Welcome to the land of Nikko-style Tenkara

 

Okorogawa, Nikko City, Japan

Tenkara-exclusive Zone

Catch & Release Section: OPEN

1. 2022 fishing season: March 1st (Tuesday) – September 19th (Sunday) 

2. Fishing ticket: all fish (charr, masu salmon etc.) allowed except for Ayu (sweetfish)
   ¥2000 per day (in a store) / ¥4000 per day (on-site)
    Annual ticket is ¥7000 (¥6000 for members of the Kurokawa Fisheries Cooperative)

3. You can purchase tickets at the locations designated △▽ on the map bellow

4. NOTE
・We recommend purchasing a ticket before going fishing.
・Do NOT take the fish home with you. Release them back into the river gently.
・Use a barbless hook.
・Do NOT bring a fish basket or any type of a fish container to the zone.
・This is a Tenkara-exclusive zone - NO other method of fishing allowed.
・Do NOT bring a rod with a reel to the zone. 

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We hope that reading the following story will make your visit to the Tenkara-exclusive catch and release section in Okorogawa, Nikko City, Tochigi Prefecture, Japan all the more fun and enjoyable.

You might be thinking to yourself that Tenkara is already fun enough for the exhilaration one gets when catching a fish while enjoying the beauty of nature. However, you might also find that knowing and appreciating the history of Tenkara can make your fishing experience in Okorogawa all the more exciting. 

The story you are about to read touches upon that very history, especially concerning the people who made Nikko-style Tenkara and passed it down through the generations. Our hope is that it will inspire people like you from all over the world to come and visit Okorogawa.

Come and visit the places mentioned in this story and immerse yourself in the rich and magnificent tradition of Nikko-style Tenkara. Interact with the local people who fish there and listen to their many fishing stories. Learning about their Tenkara experiences should hopefully enhance your own. All of this should ultimately lead you to forging a long-lasting connection with the land, people, culture, history and the very future of Nikko-style Tenkara. 

This presentation was made and published by the members of “Nikko Association for the Preservation and Proliferation of Tenkara in Okorogawa” (NAPPTO) 

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​Yuzo Sebata

Born in 1940. In his youth, he inherited and further developed the Tenkara style which originated and has been handed down for generations in the region of Okorogawa, Mae Nikko. Over the years, he has become a well-established and respected master in the ways of Tenkara. Apart from his books, in recent years, he has gained popularity through internet videos, magazines, documentaries etc., leading to him having many fans overseas.

Pioneers of Nikko Tenkara

A tale from Okorogawa, Mae Nikko Mountains

Written by Yuzo Sebata (published by Tsuribitosya)

Excerpt from “Shinpen Tani gatari” (Tales from the Valley)

The late Juntaro Tanaka was a well-known Tenkara fishing master from  Nishi-Okorogawa, Nikko City, Japan, as well as my teacher in the ways of Tenkara. I can vividly recollect spending time with him and his family. In fact, I will never forget the first time we met through his grandson, Isamu Tanaka.

  It was a very dry summer in the middle of August. On the day we met, it was sunny outside, and it hadn't rained for quite some time. Faced with a drought, I didn't expect to catch any fish that day. With that in mind, peeking into Juntaro’s garden, I was surprised to see around thirty glistening yamame (land-locked masu salmon) fresh out of water, nicely and uniformly shaped, skewered and roasting over a cozy fire. I vividly remember his first words to me were: "Hey there! You shouldn't try fishing right now. You should wait till evening and take it slowly. Don't worry about staying too late. You can spend the night at my house". 

Following Juntaro's advice, I went fishing with Isamu in the late afternoon, starting at the Todoroki Buchi pool and finishing at the nearby Sugasawa-Kurokawa confluence. We were aiming to hit that sweet spot for fishing just before sunset. The advice proved golden as both Isamu and I managed to catch 7 well-shaped yamame each. While I was fishing, however, I was in a dilemma over Juntaro’s offer to stay the night at his house. Since I was only recently married, in May the same year, I wanted to be a good husband and spend as much of my free time with my wife as possible. It may seem selfish, but I cannot emphasize enough how difficult it was for me to simply go home after experiencing the thrill and excitement of catching and pulling in strong yamame. Ultimately, I decided to stay the night with Juntaro and his family.

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The late Juntaro Tanaka

Photo provided by his grandson, Isamu Tanaka

He shared many stories that night, including the one about how he "stole" Tenkara techniques from a person called Kagosaku. What's more, he beguiled us with mountain hunting stories from his youth and was also gracious enough to share some of his kebari (fishing fly) crafting techniques. This wonderful night will always stay with me as one of the most important nights in my fishing life. As a result, I became close friends with the Tanaka family. So much so, that I would visit them every time I went on a fishing trip, both before and after. Ever since that night, I have looked up to Juntaro as a teacher who set me on my path to becoming a Tenkara fisherman.

