Accurate records on the origins of  tenkara are few and far between. Archeologic research suggests fishing methods involving bamboo rods and artificial lures designed to mimic insect life existed in the region as early as 9th century B.C. Japanese historic records confirm the presence of artificial flies as early as the 17th century, while the earliest known account of Tenkara in English appeared in the 19th century.

Despite this paucity of information, the history of Tenkara retains a utilitarian value to the modern Tenkara angler. An understanding of the origins of Tenkara proves very useful, if not indispensable, in the employment of Tenkara on the water.

japanese tenkara fisher drawing
Taken together with lessons in Tenkara Technique and Philosophy, we hope the following account of the origins of traditional Tenkara highlights this utilitarian value. We begin with a description of the geography and early culture that gave birth to Tenkara as we know it.

Tenkara equipment, technique, and philosophy originated in the high mountain regions prominent on the main island of Japan. Mountain streams in these prefectures are a reflection of the geologic violence that formed their mountains. Flowing over a bed of volcanic rock and sediment, they are steep, turbulent, and fast moving. Compared to the fabled English chalk creeks or the nutrient rich tailwaters found in North America, these mountain streams are ecologically poor. As a consequence, trout and char species inhabiting them are both opportunistic and relatively small in size.

Pasture land was less abundant in the mountains, and their inhabitants relied on the mountain stream to supplement their diet. Necessity dictated that equipment and methods of fishing must be efficient and economical, with the goal of providing food for the table. Anything extra could be sold at market. Equipment was dependent on materials readily available in the region, and these materials had a great influence on the development of Tenkara.

Unlike the hardwoods of the West, whose density limited functional rod length and perhaps necessitated the reel, a variety of lightweight bamboo was readily available to the Japanese fisherman. Rods were constructed by combining varieties with desired flexion characteristics. Nodes were reamed out such that sections might nest within each other, protecting delicate distal sections from damage during ascents. Lightweight bamboo allowed rods to push 15-20 feet, improving presentation through reach and precise casting in turbulent, pocketed water. Once Tenkara developed further as a commercial endeavor, this precision proved even more important as anglers individually targeted fish whose size brought premium pricing at market.
The furling of readily available fibers such as horsetail created lightweight lines. Traditional flies, known as kebari, also relied on readily available materials such as plant and animal fiber, sewing needles bent in the shape of hooks, and yard bird hackle. A relatively Spartan affair, the kebari does not seek to imitate any one insect. Rather, its simple form might suggest many items in a trout’s diet. The success of this style of fly was likely aided by the ecologically poor nature of Japan’s volcanic mountain streams and their opportunistic inhabitants. Thus, the concept of the One Fly was not the result of any pursuit of sport. It was born of more practical considerations.

Traditional Tenkara anglers developed additional items such as silk garments coated with pitch to improve water resistance, sandals designed to improve traction in water, woven creels, and the distinct net shaped from a single branch we now know as the tamo

All of this was designed to allow the early Tenkara angler to move quickly and efficiently, covering distances to fill his creel in as economic a fashion as possible.

Then came the Samurai. To be perfectly clear, the Samurai never fished Tenkara. But they did fish, and had a profound influence on Japanese culture. As a result of their efforts, beginning in the early 17th century, Japan enjoyed a truly remarkable period of peace and prosperity that would span nearly two centuries. With prosperity and peace came the luxury of leisure. The Samurai developed their own style of angling during this period. Involving the manipulation or jigging of a series of flies or bare hooks, this lowland style employed in slow water was distinctly different from Tenkara. Elements of this style spread to other social castes. For example, it was during this period that we first see rod and fly elevated to true art forms with value in and of themselves, fetching considerable sums among nobility.

Leisure also lead to travel. Elements of lowland and highland subcultures began influencing one another to greater degrees. While Tenkara remained distinctly different from angling styles found elsewhere in Japan (as it remains today), the inevitable intermingling of materials, elements of equipment design and manufacture, technique, and the overall approach to angling as both profession and art further influenced the development of Tenkara. Proof of this process might lie in the evolution of the bamboo rod, the introduction of relatively expensive silk line, the stylization of the tamo, and perhaps even the incorporation of fly manipulation. Additional evidence can be discovered in our modern interpretation of the One Fly Philosophy.

As Tenkara spreads beyond the Land of the Setting Sun for the first time in its long history, this process will no doubt continue. It has been said that Tenkara is the first true innovation in the sport of fly fishing in over 30 years. Given its ancient origins, perhaps viewing the modern popularization of traditional Tenkara as a re-discovery is more accurate than as an innovation.

Regardless, while the fish might be a bit less enthusiastic, it certainly is an exciting time to be an angler!