extremely accurate rod. My little Zerosum is probably my favorite tenkara rod. It is so light and has a great cast. I’ve been asked once, “what is my favorite rod?” and my answer was my Nissin Tenkara Mini 3.6m. I don’t even use it all that much compared to my other rods. It is my favorite because it goes with me everywhere and I really like to travel and it’s always in my bag. That makes it my favorite.
“Do you have a favorite tenkara rod and why?”
Kazuo Kurahashi: I often use Karasu and Zerosum, they are both good.
Recently I have been using Nissin “ROYAL STAGE TENKARA 6:4” 4.0m. It is not expensive but well balanced and easy to use. I also use Daiwa “EXPERT TENKARA L LL45M” 4.0-4.5m zoom. It is a little bit heavy, but I like it as a 4.5m class tenkara rod.
I want to try some other rods, but they are not in the fishing tackle store in my neighborhood. If I have a chance, I would like to check it out at events such as fishing shows.
Adam Trahan: There is more to tenkara than just the rod. My favorite other pieces of kit are all custom made. I have some wooden boxes made by friends that all have a story including the little box you made me.
“Can you tell us about crafting your kebari boxes? How did you start doing it and why?”
Kazuo Kurahashi: I tried a lot of boxes but there is no one that really suits me. I didn't even know what the best fly box for me was. Then I thought about making various boxes myself and trying them out.
I chose Hinoki (Japanese cypress) as the material. Hinoki is a light, tough, beautiful, inexpensive and practical material. In Japan, it has been used for building materials and furniture for a long time. I thought it would match my tenkara spirit, and the biggest reason is, it was easy to get.
At first, I referred to the existing fly boxes and books. I had to get some new tools, but there was nothing technically difficult about woodworking. All that was important was to work carefully. However, painting was difficult. I have made various experiments and prototypes up to the current method. It is so-so, not so bad, but the goal is still ahead…
Adam Trahan: I used to make bamboo fly rods. I can really appreciate the precise work that you do. My rods where measured in thousands of an inch, the pieces had to be nearly perfect in order to fit so precisely. Your boxes are well made, the spools are thought out and crafted well too. I appreciate your work.
I have a fly rod that is 12 years old now. It is a beautiful piece that at one point, 18 different pieces of wood meet, there is no gap. I had to draw all those pieces of balsa, purpleheart and tonking cane together, no easy feat but it’s done and I was taught by many great teachers.
“Can you tell us about one of your favorite things that you have made? What is the story behind it? Are you self taught?”
Kazuo Kurahashi: I do not have such a great thing like your bamboo fly rods!
There was a small rod maker near my town where I used to live, which made bait rods for small Ayu (sweetfish). I got the rod and attached a cork grip to it and modified it a little for tenkara.
The length is 4m, it is very light but strong with good Nebari. Vibration stops quickly, and the design is simple. I really like it and have been using it for over 20 years.
The wooden fly box which I am using now is one of my favorites. I made it about 5 years ago. I repainted the box when it was damaged and kept on using it until now.
The longer you use the wooden fly box, the more it tastes. Scratches, dents and discoloration are the memory of fishing. By layering it with paint, it has a deeper taste, it becomes one and only. It is fun unique to woodwork, not plastic.
Adam Trahan: My choices in gear changes however, I still find value in the equipment that I used and replaced. My kit, which is all the equipment that I use when I am fishing and hiking has evolved from my own experiences before going to Japan and meeting with you guys to understanding very focused equipment such as your community uses. When we went fishing together, Keiichi san told me that the area he chose for us was not too tough. I agree after doing it and more importantly, seeing the terrain that you guys call difficult in your media. Your sawanobori boots for instance, they are perfect for the steep streams and climbing then in Japan. There are only a few places here that they are good for. Yes, you can use them but there are better suited boots for the approach and wet wading in our mountainous streams.
What I’m saying is that I get my influence from Japanese equipment and your tenkara anglers but I apply my own experiences in my area and choose my equipment for the terrain here.
I think that’s best.
As far as the fishing equipment goes, it’s basically the same.
Here in America, we have rod companies that are offering rods for tenkara. These companies are guided by people that have never been to Japan to understand tenkara there.
I think this is ok but, these companies are not the equipment that I choose. Many of them are only a few years old. They do not have the luxury of experience, designing, the research and development and final product in comparison with Japanese rod companies. So I choose Japanese rods because of the long history.
“What do you think about “new tenkara equipment” in comparison to the long history of tenkara equipment that has been developed in Japan?”
Kazuo Kurahashi: One Kebari rod (not yet called "Tenkara") is listed in a 40-year-old fishing gear maker’s catalog. Although it is made of carbon, its decoration was very beautiful with a strong awareness of traditional crafts. Not limited to tenkara, many of the high-class rods at that time had the beauty of traditional crafts.
The decoration of current rods is generally simpler than those. Some seem cool, but many look cheap. Why? There may be various reasons. Cost reduction, productivity and profitability, changes in what users like, etc. There may have been a manufacturer's direction to sell practical tools at a practical price.
Anyway, fishing gear with traditional craft beauty is now only luxury goods made by some well-established craftsmen. Bamboo rod is one of them.
As an aside, Bamboo rods were familiar to me in my childhood. My first rod was just cutting bamboo from the back mountain and removing the branches. The three-piece bamboo rod was sold everywhere for about 500 yen. Of course, they were cheap, far from the luxury of traditional crafts, but they were good for children's play. Over time, they have been replaced by glass rods and are now almost gone. I sometimes miss it.