I'm sad to say that apart from listening about his techniques, I never had a chance to be taught hands-on. To this day, I consider it one of life's lost opportunities to have never seen Juntaro in action. He was always busy with his work in the mountains, so he didn't have a lot of free time to go fishing regularly. However, I will always treasure his many stories. It is because of them that I was drawn into the world of Tenkara in the first place. My favorites are the ones that include Juntaro's Tenkara "mentor" Kagosaku, as their escapades are a great source of amusement. 

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The Kurokawa River (Nishi-Okorogawa area)

Starting as a beautiful mountain stream and ending as a lowland river

Kagosaku wasn’t only a Tenkara master, he was also a basket weaver and a bird hunter. When a bird hunting season would be over, he would entirely focus on his fishing. "His kebari and technique were marvelous", Juntaro recalled, also noting that "You couldn't talk about Tenkara in Okorogawa without mentioning Kagosaku". However, Kagosaku had a reputation of being a bit strange, in the sense that he avoided other people and was very secretive regarding his kebari, fishing lines and techniques. He would hide his kebari in the palm of his hand while scurrying to the fishing area as quickly as possible, trying to avoid revealing his secrets to any prying onlookers. One such prying onlooker was Juntaro, only ever catching a glimpse of Kagosaku fishing. Nevertheless, Juntaro did eventually manage to take one of Kagosaku's secret kebari. His eyes would fill with pride and joy every time he recalled details of this "great accomplishment".

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The Kurokawa River (Nishi-Okorogawa area)

The river is even more clear between the Kotaki and Otaki falls where its wilderness can be fully appreciated

Picture the scene. It was 1945, shortly after Juntaro got married. One day, he was rushing home from his logging job close to the Otaki and Kotaki falls of the Kurokawa River, near a place called Meshii, when he spotted Kagosaku around one of the river's pools at the base of the Kotaki fall. From a distance, it seemed that Kagosaku was casting a line, using one of his top secret kebari. This presented a perfect opportunity for Juntaro to see Kagosaku in action. He thought it a blessing that he wasn’t noticed and managed to hide in some bushes on a hill overlooking Kagosaku. Juntaro tried very hard not to let a single peep come out of him. Luckily for him, Kagosaku was too enthralled with Tenkara fishing to notice anything. In that moment, blessed with a better vantage point than ever before, Juntaro was amazed by the success of Kagosaku's techinque. In fact, he was so amazed that he compared it to magic.

With a whoosh and a flick, Kagosaku cast and pulled his line in quick succession while aiming for the slow current of the pool. With ease and speed, he caught around thirty yamame in the process. Juntaro tried to emphasize how astonished and mesmerized he was by saying: “I had to remind myself to breathe”. From that moment on, there was no better way of fishing than Kagosaku's Tenkara. He described it as a divine technique that instilled in him a fervent wish to be able to fish in the same manner. On the one hand, he was very grateful for the opportunity to observe Kagosaku's fishing technique, but on the other, he was frustrated that he couldn't get a good look at the kebari from his distance. "I would really like to get my hands on one of those magnificent kebari", he thought to himself at the time. It would seem the mountain gods were on his side that day. As soon as Kagosaku changed his position by five or six steps to standing below some intricate branches of a tree, something very cliché happened. "Bad luck for Kagosaku! His line got caught on that tree", recalled Juntaro, adding that he felt really giddy with anticipation at that moment.

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The Otaki fall (Kurokawa River)

The upstream area is closed for fishing as part of a fish conservation program 

Crouched behind the bushes, he patiently observed as Kagosaku was struggling to free his line and kebari from the tree. Reaching for the hatchet on his waist, Juntaro thought to himself how easy it would be to help Kagosaku with his problem. However, Juntaro decided to devilishly bide his time instead and wait for Kagosaku to give up. Unfortunately for Kagosaku, the tree was too thin to climb and too thick to break with one's hands. At first, he was simply frustrated with trying to untangle his line and kebari from the tree, but that frustration soon boiled over into pure anger which prompted him to start aggressively pulling on the fishing line. This did not end well as the line snapped somewhere in the middle. To no one’s surprise, staring at the snapped line hanging from the tree made Kagosaku even more angry and rancorous, but he wasn't ready to give up just yet. He started poking at the tree, desperately trying to entwine the snapped line around the tip of his fishing rod.

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The Kotaki fall (Kurokawa River)

The fated place where Juntaro “inherited” Kagosaku’s Tenkara 

Today, as you can see, there is a dam at the top of the fall

After a while, he finally started showing signs of giving up and going home. That made Juntaro's heart jump with joy, especially when Kagosaku started climbing a steep hill just after sunset. It was so dark outside, and the hill was so steep that he had to use the trees along his way for navigation and as clutches, making sure not to lose his footing. As soon as he was gone from view, Juntaro very swiftly ran down from the bush, his eyes fixed onto the hanging thread the entire time. He immediately started cutting down the tree with his hatchet. After rummaging through the branches in the dark, his hands started shaking with excitement when he finally picked up the kebari from the fallen tree. "I wrapped it around my finger and then scarpered home", said Juntaro, adding that when he examined the kebari, he found it surprisingly simple in design.

