Contemporary Bamboo Fly Rod Makers of Japan

April 9, 1999           

Max Satoh           

 

The history of Japanese bamboo rod:

It was quite long ago when Japanese started making fishing rods using natural bamboo.   In ancient Japan, there was such era where many small countries fought to each other within Japan to extend own land and to survive.    Those days are called as the age of civil strife (Japanese history defines this era, from 1477 to 1573).   When they fought, the weapons were Japanese swords (katana), spears (yari) and bows (yumi) and arrows (ya).   The origin of the rod making technology is referred back to the method of making arrows in Japan.    To prepare enough weapons, every lord of the manor protected those technologies and craftsmen that contributed to the straightness of the arrows, sharpness of its point, and the strength of bows.    A picture above is Yabusame, riding shoot, borrowed from Ogasawara Ryu home page. (http://www.ogasawara-ryu.gr.jp/kisya.html)

 

 

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Ceremonial arrows (above)
http://saturn.de.takuma-ct.ac.jp/~takagi/kyudo/rinen/yajiri/yajiri.html

 

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Various kinds of arrow points (left)

Pictures are from Mr. Takagi's   "Kyudo" home page

(http://saturn.de.takuma-ct.ac.jp/~takagi/kyudo/rinen/yajiri/yajiri.html)

 

 

Arrows were made by so called Arrow Bamboo, thin and round bamboo cane. Since natural arrow bamboo cane is not straight, the technologies calls the methods of straightening the bends, kinks and nodes.

Professional arrow maker is called Yashi in Japanese.

The left picture (Yashi, Mr. Saburo Koyama of Okazaki, Aichi Prefecture) is heating an arrow bamboo in a charcoal burner with heat controlled. The picture is borrowed from the home page of Mr. Koyama. (http://www2.gol.com/users/koyamaya/)

 

 

 

The technologies in making an arrow invokes drying canes, heating and straightening, drilling the nodes, cutting feathers and gluing, making arrow points and thread holder and attaching them, wrapping silk thread, varnishing the cane and the wraps by Urushi.

 

A picture above is the arrows named as Hakutaka, made by Yashi, Iwao Ishizu. Feather is the ones of white hawk. Wraps are coated by Urushi. (Source: from Mr. Takagi's Kyudo home page.)

Thus the protection of arrow craft also resulted to remain a number of arrow bamboo groves everywhere all over the country and those bamboo groves also contributed to the development of bamboo rods culture in the following era.

The almost same manufacturing technologies were imported in making a round bamboo cane fishing rod (unsplitted rod).   The picture shows all the required set of tools used in making a round bamboo cane rod. (Presented by Mr. Matsumoto, Ginza Tosaku tackle shop owner)

These tools are;
(left to right on the top) thread wrapper, charcoal burner with two bricks,
(left to right at bottom) spears for drilling nodes, chisels, round files, line marker, caliper, saws, measure,
(middle) work bench,  (on the bench) branch nipper, flat files and knives
(right) and levers (tamegi) for straightening at right.

 

It is said that the first connected (round and unsplitted) bamboo rod was made for the first time by Tosaku in 1782, when in Edo era of Shogun, Tokugawa. Tosaku is one of the famous brand names of Japanese fishing rod even today. Saburobei Matsumoto was the name of the first Tosaku founder and he was a samurai of Kishu (now Wakayama Prefecture) before making rods. The connected bamboo rod utilized and developed the technologies of straightening bamboo cane and Urushi varnishing as well as connecting techniques of several cane sections without using metal ferrules. A numerous families of fishing rod makers derived from Tosaku and the culture of making bamboo rod were evolved. Now some of Japanese rods and makers were listed as traditional art craft by local governments because of its crafting techniques and traditional beauty of varnishing.