Adam Trahan: Sebata san gave me a rod, an old rod from Sakura. It sits in my rod rack and I will take it out now and then and fish it. I like it very much and the fact that he gave it to me means a lot to me. I use a modern rod for my every day fishing.
“What do you think about the evolution of tenkara equipment?”
Kazuo Kurahashi: Since the appearance of tenkara with the fluorocarbon level line, various manufacturers have developed and released various lines with good visibility and various rods suitable for casting light lines. They made tenkara easier and became a major factor in today's tenkara epidemic.
Now, some people use traditional yarned taper lines, and some take in fly fishing techniques such as dry fly and nymphing. There are more choices for tenkara styles and gears compared to the past,.
The diversification of tenkara will continue, and the tools will evolve along with it. However, I don't think the tenkara system will get complicated. Because the biggest fascination of tenkara is “Simplicity”.
Recently, the grip of the tenkara rod is shifting from cork to EVA. This is because of consideration for the depletion of natural cork resources. I don't know if EVA is suitable, but anyway, there are such problems now.
Manufacturers should consider the impact on the natural environment more than ever, and it is the same for anglers who use the gears they made.
Adam Trahan: Our fishing media here in North America really does not cover tenkara. It may make mention as a tool for a certain type of water. The media here does not know tenkara like you do or like travelling fishermen like myself that seek out groups of anglers in Japan.
I think our media rarely helps the innovators or the first people to import new ideas. By design, they want to market what they know, they take the safe approach. Even our cutting edge and outspoken media rarely takes a chance on tenkara and reports on it as it should be.
We have a project here, “Tenkara Angler” magazine. They crowd source their material and it is basically a volunteer project. I’ve contributed to it however, it is not the source of material that I want to focus on.
In Japan, you have a couple of magazines that feature tenkara.
“Can you describe them and what do you think of these magazines?”
Kazuo Kurahashi: I often read mountain stream and headwater fishing magazines, I like them.
The article on fishing trips introduces not only fishing, but also river scenery, river trekking, and camping. It makes me feel strongly about mountain streams whenever I read it.
Introductions of gears give me new information, it is helpful. Articles on wild fish, insects and animals and plants around the mountain stream give me knowledge. It is often thought-provoking about the lives and history of people living in the streams and mountains, and about the river environment. Of course, I love articles about traditional crafts like bamboo rods.
Tenkara articles have been increased. Tenkara masters often appear on them. I also often see special articles for beginners, it will be useful for those who are about to start tenkara.
Adam Trahan: I like Japanese Headwaters magazine. I stopped buying it though, I still read it when I get a chance. I have a friend that I taught tenkara to. His family lives in Tokyo so he buys it and Japanese Whisky! When he comes back to Arizona, we drink Hibiki and look at Headwaters together!
When we visited together at Tadami Bansho, we partied and drank and eat and talked, watched videos of Sebata san. It was a super fun time. I think you guys like to party with travelling visitors.
Sebata san travelled to America and made a video fishing the great Western rivers. It is a neat video and long before tenkara was popular in America.
“Do you ever want to fish in America?”
Kazuo Kurahashi: Of course, yes. I want to see various trout in various rivers. I also want to see my friends. It doesn't have to be tenkara! lol
Adam Trahan: I want you to know, you are welcome in my home and I would be happy to take you around however, I live far away from good fishing. 2 - 4 hours to get to good water, 8 - 10 hours to some of the best fishing areas in the mountains or rivers.
“How far are your favorite waters from your home?”
Kazuo Kurahashi: It is the same for me.
It takes about 3.5 hours to the river I usually go, and at least 8-10 hours where I really want to go. If possible, I would like to go fishing and camping for more than a week.
Adam Trahan: I like my friends in Japan. I know the tenkara community is very small there. It is small here in America but I think there are a lot more people here that do it in comparison. Most of the tenkara anglers here do other types of fishing. We have one vendor that helps the enthusiasm for Japanese style lure fishing. I’ve done a little of that type of fishing 40 years ago and although it is very productive, I have found what I enjoy. Really, that’s what it’s all about for me, what I like and I enjoy tenkara.
“Do you have any fishing friends, acquaintances outside of Japan?”
Kazuo Kurahashi: Yes, I have some friends in the US, UK, Italy and France. (I think you know most of them.) They came all the way to Japan and fished tenkara with me. I still have connections and sometimes communicate with them via SNS.
Adam Trahan: I follow a few English tenkara fishermen. They also do some Japanese style lure fishing. There are some Italian fishermen that do “Valsesiana” type fishing which is very much like tenkara.
“Is there any other type of fishing outside of Japan that you like or want to do?"
Kazuo Kurahashi: I have heard about fishing in Valsesia too. It is very interesting that there is the same fishing method in Japan far away. I think their river and trout must have something similar.
There should be other rivers suitable for tenkara in various parts of the world. I want to try tenkara in such a river, and I want to see fish there.
Adam Trahan: Kura san, I really appreciate you, I like your craft, what you do.
"Is there anything you want to say before we go?"
Kazuo Kurahashi: Catching fish is not the only way to enjoy tenkara.
Tenkara is compact with few gears, so it is suitable for enjoying in combination with various activities, river and mountain trekking, camping, driving, etc. It is also fun to improve and customize the gears yourself to suit your style. I'm really looking forward to something interesting being created through it.
Finally, please remember the respect for the natural environment and the fish that give us a lot of joy. Take care of your safety, and let’s enjoy tenkara.