Japan Trip 2016

Prelude: I think it's time to start the story of my 2016 trip to Japan.

The theme of this trip is Tenkara and friends. I will be visiting Go Ishii in Tokyo and Keiichi Okushi with Yuzo Sebata in Tadami. I invited Adam Klagsbrun to join me and the plan was to enjoy shopping and tourist things in Tokyo for a couple of days before we moved on to the fishing segment of the trip.

The trip actually began a couple of years ago as most of my trips do. Already I am planning for my next trip with my son Noah, I want to introduce him to international travel with Tenkara as the theme.

The backstory is, I meet Keiichi a couple of years ago and that is what created this adventure. He approached me to help him reach Tenkara anglers in the United States to offer his kind assistance in Keiryu fishing, particularly Tenkara. I was delighted that he chose me and the reason for this trip is to solidify our relationship and to satisfy my desire to meet more Tenkara people and fish Tenkara in Japan every chance that I can.

A by product of this adventure is also to experience it with Adam so he too can share this experience with his circle of friends. Adam is a talented travelling Tenkara angler, also savvy to international adventures. I really want to be able to share a common event like this with someone new, enter Isaac Tait of Fallish Tenkara. An American living in Tokyo that I've also invited to join us in Tadami.

All of us will converge at a final big Tenkara party in Tadami Bansho.

A third of the fun of a big trip like this is the planning stage. The other third is the trip itself and writing about it and the rest is all the knowledge, the new friends and the effect that they have afterward. It's all about Japanese culture, new Tenkara friends and learning new skills in many different areas of fishing, travel and culture.


Take off from Phoenix
The Trip: I think the first thing I should say is that Ishii-san (Go Ishii) was instrumental in our movement in and around Tokyo and on through to Tadami in Fukushima prefecture. I consider Ishii-san the #1 Tenkara Ambassador, period. That's a HUGE statement but hear me out. Go reaches across all lines, borders and politics to bring Japanese Tenkara to all that are within reach. This is my second Tenkara oriented trip to Japan and the second time that I was introduced to a deeper understanding of Tenkara through his translation of the language, his knowledge of Tenkara and his kind demeanor not to mention his kindness in running us around all over the area of adventure! #1 Tenkara Ambassador for traveling Tenkara Anglers...

With that in mind, Ishii-san was with us nearly the whole time. He did retreat home as I did some personal adventures in Tokyo but for the most part, before we arrived, he had asked us what we wanted to accomplish, made a plan and then we executed it with precision.

My trip started with a hiccup, my son got a fever the day before we were to drive to San Diego from Phoenix, a pretty easy five or six hour car trip across desert and mountains to the coastal city in California. My family was to drive me to my departure airport and wish me well as I boarded the plane. Noah's slight illness prevented this from happening so I had to purchase a same day airfare which was nearly four times what it should have been. I had been effectively keeping costs down for the trip and this added to the cost but was necessary.

I got up Sunday morning early, put my clothes on, grabbed my smart phone and requested Uber X for the short drive to the airport near my home. As with any trip, the first steps are memorable, "Did I forget anything?" of course not, I had been planning this trip for quite some time and had detailed it in my notes throroughtly. My bags were packed the day before, all I had to do was to put my clothes on, brush my teeth and open the door.

A couple of weeks prior to our arrival, I started a Messenger Group for the participants of the trip so we could collectively understand each other. It is important for me to be as gentle to our hosts as possible as we are visitors yet to be able to communicate our desires to visit this or that place or meet people as we had planned and wow did we meet a lot of great people.

The flight to San Diego was uneventful, I had two small backpacks and it was easy to navigate TSA and Gate times and waiting. The big flight was pretty easy, I slept and watched a movie. Upon arrival in Narita, I followed my plan of picking up the wifi device, exchanging dollars to yen and getting on the train to Ueno. My hotel was literally a one minute walk from the train stop. Adam was staying there too and had arrived the day before and was visiting Yu Cadowachi as I got in. I went and got a quick bite to eat and turned in for the evening.

I could not sleep long, I was in Tokyo! I knew I had to get sleep so I quickly checked Facebook, my running diary, the local time was about 2:30a John Sachen, an old friend that lived in Tokyo saw that I was logged in and pestered me to go to Tsukiji Fish Market were the Tuna is graded and auctioned for market. I resisted but it was futile, I found myself there after a quick Taxi. The tours take only two groups of 60 and I was nearly the last dozen. We were taught the ins and outs of grading and auctioning Tuna and viewed the days auctions.

