After a few days of eating, shopping, drinking and generally just having a great time in Tokyo, we met up with Ishii-San for a nice yakiniku (Japanese BBQ) lunch, then hit the sake shop and loaded up on the big bottles before heading into the mountains to meet our other hosts.
The weather had been pretty iffy with lots of clouds and some rain. We had mostly dodged the worst weather so far, but more clouds and a forecast for more of the same created an atmosphere of uncertainty in my mind. We were heading in at the tail end of one Typhoon and just ahead of another...
The landscape was beautiful and we were soon out of the city, driving through picturesque mountain valleys and meandering along a mix of local roads and highways.
Although there are plenty of tunnels, the winding roads began to take effect, and as usual, the motion sickness rolled in. I did my best to ignore it and attempted to document some of the ride, but by the time we hit the real mountain passes I was done. This blurry photo captured my mood quite perfectly.
At a quick stop for a breather I snapped this photo of the lake, the end of which was marked by a dam that our campsite was near. All I had to do was make it down the next pass and we'd be "home free." I gritted my teeth and we were soon there.
Arriving at the cabin I collapsed into a pile on the floor, feeling sheepish about my arrival in such a state. I was in no place to start drinking and socializing, but I was in the presence of some pretty special people, and I pushed through the haze as best I could to try to be myself.
The cabin was similar to the one I stayed at in Nara last year, but it lacked the large grill outside and instead was sporting a real full kitchen. Each cabin had its own bathroom with heated seat toilet. American campsites... ARE YOU LISTENING? Haha!
I looked down after a few minutes of lying down to see food and drink hitting the table. The players were assembling... I came down and did my best to act normal even though I felt like crap. The best part is that all the amazing things happening around me did eventually pull me out of it. Here's Kura-San getting a box signed by Sebata-San.
In case you haven't heard of him, Sebata-San is a remarkable individual... a real "uniter" of people. He's also one of the more ballsy and fearless Tenkara explorers, having blazed new routes and sort of pioneered styles of climbing and fishing up into remote headwaters areas (Genryu fishing.) It was an absolute honor to be hosted by him both at the cabin, and later on at Tadami Bansho.
Kazuo Kurahashi, Go Ishii and Masayuki Yamano enjoyed beer and Sebata-San's plum wine while settling in. Ito-San was off camera here, but was hanging with Sebata-San when I arrived. I looked on through the lens of my camera in order to stay focused on feeling good. Soon Okushi-San arrived in his car from Mito, and the group was almost complete.
The sake began to flow like water, and snacks were laid out for us to eat. There was foraged gobo root and warabi, the latter of which was almost like some kind of horse radish/garlic combination. Cured & seasoned small fish, tempura, and other snacks made their debut. As we were eating, Sebata-San began to prepare some foraged mushrooms... milky caps and something else he had found earlier on.
Adam-San and I looked on in awe as the reality of our surroundings began to set in. Pinch me. Am I alive? Yes, actually, I know I'm alive because my head is still pounding hard and I can't focus, but I look up and Sebata-San is smiling. He encourages me to eat more, which makes me feel a little better. Small steps and soon I'm back in good spirits and feeling mostly like myself again.
After a few hours of banter, eating and drinking, everyone hit the sack as we had to wake up just a few hours later to get on the trail to the river. I got about an hour of sleep and then had a mini bug-out about my state of being (lack of sleep,) hoping that I'd still be at the top of my game the next day. The pressure was on, I had to perform, and I had to make sure that I didn't make a fool of myself in front of people I respected greatly. Luckily the fears faded and I drifted off for another half an hour. I woke up feeling surprisingly ok after barely any sleep, but I was still in fear of the car ride to the river... would I have to endure another mountain pass or two?
We piled into the car around 5:30/6:00 am, which is way earlier than I ever leave over here in the states. I was happy that I didn't forget anything important, and as I learned we didn't have a long winding drive to the river, I began to feel really good and the excitement finally set in.