Wazao, Japanese round connecting bamboo rod, is shown in the picture at left. This rod is the product of Genkanshi, a famous rod maker in Wakayama Pref. which my father left for me. As my father bought this rod about 50 years ago, the rod must have spent more years. This is 12 feet 4 pieces connecting rod for fishing roach or carp, two sections of them can be stored in thicker sections respectively (middle). The bottom picture shows you how each section is connected to another. As they are connected directly between bamboo sections without using metal ferrules, rod action (though not like the one of a fly rod) is not affected by ferrules.

Two colors of Urushi varnish is coated in turn and its quality has not been changed under frequent use of fishing for more than 60 years. The most time consuming and experience oriented efforts in making this type of rod will start in finding the most appropriate combination of bamboo sections for thickness and elasticity (stiffness). Among 1,000 row arrow bamboo canes, probably 10% is a good yield to utilize for the combination.

This type of connected rods are mainly used to fish such fresh water fishes as roaches and carps on ponds, lake or lower stream of rivers, etc..

A picture at right is the extreme of connecting rod made involving all the difficult crafting techniques by the 6th generation of Tosaku, for fishing roaches. It is 7 inches long and a half number of sections are stored inside of other thicker sections. You can use these sections as 20 pieces connection or 13 pieces according to the necessary fishing length. (The picture is presented by Mr. Matsumoto, the owner of Ginza Tosaku tackle shop.)

 

Origin of Fly Fishing in Japan:

When we talk about fly fishing or fly rods, we may have to refer to how foreign trout was introduced in Japan. Actually there were several kinds of natural char all over the country and salmon in northern areas. People had been fishing them by using bates and original flies. (Salmon fishing have been prohibited for people to fish by low. Salmon was taken for business purpose only. It was just recently that several northern rivers began to accept fishers for investigating growth of salmons.) This fishing method is called Tenkara fishing which is still active now. It uses a connected rod (or a natural bamboo pole) and fixed length of line. When they used flies (Japanese flies for tenkara at left) they used a fly line which was made by twisting the hairs of horse tail in old days.

There is a lake called Lake Chuzenji in Tochigi prefecture, in Nikko National Park, that was formed by damming a natural river. The explosion of the volcano at Mt. Dantai which stands beside the river stopped the streams. As the result, the lake did have less fishes due to the nature of its origin and there is a high water fall, Kegon Falls, which will stop for fishes to clime up from its lower stream. In 1873, a person called Sadagoro Hoshino stocked Iwana (a kind of native char) in the lake and start presenting the enjoyment of sport fishing to foreigners who visited Nikko for summering. A fisherman s cooperative association was also organized in 1886 and the efforts of reproduction started.

The first foreign trout was introduced in the lake by two foreigners, Thomas Glover (Scotland) and Harold Parllett (England), in 1902.

Though the trout was brook trout, it was called Parllett trout in Nikko area by naming it after the introducer. In 1927, Hans Hunter (Irish  Japanese), the owner of Hunter financial combine and an honorary council of Latvia, established Tokyo Angling and Country Club at Nikko and fly fishing was getting popular around lake Chuzenji among foreign visitors and those civilized Japanese, such as novelists, doctors, those who experienced foreign cultures, etc.. .

The first Japanese split hexagonal bamboo rod maker - Ichimatsu Tada

Ichimatsu Tada was a news paper writer for social section of Asahi News Paper Company. He loved any kind of fishing from his boy s age and also liked to manipulate machines such as printing machines of newspaper. One day, he looked at red wrapped bamboo rod in the show window of some tackle shop. He was impressed with the beautiful rod and made up his mind to make one himself. By his nature, he invented almost tools and gadgets by himself. Of-course, there was no such book like Garrison/Carmichael s Master Guide in his days. Tada s rods at his beginning stage were boat rods for salt water and casting rods for carps. As there was less supply of Tonkin or Calcutta Cane in Japan, he used Madake, or Mosodake, Japanese bamboo species, to make these rods. He used Japanese plane and wooden planing form of his own invention at this stage.

Tada resigned Asahi News Paper Company after the war ended and became independent by establishing Tada Fishing Tackle Works, Ltd. According to Tada's apprentice, Masato Hirata, Tada invented such a machine by himself that has only one motor to automate pulling a strip, cutting the strip and giving the strip a taper at the same time.

