Ebisu: front cover of the catalogue for The Vision and Art of Shinjo Ito. (photo taken 04 10 2012)
A recurring theme in one’s life may be perceived either upon past reflection or by present reminder. When one encounters the latest example of the latter and, for whatever reason, be it curiosity or impulse, begins to trace the line of occurrences backward from there, something profound often is found staring one in the face.
One leitmotif that has appeared along the road of my life like a string of green lights indicating “Go!” is all things Japanese. The root occurrence, the one I remember, was a seventh grade geography paper. I pulled JAPAN out of an upturned hat resting on Mr. Armstrong’s desk. The World Book encyclopedia and a trip to the Carnegie Library followed, supplemented by visual and historical details culled from James Clavell’s Shogun, both the novel and the nine-hour television miniseries, which happened to air at roughly the same time as my assignment.
By the time I arrived at university in 1985, Japan was a dominating player in the world’s coalescing global economy. My plan at Penn State was to study print journalism. The idea of me being an arts and culture reporter in Tokyo lit my imaginative fire. I enrolled in a four-credit Japanese language class.
Mr. Takahashi, sensei, my instructor throughout my formal study of the language, was an enthusiastic young man who sported black glasses and a grey tweed coat. He taught us, he said quite frankly, the way he had instructed grade school children. Each morning we began by vocalizing the entire hiragana alphabet: “a, i, u, e, o . . . ka, ki, ku, ke, ko” all the way through to the concluding “wa, o, n”. . . The consonant and vowel combinations rolled off my tongue with a clear, staccato cadence that lacked the multisyllabic twists of the German that had challenged and daunted me throughout high school.
Classes in East Asian philosophy and history of art followed until I had accrued enough credits for an East Asian studies minor, although I was too distracted by college life to declare one. The thought front and center in my mind back then was a single detail that I noticed was present in a lot of the images I studied, paintings which were actually illustrated poems. Many, it seemed, depicted some variation on the theme of a contemplative monk, sitting beside a pond or stream, holding a rod without a reel, fishing.
University life’s dreams translated into adult life’s reality; I moved to Philadelphia rather than Tokyo. I spent two decades within its red brick setting, focusing on library science by workday and creative writing the rest of the time. The book dominated my life, so I naturally kept up on my reading of Japanese fiction, everything from the pop culture lit of Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen to the metaphoric epic of Yasunari Kawabata’s The Master of Go. His storytelling was so powerful that I bought a set and took up the game of black and white stones with a few other Japanophiles who played on weekends beside the large front windows of a nearby coffee shop called The Last Drop.
Besides café culture, there was music – the yin of acoustic guitar and the yang of synthesizers – which was a serious pastime of mine, one that bloomed into something bigger than a hobby in 2006. A friend who managed another café called La Colombe, and who also owned a small recording studio, invited me to play keyboards for a series of sessions. The goal of the project was to work some songs into shape for Murai, a vocalist who sang both in English and Japanese. During rehearsals, the occasional Japanese word I could recognize – like neko (cat) – would inspire me to improvise a grace note, a pitch bend, or a sound effect that often stopped the song, but always with a smile or laugh from the rest of the band.
I sometimes did cat sit for the husband and wife team of Murai when they visited her family, natives of the bucolic horse country on the northern island of Hokkaido. When once her parents visited the states, they invited me, the cat man, to a dinner hosted at her apartment. When, at the start of the meal, I mentioned I spoke some Japanese, her father asked me what I did. I told him I was a writer and a fly fisher; I wrote about using a rod, reel, and line tipped with a hae, which is Japanese for fly, the insect. Mr. Murai responded with a humorous look and corrected me. The hae, I learned, is the kind of fly that crawls on a window screen. “Kebari,” he said, “this is the name of a feathered lure designed to look like a fly.” This, then, from the source, was my initial introduction to Japanese fly fishing.
Perhaps the most significant confluence of the Japanese with my path occurred in 2008, and it was because this one was to have a profound impact on my fishing writing life. During February of that year, my then fiancée and I visited the Milk Gallery in Manhattan to see the “Art and Vision” retrospective of the Japanese Buddhist master and artist, Shinjo Ito. One of his pieces in the exhibit was a cast bronze sculpture of Ebisu, the Japanese god of fisherman, good luck, and workingmen, as well as the guardian of small children’s health. He is one of the Seven Gods of Fortune, and the only one of the seven to originate in Japan.
Self, standing by Ebisu by Shinjo Ito at the "Art and Vision" retrospective, Milk Gallery, NYC. (photo by Maryann Amici 02 2008)
I purchased a catalogue of the show and one evening, while contemplating Ito’s image of Ebisu, I experienced an epiphany in the form of a new way to spread the word about the manuscript of my second book, Small Fry: The Lure of the Little. I realized I might be able to serialize the book in the old-fashioned way with a set of biweekly installments, and do so in the most contemporary forum – online, which later came to fruition in the form of collaboration with Martin Joergensen of Global Fly Fisher. The success of its digital appearance resulted in its publication as a paperback published by The Whitefish Press in 2009. Thank you, Ebisu!
Ebisu: a Japanese god, a god of fisherman, residing in the pantheon with all of the others. The fact he was there, representing us little people casting nets and rods in search of fish, inspired a poem about the mortal masters of a related discipline, the art and craft of fly tying . . .
In a stream’s flow.
Men and women,
As feathers and fur do
By thread and floss;
Their names, embossed,
Become floating sculptures.
While Ebisu was rejuvenating my own fishing life, he was at also apparently guiding another amerikajin at work on the opposite side of the country. Daniel Galhardo, a young man working in international finance, was manifesting reality from his own Japanese dreams. His experience travelling and fishing in Japan compelled him to introduce the traditional Japanese expression of fly fishing, both the unique gear and their specialized techniques, to America. To do so, he founded a company, Tenkara USA.
Marriage and a move to Manhattan filled my life in 2009. Once established, I began to encounter Galhardo’s name and angling mission on fly fishing blogs everywhere, so I paid a visit to his company’s website. The embedded videos of tenkara gear in action along narrow mountain trout streams fit my fishing style and temperament. I have always appreciated intimate environments, finesse casting, and especially small fish. Large fish, landed on heavy tackle, heave and gasp and reveal the exhaustion of their life or death struggle. By contrast, small fry are a quick, fun catch, almost playful. The way a little largemouth bass or brook trout springs from your open hand is a much more positive conclusion to a fishing encounter than the tentative, winded descent of a giant into the opaque unknown.
Galhardo’s Tenkara USA proved to be a kind of one stop shop that offers a complete assortment of traditional Japanese fly fishing equipment: the Kebari, lines, nets, and several different tenkara rods. One of the models his company offers is named the Ebisu: a telescoping, twelve-foot, light-action rod with a red pine handle. Of course, seeing the name, reading its description, knowing it would fit the kind of fly fishing I have long loved and written about, I pounced. I pounced the way a pugnacious sunny hits a popper floating on a quiet farm pond.
Ebisu: a tenkara rod. (photo taken 04 07 2012)
– rPs 04 10 2012