“Fishing from Heaven” -the history of Tenkara 

Traditional Japanese Fly Fishing 

Tenkara, or “Fishing from Heaving,” is an artform unlike our western style of fly fishing, but a utilitarian and purposeful technique of fishing that arose out of a need to acquire food in fast moving volcanic mountain streams in Japan.  The origins of tenkara are unknown as many tenkara anglers were unable to read or write. It was not until Ernest Mason Satow, the British Minister to Japan from 1895-1900, experienced tenkara fishing and began scholarly discussions of fly fishing practices in Japan.   

Japanese fly fishing techniques and the all-encompassing term for tenkara are completely different to the fly-fishing practices in the west. However, techniques to equipment, these two practices are different, but still very similar. For example, there are three components to tenkara equipment: the line, the rod, and the tippet, much like western fly fishing. Unlike western fly fishing, those three components are the only components to the tenkara practice. Also like western fly fishing with a 10 and 2 casting technique, tenkara has a lighter 11 and 1 casting approach.  The tenkara rod is usually no longer than 12 feet, with the line the same length. Whereas in the west there are a variety of flies made and used to recreate natural insect patterns, in Japanese tenakra, there is typically a generic type of fly reminiscent of many insect species. These Japanese flies are called “kebari.” The success of kebari is attributed to the poor ecological diversity of these volcanic streams and the unpicky nature of the mountain dwelling trout and char species in these rivers and streams. Tenkara, being a utilitarian and resourceful form of fly fishing meant that local materials were used to make rods and kebari. Rods were typically made of bamboo and kebari were made with a combination of plant and animal material, as well as sewing needles and silk threads. The Japanese anglers also developed ways to move quickly through the streams by creating water resistant clothing and water shoes with traction.  

Slowly, over centuries and with prosperous economic growth in Japan, tenkara became more of a leisurely activity with techniques adopted from lowland fishing practices.  

Tenkara has grown in popularity through the United States in the past 10 years. Daniel Gilbert, a Middleburg local, prefers the Japanese fishing style and recently brought his tenkara rod to the UK for a fishing trip in Devon, England. Guided by the Devon School of Fly Fishing, Daniel was encouraged to try traditional western fly fishing. He was unsuccessful with western technique but was able to catch quite a few trout using his tenkara rod, line, and kebari. 

When it comes to discussing the origins and history of tenkara, it is really undefined. While we want to put a lot of context and narrative around this history, we really do not know much about the whys of japanese fly fishing origins and practices. Many have referred to the broad school of tenkara as having very nuanced and unregulated parameters, starkly contrasting the parameters of western fly-fishing practices.  

If you find traditional western fly fishing overly complicated and a little intimidating, as I do, then I suggest trying tenkara. It eliminates the unnecessary fuss and becomes a truly meditative practice. 


Discover Tenkara. (n.d.) Tenkara History. Retrieved From https://www.discovertenkara.com/knowledge/culture-history/tenkara-history/ 

New York Times. (2010) A Japanese Form of Fly Fishing Gains Fans in the U.S. Retrieved from  https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/16/sports/16tenkara.html 

Rudow’s Fish Talk. (n.d.) TENKARA FLY FISHING: A DIFFERENT APPROACH. RETRIEVED FROM https://fishtalkmag.com/blog/tenkara-fly-fishing-different-approach

The Tenkara Times. (n.d.) History. Retrieved from http://www.tenkaratimes.com/tenkara-tutorial/Tenkara-fishing-techniques/traditional-tenkara/history 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s