Tsukiji Fish Market Tuna Grading
I set my smartphone gps mapping for the hotel and quickly walked the three miles back in light rain listening to music.

Adam, Ishii-san and I meet later that morning for shopping at Joshuya and Sansui along with a great Sushi lunch. Our first scheduled meeting with Masayuki Sakurai of the Sakura Rod Shop and Yoshida Takashi of Tokyo Trout Country was planned were we agreed to have a seafood dinner in Kanda, just two train stops on the Yamanote Train away from our hotel in Ueno. I have been following along with Yoshida-san in social media for some time now. He is a very talented Tenkara fisher and heads a Tenkara school in Tokyo. He uses Sakura rods (which I sell) and has his own brand of Tenkara rods, Red Sniper. I have had the wonderful opportunity to have interviewed Yoshida-san and it was good to finally meet him.

Masayuki Sakurai, Go Ishii, Adam Trahan, Adam Klagsbrun and Yoshida Takashi
The next day we did more shopping for fishing. Adam and I both purchased boots for wading. I had brought with me a pair of felt boots from my last trip. Boots are important and sole choices are very important depending on the type of trip you are taking. The Japanese have a keen eye on boot design and I personally like to try on my boots before purchase. The new "Boa" system is being introduced to wading boots and both Adam and I purchased boots with this tightening system. I particularly like it based on the ease of off and on and to fine tune the fit is very easy to set.

The mornings, I got up early and got out on foot. It was typhoon season and rain was alway in forecast. I had purchased a good umbrella from Mont-Bell and it was integral to my comfort. Sachen-sen made the suggestion that I make a walk to one of the Temples and off I went across Tokyo on foot using the map and gps feature in my phone. Turns out it was one of my favorite walks and I ended up at the Temple from a different angle that I arrived at last time I was in Japan. I didn't know I was going to this particular Temple, happy to have gone but never the less, already had visited. An interesting note was that I went one way, back to the hotel another way, it appeared I was not doing an out and return, I thought I was continually going in one direction. My moral compass is good, my walking compass is way off in Japan...

Back to the hotel, shower, pack and together with the guys, Go took us to shop for Sake, we knew we would be drinking a lot of it and also for snacks. Afterward we got back in the car and took the few hour drive North across Japan to Tadami to meet the group of Tenkara fishers there.

We rolled up on the cabins in the closing light of day. Tadami is a small mountain town and I really like this sort of setting for spending my time in the country. You get to know more of the country and it's people. The cabin cluster we were staying at were two story, four to six people upstairs, two bunks and a kitchen and table downstairs. This is where we were to stay for a couple of days.

We were greeted by Yuzo Sebatza, Kozue Sanbe, Keiiji Ito, Kazuo Kurahashi, Masayuki Yamano and later joined by the Senior Photographer of Headwaters Magazine, Maruyama-san, all talented genryu fishers and specialists in their own skills. Sebata-san needs no introduction, Kozue Sanbe is a woman Tenkara fisher and one of Sebata-san's students, Keiiji Ito is a keen climber and Tenkara angler, Kura-san a skilled craftsman fisher, Yamano-san makes traditional bamboo fishing rods and Maruyama-san has been a photographer for Headwaters for some time. Both he and Yoshida-san are prominently featured in Headwaters nearly each issue. Keiichi Okushi joined us a little later as he was traveling from Mito to Tadami.

In the mountain cabins, we were in the company of the best of the best.

It was surreal.

We partied and got to know each other late into the night.

Kazuo Kurahashi, Go Ishii, Masayuki Yamano, Yuzo Sebata and Adam Trahan
Kura-san gave me a beautiful bamboo kebari box that he had crafted, gorgeous and Sebata-san asked me to accept a present of a Tenkara rod. He pulled it out and it was a beautiful bamboo rod! I was completely blown away by his kindness. I inspected the rod closely, the craftsmanship was beautiful. He was laughing the whole time and said the rod was his and like 50 years old. Ishii-san then told me why he was laughing. It was a fiber-glass reproduction of a bamboo rod. Sebata-san then tapped on the rod, yes, fiber-glass. 

Yamano-san then handed out sticks of bamboo where we all waved them high in the cabin, clacking them together. The whole time Sebata-san was cooking mushrooms, vegetables, Sake was flowing. He pulled out Plum wine that was from 2014 and I started to drink that. I pulled out my laptop and begin keying up movies of Sebata-san fishing. All of the evening was amazing. I finally went to bed late after midnight and the rest of the crew continued to party...

The next day we woke up, got ready for a day fishing trip to a river system near by. It was a great way for me to get my feet wet to what was going to happen.

