Editor’s Note: I woke up one morning to find the following trip report on my doorstep. It had been written on rice paper, carefully placed inside of a bamboo tube, and delivered by overnight red-crowned crane. I have decided to publish it here in its entirety.
I wake up at 5:30 am Tokyo time. I slip on my Montbell wading boots and turn on the remote start in the Honda to warm it on this chilly afternoon in early August. The mountains are calling, and I must go. It is time to become one with the tenkara. It is time to become the tenkara.
After stopping at Trader Joe’s to fuel up on dried kelp, I commence the drive up along St. Vrain Creek. I am in the zone. I picture each boulder and riffle in my mind. I picture the native buttery brown trout that will soon fall prey to my kebari. I smile to myself, knowing those kebari well. I had unearthed them in Noregano prefecture using trained futsu hogs harnessed with horsehair lines I had braided myself. In order to find the kebari’s damp, loamy hiding places, you must become one with the kebari. You must outsmart the kebari. You must outsmart the futsu hog. You must become the hog. I am the hog. I am the kebari. I am the tenkara.
There are just eleven other cars in the roadside pullout when I arrive. Perfect. The dozen of us have this untouched headwater stream all to ourselves. I grab my 700 cm Shimaiwa rod, heft it over my shoulder, and slide down the embankment to the stream.
I like to sit and observe a stretch of water before I fish it, so I pull out my weathered emergency poncho and settle in for an all-nighter. I stuff the poncho with gathered mushrooms to provide more loft and insulation, more warmth and comfort. I see many fellow anglers fish my stretch of water. I pity them. If success in fishing is defined as catching many, many fish, then yes, they are successful. But they do not understand that perfection is reached not when there are no more fish to pull out of a hole but when one does not even need to fish the hole in the first place. Fishing is the weakest form of fishing. I am not weak. I am the tenkara.
Afternoon fades into glorious evening. The stars overhead twinkle like so many scales of the iwana. I am reminded of the fresh namekuji I had at the chaya during my junrei of the shinseina kinoko back during the omatsuri of the ōkina kuchibiru o motsu chīsana shika. It seems like only yesterday.
Suddenly, it is dawn. I am ready. I reach for the Shimaiwa.
No, to reach for the rod would be to reach for defeat. I am the tenkara. I am undefeatable. I must reach inside myself. I close my eyes and begin to slowly rock backward and forward. I sway between the 10 o’clock and 12 o’clock positions. I begin with my torso stiff as my head bobs and pulses. I am 8:2. My shoulders limber up, unable to resist the gathering momentum. I am 7:3. Back and forth I go, the steaming morning air stinging my nostrils. My midsection loosens, and I am 6:4. Faster and faster now, my entire body lithe and willowy. I am full flex. I am bent all the way to the cork now. Fish on! Fish on!
The tug is unmistakable, and I spring backwards, a nest of snagged fishing line and bobbers breaking my fall. I glance over to the water’s edge, and I see that I’ve done it again. A trophy-sized oncorhynchus clarkii henshawi flops around on the gravel. Exactly what I needed for tonight’s dinner of traditional Japanese fish tacos. I thank the fish for its service before dispatching it with a swift dozen blows to the belly. I slowly walk back to the Honda.
Tenkara is not about catching fish, and it never was. Those Japanese commercial tenkara fishermen from centuries gone by did not care about catching fish. What they understood is that tenkara is the only path—the one true path—to self-transformation, to self-actualization, to self-satisfactualization, to self-transcendentalization. The mountains change you. The river changes you. The fish change you. The kebari change you. The Honda and kelp change you. But you must always ask yourself this: Into what have they changed you?
I know my answer. I am the tenkara.
Connor “Hakuchi” Johnson is a humble student of traditional Japanese tenkara and is passionate about the eradication of all tenkara anglers who have not been to Japan at least six times.