That excitement only grew as we turned onto a back road where the pavement quickly turned to dirt tire tracks and we entered into a remote forested setting. Arriving at our destination, we grabbed our gear and assembled at a sign by the entrance to the forest.
Okushi-San explained the route for the day and we set off into the misty forest toward the headwaters.
The trails were narrow, winding, on the edges of steep embankments and cliffs, and I was doing my best to stay completely focused in my tired state. These narrow trails were barely as wide as two human feet, and often were collapsing into the hillsides below.
This made for some beautiful scenery, with bright openings in the clouds sharply contrasting darker shades and peaks shrouded in the mist.
Mushrooms were everywhere, and we searched for Maitake (hen of the woods) as we walked.
Soon we were at the junction with the tributary. We crossed it on an old foot bridge and headed up and along the main stem a bit further.
Stopping at a shrine in a cave, we gave respect in exchange for pleas of good weather and good fishing, and then we bushwhacked the final stretch down to the water.
Similar to back home, water levels were low in this part of Japan at the time we were there. The recent Typhoons had not dumped the kind of lasting rain that was needed, and a low snowpack from the previous winter had left the place drier than was ideal for our visit. Sound familiar?
This was no problem though, as we all knew where to find the fish, and were soon into the first Iwana of the day. The only downside was that the numbers weren't there. Okushi-San said normally we'd be catching many more with higher water levels.
The fish in this stream were mostly small, as are most of the fish in Japan in general. Ishii-San did hook into a pretty big one, but it somehow threw the hook and got away. My modest first Iwana landed in Japan made me feel pretty happy, and I snapped a quick photo before moving on up the stream.
Ito-San fished with an Oni Honryu 395. Adam-San had brought a Nissin Pocket Mini. Ishii-San used his precious Daiwa Rinfu - now discontinued, and Okushi-San had some kind of Nissin that he liked as well. I used my current favorite, the Oni type III. I would have liked to have had a 4 meter rod with me for a few of the spots, but overall it did the trick just fine. Most guys were using rods in the vicinity of 4 meters. The longer you can go, the better... it allows you to fish from farther downstream and really decreases the risk of you spooking fish.
And herein lies an important point about fishing in Japan! The fish are VERY SKITTISH. More skittish than the most spooky stream you can think of, I can promise this... which means stealth is of the utmost importance. Fishing upstream is necessary most of the time, and you better not skip the bottom of each pool or lie, lest you spook the fish sitting there - because when that happens, they run up into the head of that pool and spook it for the entire day. No joke.
Lies like this one above were difficult to fish, but ones like below were where I tried to cast my line.
And in some cases I was rewarded with more Iwana.
In other cases I lost or spooked my fish. I was way out of my comfort zone, but I was thriving, and loving every minute of it.
The water in the Japanese mountains is so clean and clear... there are no beaver dams and everyone just filled water bottles directly from the stream. I would almost never do that back home, but I followed suit and all was well. The water tasted so damn good! It was full of minerals and made me feel really alive and awake given my state of no sleep.
Taking turns, we each hit a few pools or grabbed a fish before allowing the next guy to jump ahead. Its very important to share like this on small streams in a group... leapfrogging as we often do here is just not possible without scaring fish, and would be a total party foul, so avoid those moves at all costs! Japan is all about respect... lots of care is taken to show respect to each person around you, no matter how little or well you know them. This inherent respect for everyone creates a fair and self-regulated society in which people don't try to one-up each other or sneak ahead while they can at every opportunity, its just not part of the way one thinks in Japan. I loved it. NYC could learn a thing or two from this, that's for sure!
I had a chance to cast Yamano-San's hand-made Bamboo rod for a while, and this shot of the lower part of the rod reveals its beauty and simplicity. He is a rod maker by trade. Bamboo Tenkara rods that I have tried so far tend to be heavier, slower, and less flexible than the best Carbon Fiber counterparts produced today. But they catch fish and look so nice... if its your style, you should reach out to Yamano-San to buy a rod, you won't be disappointed.