He seemed to pull a strip between two blades of 60 degrees angle with some method of giving it a taper. An article of Tada in Japanese fishing journal, Shumi no Tsuri (Leisure Fishing), around then explains that it is an automatic taper cutting machine. Unfortunately no one can find the plans for the machine today. A Bamboo Cane Splitter was also the invention of Tada. This is still widely used among contemporary rod makers here.

In the article of Tada written in 1955, on how to make hexagonal bamboo rod in the same fishing journal, there is interesting descriptions to which we can refer even today;

"Considering the stretch or shrink of bamboo caused by dry and wet air during its long life, it seems more effective to plane the angle of strips into 60.5 degrees for thick strips and into 61 degrees for thin strips. "

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"By the power of a fish that pulls the line, a little before a bend portion cannot stand, a rod moves the bend toward next thicker portion. On the other hand, tip portion changes its shape from bend to straight. The rod action depends on the degree how we make it happen. When you hooked a big fish and the rod is pulled, if the bend portion moved toward the grip and if the rod is broken at just before the grip, it can be said that the rod performed its utmost function. When a rod breaks at a middle portion of the rod, the stress could not be transmitted toward the next thicker portion of the rod. Then it breaks at the portion where the stress could not be transmitted. There must be some reasons caused by metal ferrules or some defects embedded in the blank. "

The biggest technological problem for Tada was adhesive to bond the strips. It was extremely difficult to acquire imported adhesive after the war. Tada used Urushi for adhesive and for varnishing. He believed strongly the effect of Urushi for its permeation into bamboo skin. He glued his rods using Urushi adhesive (probably mixed with some other material) as it is tough enough against both of heat and water. The usage of Urushi had lead Tada's rod into high evaluation of their users for durability and beauty. Picture shows Tada's fly rod which glued and varnished with Urushi. It still remains unchanged beauty after spending 70 years of age.

 

Urushi varnishing itself was made by Shodayu, a professional Urushi finisher.

Ferrules were also vanished with Urushi in the color to harmonize with rod sections.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On later day, Tada's bamboo fly rods received the greatest honor. The Prime Minister of Japan, Shigeru Yoshida, purchased several Tada's bamboo fly rods through Tsuruya (one of the major tackle shops in Tokyo), to make them a gift for Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower. I hope those rods are still alive somewhere in the world.

 
Overview of Tada' s rod  8ft #5 2 pieces 2 tips

Thus Ichimatsu Tada initiated the history of making hexagonal bamboo fly fishing rod in Japan.

Tada is also the one of initiators of Nippon Fishing Tackle (NFT), a company for making and selling bamboo fly rods. In 1960's, glass fiber rods became popular in the market and NFT moved to mainly treat glass fiber fly rods. Tada resigned NFT and devoted to make his own bamboo fly rods.

After the World War II  -  Shichiro Kitamura

After the WW II around 1950's, many American soldiers lived in Japan. They found that an expensive bamboo fly rod in home country could be purchased with very reasonable price in Japan. After that, Japanese bamboo fly rods were extremely populated in the market. The NFT (Nippon Fishing Tackle) was the center of the suppliers of bamboo fly rods from late 1940's to 1960's. It is said that there were 26 brand names of bamboo fly rod at that time. Even Tosaku, mentioned before, produced hexagonal split bamboo fly rods after the war.

People who know these days says, on the date of delivery, a trailer of Central Procurement Office of General Head Quarter of US occupation came and picked up the pile of finished bamboo rods.  

Shichiro Kitamura started his business with his shop name of "Kiraku" around then. Kitamura invented so called Combination rod called  "Grampus", which can be used as a spinning rod or as a fly rod by changing its grips. This rod was extremely liked by many of American because of its convenience and was brought back to United States.

