Has Japanese Tenkara Been Perfected?

Wednesday, 25 January 2017  |  Paul G

Some recent social media discussions flagged up this fascinating idea. The discussions, I thought, were a great example of the very best of the internet. Well-thought out contributions from varying viewpoints in a global community gathered around a shared interest. Stuff got talked about, information was shared – everyone took something good away with them. Brilliant.

Weird to think that those connections would have been impossible until very recently…

Like all good conversations, it set me thinking. One of the things in my head had been the idea that (unless you are an ass-hat about it) it is actually OK to try hard to explore and understand the techniques you use on-stream. OK, elitism as a way of beating others down is clearly not cool. At the same time, bullying someone for being really into something is just as crappy in my book. The same really goes for a kind of playing down or denial of the achievements of other, existing, fishing cultures you sometimes see.

Regardless of how much you want to experiment, push the envelope or just do your own thing, the classy thing to do is to tip your hat to those who’ve paved the way to actually let you do that in the first place. After all, beyond family (if you are lucky enough to have that), what is actually more valuable than time spent on a trout stream with good friends around you?

I’m deadly serious about that as a stone cold measure of the quality of your life (if you fly fish). For others, of course, it might be surfing or painting, guitar, charity, woodworking, building a business that changes lives…but for many of us it is being connected to rivers and everything that lives there.

When someone says “it’s only fishing”, there will always be 10 people thinking “yeah, but without fishing, I’d be dead on the inside”.  It is Serious Fun (with the emphasis on “fun” – or happiness. What is a better measure of quality of life than that?).

I know I’m one of those folks who, after family, fishing is the core of my life’s quality. It’s taken me on so many adventures – whether in my own back yard or somewhere across the globe. It’s introduced me to the finest people, the greatest food the biggest triumphs and the most humbling defeats. It is the great game and the barrier to entry is actually pretty low (I fished the first dozen or so trout fishing sessions back in 2015 using a rod I’d made out of some garden centre cane and a casting line of twisted horse-hair on urban rivers that you don’t need to pay to fish in my hometown. That was perfection…).  There is even a photo (or two) like the one below from 2007 in the closing seconds of a Yorkshire region eliminator rivers fly fishing competition (strange territory for me now given that Japanese tenkara deliberately avoids competitive fishing so as to avoid secrecy on the best methods and developments!)

So here’s my main point – while being seen as perfectly cool for people to be interested in, the question was raised as to whether “tenkara” had already been perfected in Japan (and whether actually having made it out of Japan, now we’d see a new and pretty radical wave of innovation and improvement).

For whatever it is worth, my own feelings on this are that nothing ever has to be perfect before you can love and want to protect it. That is true of the people you love too - and it is certainly true of any passion that someone dedicates their life to.

The second part of that is, from the dumb good luck I’ve had to put me in a position to make a half sensible judgement on this (more on this in a future blog post I think)….the vast (vast!) majority of anglers would be shocked at the level of skill found either in a truly world-class competition angler or (equally) in the very best Japanese tenkara anglers.

Barring a TINY smattering of industry experts and magazine/book writers – those authorities and opinion-formers simply cannot hold a candle to those truly elite anglers. Like I said, their abilities are just otherworldly…and I believe that it is no accident that certain areas tend to produce those phenoms. Again, though I think I need to pick up on those perfect-storm conditions in a separate post…

For now it is enough to say that yes – by all means – love experimenting and finding your own way with fly and fish. Feel free to do that with complete separation from any existing schools of thought and practice. That is completely cool…But at the same time have the humility to realise that it is vanishingly unlikely you will come up with something that either does not have a name already – or has not been tested and found wanting compared to alternatives. Notice I didn’t say “impossible”, just vanishingly unlikely…and there is an ironic thing too…

If you really did have your heart set on genuine innovation, your chances of succeeding in that are infinitely higher if you decide to learn from (and collaborate with) the greatest experts and practitioners out there. Those phenoms tend to “workshop” ideas within close-knit bands of like-minded obsessives.

And I can tell you with complete conviction that – just within the world of tenkara – the West has only seem the smallest glimmer of the mighty body of knowledge, understanding and physical technique held by the best Japanese anglers. How about files filled with hand-drawn notes of techniques built up over a lifetime and handed on to devoted (often "live-in") students of a rural master?

For good reason, the majority of what we’ve seen so far is focused on showing that there is a very low barrier to entry into tenkara at the most basic level. You can get going with it pretty fast. But that is just the beginning of the road for anyone who is interested in looking deeper.


More soon…