Maruyama-san driving me to Genryu starting point
I packed my gear and asked Maruyama-san if I could ride with him to the trailhead. He has a Suzuki Kei van and I really wanted to ride in one. Maruyama-san drove fast! I like fast driving. His van was completely kitted out for fishing.

At the trailhead, we piled out and got a quick class from Okushi-san to where we would be fishing. The short hike was over varied terrain and we had a bridge crossing that I really enjoyed.

It was good to be on the trail to go fishing.

We dropped into the river and began the rhythm where we were meet by small Iwana. I caught my first one and then another and another. The fishing was slow by Okushi-san's standards. It didn't matter, we were not bouz and I think everyone caught fish.

For me, it was not all that easy to hike and fish in Japan. I'm from the desert, the mean humidity level is less than 20% all the time, more like less than 10%. Here, each day was overcast and greater than 80% which meant that I was sweating hard with any exertion. I could hike no problem but it was just sweaty for me, profuse sweating. A couple of miles and I am drenched. I had good clothing choices but each day fishing ended in being soaked to the bone. I went through a lot of my limited clothes quickly.

Back at the cabins, we partied more and spoke about the plan for our genryu trip. I packed my kit in my Osprey travel pack and went to bed about 10 o'clock, again everyone else kept partying. 

Final preparations for hiking at the transfer point

The next morning we drove to the transfer point, divided the common items like the food and tarps, and got on the trail. The going downhill took a little to get used to. I was using my new boots which were performing way better than expected. I chose sticky rubber soles and I was using Caravan spats which protected my lower legs from bushwhacking through weeds and reeds. We dropped into the river and hiked up it for a couple of miles. Maruyama-san spoke to Okushi-san and it was suggested that maybe we pull out our fishing equipment. Adam-chan unfolded his rod and began to fish. He had missed a few strikes and I unfolded my rod and began to fish too. I caught one small Iwana and again, Okushi-san mentioned that fishing was tough probably due to the weather. We continued to hike and got to the point where we stopped and set up the tenba.

Quickly the tenba was set up and we scrambled to continue to fish. We had taken off at 6a and had the tenba set up before 11a or so and plans were to continue upstream until 3p. We began to hike and fish with each person taking turns at point. Adam-chan and I were given point most because we where guests. Right after setting up tenba, I found a feeder stream and followed up it for 50 meters and was into small Iwana. I scrambled back down and continued on with the group leap frogging with the point person. Maruyama-san was always up front photographing us and took pictures of me catching a couple of fish and Adam-chan as well as each one of us.

It was amazing to be fishing such clear waters at the bottom of the steep river valley. The weather was threatening rain and I continued to worry just a little about getting caught in it. I didn't have my rain jacket with me and my iPhone is all that I was carrying that could not get wet.

We set an assist rope for the rock face just above the group
We finally walked up to our first obstical, a duel fall cliff. It was suggested that I fish the plunge pool and I took up that offer casting my kebari directly into the flow. After a few minutes of that, Adam-chan walked up and asked if he could try. "Of course" and within a few casts on the other side, he was into a nice Iwana. I pulled out my iPhone and grabbed a quick photo of his rod bent as he stanced to play the fish in. Landing the fish, Maruyama-san grabbed pictures, high fives and we went back for a ramen lunch.

Okushi-san dispatched the rock face next to the falls with some minor climbing. He affixed a line to a tree above and down climbed back to us. I think I was the first to climb it and point the camera back down. It wasn't really that big of a deal but this was our first real climb and it was exciting.

We continued to fish above the falls with another set of falls above that. 

Maruyama-san photographs Okushi-san
I had been wanting to see Okushi-san fish and finally observed him taking his pack off and unfolding his rod. I walked up carefully to watch him and he was tying on a big dry fly! One cast and wham! but he missed the strike, pick up and back down again and set! Fish on. Quickly he landed the fish and Maruyama-san took photographs. It was interesting to ponder the way he waited to this one section in a difficult at best fishing situation, tye on a big dry fly and proceed to catch the fish in two casts. It was nothing short of amazing.

To make a long story short, we continued to fish and I finally stopped and took a nap on a beach while the others continued on for about an hour. It started to gently rain on the way back and getting back to the tenba, I was completely soaked. Changing into dry clothes, the rain started coming down and each person had a chore of gathering wood, making a fire, preparing food and keeping the floor of the tenba from getting too muddy dirty from our boots. We took them off and sat around and began to eat each portion of the meal. Adam-chan's Iwana provided us with sashimi and it was delicious.

