"Am I good because I use good equipment or am I skilled because of good equipment?"
I think that depends on where you are at in your experience.
In the beginning we buy a lot of rods for many reasons. Because everyone else has one, it's a new rod, people say they are the best, because there is a lot of noise about them on your favorite social media forum. Definitely a new angler behavior that sometimes follows people through their fishing lives.
Expert tenkara anglers don't use a lot of rods.
And the rod they have, they have a lot of experience with it.
Experience is what makes you good at fishing. It's not the rod, it is all those fish and the years of experience casting. An expert can use just about any rod to cast and catch. That skill is what makes them good.
That skill was earned, it wasn't bought.
So use any rod you want. Go to a forum, ask everyone what rod is the best, pick out an answer you like and get busy using it. Have fun any way you want, it's your life and the time you spend should be the most valuable thing you possess.
At some point, you may start to think about what makes a good rod.
Experience is still the answer.
Popularity is not experience. Popularity is the last thing that I use to choose a rod and in this point in my experience, I have found that it is the WORST choice for me. Rod salesmen remind me of car sales people. They just want to sell you the car, blah blah bla....
I could go on about that but I want to get to the point of what I want to write about.
Several years ago, I used this idea to build my quiver.
Tenkara for me starts at the headwaters and covers the whole of stream and fishing all the way to the river. Small trout to large river born fish that have grown large and fight hard because they have lived their entire lives in the strong current. I want a small line up of rods that can cover everything from the headwater stream all the way to river.
Genryu - Keiryu - Honryu.
I want one or maybe two rods for each of those disciplines. I might have a specialty rod or two extra. I don't have an exact number but let's say it is eight. Once I find a rod I like for that specialty, I won't get rid of it unless I find one that I like better but I have to get rid of the rod if I'm going to add a rod. I've made mistakes with this system by buying rods that were based on popularity and had to re-buy the rod that I replaced. I once bought a fantastic rod that I loved but had to get rid of it because the O-ring broke rendering the rod useless. This was one of the most expensive tenkara rods I have ever owned.
This system of building my quiver is based on my own experience and makes me really think about buying new, it places the emphasis on experience. It makes me think about why I want a rod before I bring one into my quiver.
In short, my favorite rods are the Suimu EX line, 400, 450 and 500. These are zoom rods, the 400 and 450 are triple zoom and the 500 is a double zoom. These are the rods that helped me understand what a good rod is at my experience level. Not many people have the experience in tenkara as I do. That's not bragging, it's just the truth. I'm speaking from experience, and I could care less about popularity. I am not a salesman, I bought these rods full price and I have no affiliation with Gamakatsu. I don't even care if you buy one or not, this is about my experience.
Your experience is what is most important. What you do, what you choose. Tenkara is not a competition.
The Suimu helped me understand why zoom rods are what they are and why they were designed the way they are. I owned the Suimu 500 for a few years and it alone could not make me understand why zoom rods exist. I added in the 400 and began to understand but once I owned all three, it hit me on the head and it became clear.
I could get rid of ALL of my rods and just use those three rods for all my tenkara.
The Suimu helped me understand that Zoom rods are designed to be used at their shortest length. The longer lengths are for reach. A rod that is specifically designed for a certain (shortest) length should be cast that way most of the time. I often fish each of these rods without ever lengthening them.
But that isn't always the case and that's the beauty of a finely designed Japanese tenkara rod.
Yesterday, I chose the 400 EX to fish a stream that had very large brown trout in it but most of the stream has small browns. In certain areas, the stream is tight but most of the stream is wide open. I chose the 400 because at it's shortest length, it is 300 centimeters or 3 meters, that's a short rod. I fished the stream mostly at it's longest length of 4 meters. That's a long rod. I did it opposite and that worked so well. It casts nicely at it's longest length but shines at it's shortest length. It will catch a 6" brown and put a bend in the tip but a 16" fish handles nicely on this rod as it is a progressively designed 6:4 - 7:3 rod.
It is a specialty rod that has a wide range of uses.
And that is just one of the three rods in the system.
Now I have this rod(s) and am I going to cut a length of level line and go with that?
Hell no, I wouldn't dare shortchange this rod like that. A finely balanced system demands a line that will also do it all. Fishing that stream above, I chose a 3.7m mainline. That line is made with 15lb clear Seaguar InvizX with a 70cm clear #3 fluorocarbon tip. I use premium tippet and that line casts like a dream. It loads the rod nicely, it is clear for stealth, the tip is a finer diameter and keeps the kebari looser in the water but the balanced system is highly accurate and handles the wind well. At 4m stretched length, the line was just slightly longer than the rod, essentially a short line at length and longer than the rod at it's 3m length. It's a fantastic rod that is very specialized, yet it offers a broad range of stream widths and fish size.
This isn't even my favorite rod out of the three...
The Suimu 500 EX is and it is a monster big rod that can whip a large rainbow in strong current. I cast it at it's 4.2m length and it is super nice. I use lines from 5 - 10m on it that are properly designed for feel, accuracy and stealth.
The Suimu 450 is a light honryu rod or a big stream rod or a long reach rod and it too gets the balanced line approach.
Designing a line for your rod enhances it's usefulness. It takes that rod and creates a system tailored for your application.
Or you could buy a popular rod and cut a level line as long as the rod and off you go.
One is not better than the other.
Tenkara is about developing your fishing skill.
That's what it is all about.