Tenkara – no – Oni — Masami Sakakibara’s World of Tenkara —


History of Tenkara

Masami Sakakibara

Historic reference of a fly like equipment used to catch fish dates back to well

before Christ. It is said that similar methods were used in Japan not long after

that. During the Edo era,about 400 years ago, a document states of a Merchant

selling kebari for Ayu (Japanese Sweet Fish) fishing.

Ayu, migrate to rivers from the sea to spawn like salmon, are rather easy targets

since they share the lower altitude habitat with humans. Japanese native trout

such as Amago, Yamame, and Iwana, are found in cooler alpine environment

typically 1000m~3000m above sea level.   Away from civilization, people who

fished those trout were professional fisherman, hunters, and others who had

the know how to survive and live off the fruits of deep and hostile mountains

of Japan.

These professionals were able to catch fish using Tenkara, without the fish ever

touching the ground.  If the fish touched the ground then it had to be washed,

taking away a lot of its flavor (slime on the skin becomes very crunchy when

grilled) and market value. Earliest record of these professionals using

kebari” to catch fish can be found in the book “Tateyama Climbing Journal”,

written by Earnest Satow, a British diplomat who accompanied his countryman

Minister Parks on his journey.

It is said that the man who guided them through the rugged rivers and

mountains of Tateyama, was the legendary Iwana fisherman Shinaemon Tōyama.


In the journal, it is mentioned that Iwana was caught using kebari and that the

fish (Iwana) was delicious. Kebari fishing equipment used by

Shinaemon Tōyama is displayed at the Mountaineering Museum in Nagano


Tenkara anglers who have a chance to travel to Japan should give the museum

a visit and see how“simple” the Tenkara equipments of the professionals were.



From my personal reference, my father, grandfather, great grandfather and their friends

knew of a fishing method called “Tenkara”.  My wife’s family had lived in

a small village on the border of Gifu and Toyama prefectures known as the Hida

Region, which is deep in the mountains close to the “Shirayama” and “

Shirakawagou” areas.

The village no longer exists, but my wife remembers the elders talking about

Tenkara.  To me this proves that the term “Tenkara” had already been known

during the Meiji era and probably before. Many including the Japanese may

not know that in those old days, there were different groups in different

regions of Japan that moved from one mountain to another, living in the

wilderness fishing and hunting.

They were experts of the mountains and they kept many secrets.

They relied greatly on the protein source Japanese trout provided, and they had

no interest in creating competition.  “Matagi” of the northern regions were

also very secretive mountain and hunting expert groups.  They used their own

languages when hunting and fished with methods similar to Tenkara, although

we don’t know they called it that.


So Tenkara was probably a known term in some regions, and

others used different terms.  We may never know the true source of the word


Today, Tenkara is the common term used in and outside Japan.  We cannot

support our families with the fish we catch, but it is a tradition we inherited

and love.  What I think the importance of Tenkara we need to recognize is

not about what it once was, but what we make of it today.



Reference:”Truth About Kebari Fishing You Must Not Read” Hisao Ishigaki, Ningensha

Images Provided by Hisao Ishigaki

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