Raining but having a great dinner at Tenba
I asked Okushi-san about the rain, he did not seem concerned, if I were in Arizona, in our slot canyon streams, I would have packed up and left but this is a forested river valley and the forest soaks up the rain very well.

It rained very hard throughout the night, internally, I was worried. At daylight, it appeared that the river had risen about 10cm or so but that might be enough to give us a problem with some of the crossings as they were pinched off and the river gets much deeper and fast flows in these areas.

Dispatching camp quickly, we started off downstream and sure enough, some of the crossings were deeper, almost too much until we came to a spot where we could continue no longer.
"UP, we must go up..." and Maruyama-san quickly climbed up a nearly vertical soaking wet dirt/rock slope. My pack was not so heavy but I was already very tired and soaked through and through. My iPhone was fogged up and I was worried about losing all my photographs and data in it.

Ishii-san was ahead of me and he got to a point where he could not move. We were about 20' above the river on a dirt/rock cliff and I knew my chances of falling where bout 50/50 that I would slip and fall off. I finally said, "NO" I'm not going, but no one really understood that and I really didn't want to be that guy. A rope was tied off and thrown to Ishii-san and he grabbed it and continued to climb. It was my turn and I did it as well.

We were following a genryu path of old and the climbing was hard as I was exhausted and soaked through and through. We finally made it to the top, stopped and spread a blue sheet, boiled water and waited for our pick up.

Sebata-san and Kozue-san drove up in two vehicles where we piled in and drove back to the transfer point, piled in our respective cars and drove back to the Bansho.

The Bansho in Tadami
We were given a tour by the owner and shown where we would be sleeping. Adam-chan and I got the Samurai room which was a place of honor. The red carpet was really rolled out for us.

I meet Isaac Tait and he also needed his clothes to be dried as he was fishing previously in the river system that we had visited. We drove to buy Sake and across the street from the grocery store was the coin op laundry where everything I had, even my back pack got thrown into the big driers.

We quickly folded our clothes and drove back to the Bansho where our hosts already had started to eat dinner.

I pulled out my stool and Sebata-san got a piece of carpet so that it would not damage the tatami mat. Sebata-san also could not sit for extended periods of time on the floor.

We talked about our trip, laughed, watched DVD's of Sebata-san.

He is truly a bad ass, an experienced mountaineer fisher and a sawanobori fisher as well. No one in America really knows just how bad ass he is, there are no available videos here (I have them but due to copyright, I am not allowed to show them) to show the masses just how good and unique he is at what he does best.

Party in the Bansho that evening
That will change soon.

We were family, together. Adam-chan and I were made to feel like we are a part of their extended clan and truly, we are.

Jun Maeda was there, I was introduced to him by Okushi-san. We have been Facebook friends for years. We discussed our lives and he gave me a couple of rare Tenkara books and his favorite nata (forest knife/hatchet) where as I did not know what to do so I just went in and gave him my fishing pack. It was the most valuable thing I had. He graciously accepted and I was happy to give it to him.

I really like Jun Maeda, we are brothers, just like Okushi-san. Sebata-san reminds me of my own father and even slightly looks like him.

It was amazing.

No words can describe how I was meant to feel like family.

Real family, Tenkara family.

We partied late into the night eating, drinking Sake and Kotsuzake was made and it was fantastic. I stayed up well past midnight and finally turned in where as most people still were partying and watching videos.

The next morning we said our good byes, Ishii-san drove us toward Tokyo where we stopped to see Yamano-san's bamboo rod shop. He gave us the tour where we were given an intimate look into the internal shop and how the rods were made. As a rod maker myself, Yamano-san was rolling out the red carpet too. Adam-chan bought a nice Tanago rod from him. Yamano-san made a carry tube for the rod for him and explained each type of rod. He pulled out a Ayu rod, I don't know how many meters it was, maybe 10m or so? Isaac Tait drove up, his van is a little slower but he made it and as we left, Yamano-san gave Isaac the same tour as he gave us.

Yamano-san Rod Shop
Adam-chan and Yamano-san

We said our good byes and again, Ishii-san drove us the rest of the way home to Ueno,Tokyo. Ishii-san and I said our good byes and talked about my next visit with Noah. I went up to my room and I began the packing and traveling sequence to get home.


Epilogue: Still struggling with jet lag 3 days after being home. Still not sure how to process what I was brought into, how personal, the experience, camaraderie and knowledge that the Sebata-san and Okushi clan has shown us. I'm not sure if I will ever truly be able to conceptualize the lessons, the experience that was gifted to me, it still seems like a dream...