How Traditional is Modern Tenkara?
“Traditional Japanese Fly Fishing”. That’s the tag line of this site. But lately, I’ve been wondering how accurate that line really is.
In terms of the tackle we use, there seems to be nothing that is really “traditional” about it. Early tenkara anglers fished with bamboo rods, lines, and hooks fashioned from needles. Today, we fish with high tech carbon rods, fluorocarbon lines, and chemically sharpened hooks.
Perhaps our flies are the closest thing to being traditional that we use, but even that could be called into question when you consider that early tenkara tiers used locally available, found materials whereas we have access to an industry that produces prefabricated materials for us in a nearly infinite array of colors and sizes (not to mention all manner of sophisticated tools to tie them).
So, at first glance, it seems our tackle isn’t very traditional. But what about our form?
As happens with any cultural import, tenkara has been blended with our western fly fishing traditions. While there are some who adhere to more traditional methods, I think the vast majority of anglers use tenkara rods, but with western techniques and flies. Could this hybrid tenkara still be called traditional?
There’s only one way to find out: go back in time.
The Time Machine
Imagine we built a time machine and brought a modern day tenkara outfit back to 18th century Japan (I knew that Flux Capacitor I’ve had sitting in the the garage for the last 5 years would come in handy some day). We hike into a remote mountain village and comb the local stream to find one of our tenkara forefathers. We hand him the rod and wait for his reaction.
Immediately, he is struck by the sleek materials and inspects them meticulously, trying to figure out what they are. They’re alien looking, but he is mesmerized. Then, he takes a cast. He’s amazed by the lightness of the rod and how well the incredibly thin line turns over. A big smile comes over his face. He knows this is a far superior fishing tool than his handmade bamboo rod and horsehair line. He can do all the same presentations with it he always does—only better. The rod is so light, he could fish all day with it and not get tired. And the line seems unbreakable. No more wasted time repairing broken lines every evening!
Suddenly, a flood of images comes to his mind—baskets upon baskets of fish he could catch with this rod. But it’s interrupted by a sudden fear: “Are these strange people giving me the rod to keep or are they going to take it back?” If he could keep the rod, surely he would outfish all the others and be able to provide more for his family. Involuntarily, his hand tightens on the grip in apprehension.
Now, we step back into the time machine with our new friend and bring him to a modern day stream. He sees anglers using the same magical rods he just discovered yet something is different. Some of the flies look familiar, but they’re all sorts of colors he’s never seen before. He wonders, “do they have pink chickens in the future?” Some even have gold balls at the head, while others are made of some squishy material that floats perfectly on the surface. They don’t look like the flies he ties at all.
He sees some anglers applying some kind of paste to their flies, while others have large, bright beacons that float on the surface with small stones below it to help sink the fly. Altogether, this looks very different from his way of fishing and he becomes very confused (and a little curious) about all of these strange techniques.
Einstein conducted a lot of so called “thought experiments”. To form many of his theories, he often didn’t even write down one formula on a piece of paper or use any of those weird antennae looking things with the blue electrical waves undulating between them. He literally carried out the entire experiment in his head.
Since we can’t actually go back in time, this is my thought experiment on traditioanl tenkara. I feel that modern day tenkara rods would be recognizable as tenkara rods by early anglers (they’d just see them as better), but hybrid techniques would look like something altogether different. I don’t think they would discount them—but they certainly wouldn’t identify with them.
So, ironically, I think the high tech tenkara rods and lines we use today are actually more traditional in spirit than the hybrid techniques that are often used with them. However, if one used a modern day rod with, say, one sakasa kebari, then I think a tenkara angler from the 18th century would have no problem recognizing it as tenkara.
So for me, the answer is that our own modern version of tenkara can be as traditional as we want it to be. But that raises another question: Does it matter?