Adam-San and Ishii-San took a break and hung back right around this point, while the rest of us barreled ahead, hopping rocks and eagerly bounding over gaps and and logs in order to find the next place to put a fly. The river turned into a gorge, and we were soon walking up through waist-deep water and creeping around the edges of the rock while casting to beautiful wild trout. It was easier in a smaller group, and I realized we were a bit of an inconvenience to the rest of the guys, given that we increased the size of their group and decreased the time each person got to fish. That's Japanese hospitality for you... everyone let us take point more often than they did, and nobody complained about fishing less because we were there. It was really kind of them and I was honored to be treated with so much respect by my new friends.
Okushi-San finally took his rod out and began to fish as well. After a few pools fishing Tenkara flies, he threw on a dry and picked up a small Iwana. It was certainly a "dry fly kind of day," he had said. He was right! I found that Tenkara anglers often did not fish dry flies, but Okushi-San seems to be into it, and I got the sense he fishes different styles quite often.
I focused a lot on nature while I wasn't casting to fish... there are benefits to taking turns too! I saw salamanders, frogs, and some kind of venomous snake. I was told that the teeth that deliver the venom are way back in its throat, and since the snake is so tiny, it would be very hard, if not impossible, to be poisoned by one. This little black snake is not to be confused with the Mamushi Viper, which some of us ended up seeing the next day.
Right around this point, Kura-San caught a small Yamame. We snapped a photo and decided it was a good place to turn around - it was time to head back to where the others had stopped and make some lunch.
On the way back I saw more wildlife, some wild hops, and another snake. I did my best not to lose my footing on the rocky walk down the stream, and was very impressed with the rubber on the Caravan brand wading boots I had bought.
We ate lunch together, and then packed up and headed back towards the car. We had a bit of a hike out, and were eager to hit the Onsen. (Mountain hot springs.)
On the way back we gathered chestnuts that were just beginning to fall, and we filled up on water from one of many sources along the trail.
Everything was new and different in a foreign land, but I still felt very much at home and finally "back in my element."
We drove back to town, stopping at the grocery store to grab some food for the backpacking trip the next day. After that was taken care of, Okushi-San took us to the local Onsen and we hit it pretty hard. The water at this Onsen was insanely hot, maybe even too hot. I couldn't stay in the water too long. If you've never experienced Onsen, you must try it... but learn about the details first, there's a lot to know and be prepared for... but its not so different from a sauna experience over here.
The clouds were ominous, but we had the first moment of Sun I could remember for the trip up to that point, and it felt really good.
Back at the cabin, we split up food, re-bottled sake into plastic bottles, and took a look at some of Yamano-San's rods, below.
Later on Sebata-San decided to hook us up with another amazing spread of some kind of chicken, shrimp tempura, more wild-foraged plants, and even some late-night Maitake Tempura.
Everyone was obviously thrilled, and the sake was flowing faster than the night before. Maruyama-San had joined the group, and he was clearly a faster drinker than most of us... I knew we were in for a fun night. Maruyama-San is a photographer for Headwaters magazine and he was joining us for this weekend to snap some photos on our backpacking Genryu trip. I hope to see the results, he showed me a few on his camera that were wonderful.
Maruyama-San and Okushi-San conveyed the right mood here, and that mood carried through the evening. We all drank plenty of good sake, talking in depth about Tenkara in the east, Tenkara in the west, methods, equipment, mentalities, and beyond... It was fascinating to hear everyone's views and opinions on what is going on over here. More on that later on. As we began to fade, we planned for another 5:30 am wake up time and wandered off to our tatami mats in the cabin. The next day promised to be a real adventure and I was looking forward to Genryu Camp (Tenba) in the mountains! More to come in Part 3...