Kendo Meets Tenkara

Kendo Meets Tenkara . . .

French Creek fallfish that fell for tenkara. (photo taken 04 15 2012)

When earlier I addressed the theme of all things Japanese, the one that has paralleled the course of my life, I omitted a single important example, which I wanted to save for this, the proper moment.

My wife, Maryann, has also cultivated a close relationship with the culture of Japan. When we met, during the wedding day of a mutual friend, we discovered we both had an affinity for the Japanese that went far beyond food. Her primary connection turned out to be the martial art of kendo: the way of the sword.

Best described to the uninitiated as Japanese fencing, kendo is a fascinating, beautiful, and artful approach to swordsmanship, or kenjutsu. When I first visited Maryann’s Manhattan-based dojo, Ken-Zen Institute, I found her and her fellow students, or kendoka, to be serious, even reverent, during study and practice. Under the tutelage of their sensei, Daniel T. Ebihara, Kendo Kyoshi, 7-Dan, each class first divides into two sides, which face each other and follow a series of exercises: a contemplative warm-up; kiri-kaeshi, in which strike centering and stamina are cultivated in successive turns; and wazo-geiko, when kendoka learn and rehearse techniques with a designated partner.

What follows is the dramatic peak of a kendo class. Kendoka suit up into full body armor, the distinctive indigo bogu, which is necessary for Ji-geiko. This part of kendo employs undirected practice in which all assembled fight one another at once. The dojo’s floor, polished wood similar to a basketball court, resounds with the barefootwork, fumikomi-ashi, combined with the collective kiai, the emotional vocal unleashing of the fighting spirit. When this part commences, the experience can be rendered in words as a human eruption. The violence of the sound and controlled chaotic motion of the combat produce a visceral effect in the third-party viewer, an effect that reminds us that kendo is battle.

Ji-geiko in action at the Ken-Zen Institute, NYC. (photo taken 01 08 2012)

Conversely, my practice of fly fishing is commonly called the quiet sport. I was delighted, then, when Maryann not only expressed an interest in trying my way of the fly rod; she actually found she liked the experience. The 5-weight, in particular, appealed to her. The structural logic of the rod, this fishing tool, neither intimidated nor baffled her. Several years of study with the bamboo shinai translated into an easy transition to the fishing instrument. She was, to use the phrase, a natural.

I proposed to her in June of 2009, a few weeks after she had landed a large bluegill on an Olive Woolly Bugger. That first fish moment had all the details of a classic tale. We were casting along the grassy banks of Harlem Meer in Central Park. A passing breeze and a bad reaction on my part created a bird’s nest so complex I had to sit down on the ground to unravel my leader. A few minutes passed, and I heard her call my name. I thought she must have fouled up her line in the wind as well. When I looked up to see, I saw instead her 5-weight bent, its tip vibrating with life: “Fish on!”

We were married a few months later. I moved to New York City to join her. We have since fished freshwater and saltwater, warm water and cold water, lakes and ponds, rivers and streams. Whatever the fishing situation, we seem to find ourselves on the same side of the bank. We are more than life partners; we are fishing buddies.

Last year, when tenkara began to appear again and again on my online angling reading radar, Maryann encouraged me to learn more, to purchase a rod, and then to learn even more together with her. She liked the symbolism embodied by a Japanese sword and a Japanese fly rod residing under the same Manhattan roof. I agreed, but waited until the spring of the year, mainly so we could jump right into the experience after receiving the equipment.

The simplicity of the tenkara rod, especially the fact it supports no reel, continues to feel fresh to me, yet it has a familiar appeal to her. The red pine handle of our Ebisu model, in fact, resembles the tsuka of a bamboo shinai and hardwood oak bokuto.

From top to bottom: bokuto, shinai, tenkara. (photo taken 04 16 2012)

Close-up comparison of the tsuka. (photo taken 04 16 2012)

The traditional grip, with the index finger extended, allows the tenkara rod to be held at an angle familiar to a kendoka:

Tenkara grip: note position of index finger. (photo taken 04 14 2012)

The narrower range of ideal casting motion fits the technique of those accustomed to striking with a sword. When done correctly, with feeling, and surrounded by a pretty natural setting, a successful 3-Dan kendoka turned fly fisher can easily slip into the zone:

Maryann, casting the Ebisu model tenkara rod. (photo taken 04 15 2012)

Recently, we spent Maryann’s birthday weekend in southeastern Pennsylvania with her twin brother and parents, who live just a few blocks from French Creek, a freestone stream suited to the tenkara rod and method. The flow averages between thirty and forty feet in width along its main stretches. Several riffled areas, bends, and chutes narrow down to ten to fifteen feet. Here there are brown trout, some smallmouth bass, and one of my favorite fly-friendly species, fallfish, perhaps the gamest member of the chub family of minnows. The fallfish averages between six and twelve inches in length and, being insectivorous, makes a great fly rod quarry.  Once hooked, a fallfish will fight hard like a baby tarpon, a fish which it actually resembles, albeit one that is one-thousandth of the size.

Fishing the tenkara along French Creek created a pleasant experience. The casting proved to be easy and light. We both found the long rod and level line could swing an Amano Kebari or a soft-hackled fly into the kind of small bathtub depressions found in front of fallen trees and behind projecting stones. Tiny pools like these often hold all the catchable fish in shallow stretches overlooked by spin fishers who require greater depth. The result, then, is more fish for the fly fishers, which during our weekend included brown trout, common shiner, smallmouth bass, and fallfish.

A small stream, a simple rod, a single fish: these three can become one under a rising spring sun.

Maryann, out standing in her home water of French Creek, holding her first tenkara-caught fallfish. (photo taken 04 15 2012)

– rPs 04 16 2012

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