Picture shows one of  Grampus Rods, which can be used as a 5-pieces-fly-rod with a grip when you change its reelseat reversed, and as a 3-pieces-spinning-rod with the same grip (in picture, the grip is located for a spinning rod) sharing the thickest butt section with fly rod. As each section has 16.8 inches of length, it is very convenient to carry.

 

Kiraku is making a round bamboo fly rod even today with the brand name of  "Persist" which uses arrow bamboo canes and which is made based on the traditional Japanese rod making technologies. This is a genuine hollow bamboo fly rod. When Jimmy Carter, former US President, visited Japan, Kiraku's bamboo fly rod was presented for his use.

 

Contemporary Maker -  Masato Hirata

 

Masato Hirata is the first formal apprentice to Ichimatsu Tada and now acting very aggressively. He has been holding his school of making a bamboo fly rod once a year for 12 years, with the sponsorship of Tsuruya Tackle Shop. Tsuruya is another big name of fishing tackle shop parallel to Tosaku and Kiraku in Tokyo.

Hirata's students count up around 120 all over Japan as of January 1999. There are numbers of formal and informal apprentices all over Japan. Among them, several professional rod makers have gotten eligible and making their business.

There is a little episode how he got into fly fishing world.

As his grand father took him fishing when his boys hood, he got liked to fish various kinds of fish. He said that he fished around several times more than others while he was young. One of Hirata's friends invited Hirata to home country one day. Before then, Hirata had not experienced to fish with fly nor fishing in the river in mountains. He was getting to like beautiful scenes and fresh air of the mountain. The most honest reason why he liked to fish in rivers was the taste of Iwana (char) which he ate after he fished. He said he couldn't forget the taste of that Iwana.

 

 

(Writer should comment for his honor, there were many fishes in river in old days and catch & release was not implemented in Japan at that timing. Today, he is one of the most respectful zero limit fishers.) Picture is Iwana (Salvelinus leucomaenis f. leucomaenis PALLAS).

 

Thus Hirata was getting into fly fishing world. He would like to have had his own bamboo fly rod and visited Tada's factory one day. Hirata was impressed with many machines and beautiful bamboo rods that Tada already produced until then. Hirata tended to spend more time at Tada's factory. When Hirata became the age of university applicant, he consulted his parents if he could become a bamboo rod maker. As his parents were both university graduates, they stood in front of Hirata with heavy objection. But finally Hirata won and successfully became an apprentice to Tada.

It was Hirata's 25 years anniversary when he was accepted by Tada. At that time, Tada was over 70 years old and Tada's hearing ability was getting less and less. There was a difficulty for this couple of a teacher and a student to discuss verbally in depth. Hirata was left with little verbal lessons but he made his own efforts to acquire the teacher's theory and techniques by looking at what the teacher did and experimenting them later.

 

Hirata uses an alcohol lamp, hand planes and planing forms when he makes his rods and he is sticking on the way of handcrafting. His works are the one of fully experienced traditional craftsmen. His students at school sometimes think it a very easy process to work on making a rod when they are looking at Hirata is doing. It is not correct. It is because of the results of practices and experiences for a long time, including his apprentice days.

 

 

 

Hirata  Standard 7 '8 #3 rod has precisely designed taper with modern esthetic appearance. It seems reflecting Tada's concept of deflection. It will afford fishers a sophisticated action in short and long casting.

 

 

 

Hirata says,"'there are still a few very good casters who can fully utilize the action of a bamboo rod. Most of the users cast a bamboo rod like a carbon graphite rod. It mostly works.

There is a little secret in casting a bamboo rod by using arm and a little power of wrist to bend the rod to pull out the appropriate level of elasticity of bamboo. This rod is designed to aim those fishers who really enjoy casting. E/p>

Hirata produced more than 700 rods until now and those rods are being used in various mountain rivers chasing Yamame (picture at left) and Iwana all over Japan.

He said, "when I realized, it has past 30 years on the rod… "

 

Picture is Yamame (Oncorhynchus masou masou BREVOORT)

End of article