The kebari in question was made using a sode-style hook with a body of light yellow Asian royal fern fluff and a hackle with brown chicken feathers. Juntaro was completely taken aback by its simplicity, wondering if this really was the same kebari that caught so many yamame before. Furthermore, the michiito (tapered line) and the tippet were also surprisingly simple. The tapered line was made from seven or eight horse hairs and was 4.5 meters long, while the tippet was cotton and about 60 centimeters long. In the end, both the fishing line and the kebari highly disappointed Juntaro's expectations, which were admittedly a bit too high after his time spent patiently lurking in the bushes with anticipation.

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Isamu Tanaka holding Asian royal fern fluff used in the making of his grandfather’s kebari

Despite all of this, Juntaro was still very much inspired by Kagosaku, and so the rich and long tradition of Tenkara was passed on from one generation to another. For those active in the Tenkara life, which is very individualistic and competitive, this would not come across as an exceptionally surprising story of succession. In fact, some time after this event, Kagosaku himself shared with Juntaro the story of his first experience learning Tenkara. More specifically, the style traditionally handed down in Nikko for generations. He learned it at the beginning of the Taisho era (1912-1926) by simply observing and mimicking other fishermen.

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Kebari made by the late Juntaro Tanaka himself

Nikko-style Tenkara has a history that is over a hundred years old. It originated and evolved at the Kurokawa River when the fish were a lot more abundant than they are today. Over the years, the number of Nikko-style Tenkara fishermen has unfortunately been decreasing. That is until recently, when it started to increase again and not only in the Nikko region but also elsewhere, probably because of Juntaro's kind and outgoing personality. As the last of his disciples, I feel that it is my duty to spread the good word about the brilliant Nikko-style Tenkara to as many people as possible. This is my way of honoring the memory of the late and great Juntaro Tanaka.

 

Translated and edited by NAPPTO

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This is the end of the chapter “Pioneers of Nikko Tenkara” from the book “Shinpen Tani gatari” (Tales from the Valley), written by Yuzo Sebata. If you are interested in learning more about the history and culture of Nikko-style Tenkara, as well as seeing the places mentioned in this true-to-life story for yourself, please consider visiting Okorogawa, Nikko City(*) , Tochigi Prefecture, Japan. Come and experience the hospitality of its local people and the rich tradition of Nikko-style Tenkara, all while enjoying its beautiful scenery and photogenic landscapes (Movie). March 1st 2022 was the opening of a new Tenkara-exclusive catch and release section, around 2 km long, organized by the Kurokawa Fisheries Cooperative, available to any and all Tenkara fans. Apart from Okorogawa, there is also a Tenkara-exclusive catch and release section in Miyori, Nikko City, organized by the Ojika-Kinu Fisheries Cooperative, where you can enjoy exciting sight fishing of white-spotted charr (Movie). We hope that this story will inspire Tenkara fans from all over the world to come and visit Nikko City.

When you do visit, if you want to learn more about Nikko-style Tenkara from a professional guide, you can contact and hire one at the following email address: info.ametsuchi@gmail.com

Please refer to the following link for directions to the Okorogawa region, Nikko City, Tochigi Prefecture, Japan, and more specifically, to the facilities frequented by foreigners with English-speaking staff (https://infinity-arts.wixsite.com/woodsman).

* Nikko (pop. 92,000) is an internationally popular tourist destination well-known throughout the world for its beautiful scenery and architecture. It is located about 70 miles (110 kilometers) north of Tokyo and can be easily reached by train or car. For gorgeous natural scenery, people usually visit sites like the Kegon Falls, Lake Chuzenji, and the Senjogahara Plateau, to just name a few. When it comes to beautiful architecture, the Toshogu and Futarasan shrines, as well as the Rinno-ji temple are the most popular heritage sites for visiting tourists. 

​More Infomation for tourist →NIKKO OFFICIAL GUIDE
 

Acknowledgments

First of all, we would like to thank Yuzo and Takahisa Sebata for giving us permission to share the chapter above on this website, as well as for providing us with valuable photographs and other materials. We would also like to thank the Kurokawa Fisheries Cooperative and the residents of Okorogawa for sharing information about the history of Nikko-style Tenkara.  Regarding the establishment and operation of the Tenkara-exclusive catch and release section, we would like to thank the Ojika-Kinu Fisheries Cooperative for their advice and their physical labor in helping to create the actual fishing grounds in the Okorogawa region. The publishing company “Tsuribitosya” is also worthy of note here for their very useful advice regarding publishing rights, protocols, and procedures. Finally, we would like to express our sincere gratitude to all members of the NAPPTO organization for their support in this project and for sparing no effort in the management, maintenance, and promotion of Okorogawa’s fishing grounds, as well as for holding up the long-standing tradition of Nikko-style Tenkara.