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What's the Link Between Organised Violence and Japanese Stream Types


Surprisingly there is quite a good (but slightly left-field) link between Japanese martial arts systems and the names for different classes of mountain streams and rivers...

You see, in Japanese martial arts there is often a distinction made between attacks at high, middle and low levels on the opponent's body. OK, so far so weird...

Here is the thing - "Chudan" refers to "mid-level" attacks and "Churyu" roughly means "medium-flow". Depending on personal preference, Japanese anglers may say "Churyu" or, just as likely "Keiryu". They both mean the same thing. These are the middle-sized streams that are so common in the Japanese mountain ranges. Here is a picture of John on a classic "Keiryu/Churyu" sized stream catching a fish during some training from Masami. Interestingly, Masami often says "Churyu" when he refers to these middle sized rivers.

The very great majority of information and resources that western anglers have to authentic tenkara features Keiryu (Churyu) tenkara. In fact I am pretty certain that it was a Discover Tenkara blog post that was the first English-language tenkara resource to describe the fact that - as well as keiryu tenkara, there was a specialised activity called "Honryu" tenkara that takes place in the big, intimidating "main flow" rivers. There are also some excellent YouTube content from Japan (and excellent serialised blog posts by Keiji Ito on tenkara-fisher) on "Genryu", but I'm getting ahead of myself again.

Bringing this back to the Japanese martial arts and related word-origins..."Hon" is a key component of the "Kihon" (foundation practices) of those fighting systems. Honshu is the main island of all the Japanese land-masses too. So it seems to imply "Foundation", "Main" "Head". It is probably an important insight into the importance that the Japanese place on the written word in the role of wisdom and education that "Hon" can also mean "Book" when used in the right context. "Honryu", then, is really something like "Main Flow" in English. Here is a photo of Dr. Ishigaki with an iwana he caught while demonstrating Honryu tenkara techniques to us in 2014. You can see the power of the river - which is also much too deep and fast to wade in any part except the very edges of the flow.

Now, if I tell you that "Jodan" attacks are the ones that are aimed high, you can probably guess that "Gedan" attacks are those that concentrate on the lower body of your opponent (especially since we already covered Chudan!!). It is my guess that Genryu has a similar origin in the "lower order" of stream sizes. These are the tiny headwaters of the main river systems. The little trickles in steep canyons with a series of  plunge pools would be a classic example.

This map of Hakusan (white mountain) - and the Itoshiro river system that it feeds - gives a sense of the different levels of these mountain river systems from the myriad headwaters, joining to form the middle-level rivers that are then absorbed by the large, powerful main arteries.

Genryu are often difficult to access and require a high degree of outdoorsman skills (including foraging, navigation, swimming and climbing/abseiling) in order to enjoy fishing them safely. It is very common for these streams to have dense and close tree canopy - making for difficult casting and exciting close-range fishing. However, the difficulty in accessing them often means they are much more lightly fished than those streams lower down the system.

This can be a great advantage in Japan - where fishing (and eating your catch) is such a popular pastime...

And while I don't yet have a proper collection of Genryu photos, I did really get a kick out of the physical scramble up this little stream on a very steep staircase of boulders jammed into a narrow canyon with our friends Alan and Chris this year. 

I'm looking forward to the chance to do some multi-day camping, waterfall climbing (sawa-no-bori) and Genryu fishing expeditions in the future, but there is so much variety in Japanese tenkara that you'd never ever run out of a new challenge even if you fished every day for several lifetimes.

Paul