Flyfishing in Japan is a fairly new sport. Probably the first group of people who introduced the sport to Japan were US military men who were based in occupied Japan right after the second world war. Although there may be Japanese individuals in earlier days who may have travelled abroad and brought back some equipment for his own use, the likelihood of such individual pursuing the sport back in Japan seems very remote.
A more detail and perhaps an official discussion of how history of fly fishing was introduced to Japan can be found at Japan Fly Fishers (JFF) 's Home Page.
Nearly all fishing in the inland waters of Japan, with exception of those in Hokkaido the northern most island, are under control of the "Gyokyo"s.
Gyokyo's are cooperative organiazation who stock and maintain the inland waters in their territories. May be the most confusing thing about fishing in Japan may be how to buy a fishing license for fishing in public waters. Unlike most parts of the world, the fishing licenses are not issued by government bodies or organizations but by cooperatives. What makes the situation complex is the fact that the cooperatives are relatively small in size and do not necessarily represent a whole prefecture or a whole run of a river. A river might be administered by several cooperatives along its entire stream and the cooperative do not have a bilateral or multi lateral agreements among them to allow a license holder of one cooperative to fish in another. A day license will cost between 500 Yen to 1,000 Yen depending on the cooperative. The basic principles of economics apply here, the more popular the water more demand. Higher the demand higher the price. My experience with popular and expensive waters are that when the action is hot, the fishing can be super-productive due to the large scale stocking of fish, but on other days the fishing tends to be more of a choir due to high pressures caused by over populated fishermen.
The open season is generally from the first weekend in March to the last weekend in September.
Although structures of the streams of Japan vary from one to the other, most waters suitable for fly fishing are generally mountain streams with beds of freestone. Only few spring creeks exist in Japan. With the exception of the northern most island Hokkaido, the hot summer climate of Japan naturally confines the habitat of the trouts to headwaters. Another artificial factor which hinders flyfishers fishing downstream is the existance of traditional fishing practiced in the summer seasons. The traditional fishing in question is known as "Tomozuri". Tomomeans friend or kin and "zuri" means fishing. It is indeed a unique fishing method where no live bait nor artificial lure are used. Target fish is Ayu, an indigenous fish prized for its taste. Ayu, when mature,only feed on algae growing on stones making them extremely difficult to fish on a bait. Interestingly Ayu make territories around some algae smothered stones. To protect its territory Ayuboldy attacks any intruders, especially other Ayus, by dashing itself against them. Tomozuritakes advantage of this behaviour by using a Tomo, a live Ayu as a decoy to provoke the fierce attack onto it as it enters an already proclaimed territory. The Tomo is rigged to the line by a nose ring so as not to weaken it, with two dropper hooks placed one in the ventral fin and another trailed behind the tail. When an Ayu attacks a Tomo they get hooked on either one or both of the dropper hooks. The Ayuare originally anadromous, but sadly erosion in the natural environment has decreased the number of migrating Ayus so much that they cannot sustain the population under the fishing pressure unless it is stocked by the cooperatives. The Ayus are stocked seasonally, usually released to the water systems in Aril or May. The cooperatives charge different fishing license fees for Ayu, since they are regarded as a better delicacy than the Amago's or Yamame's. Although they exclusively feed on algae when mature, the fry will feed on nymphs and other aquatic insects thus susceptible to flyfishing. This is where the trouble begins for Japanese fly fishers. Since the Ayu are a more expensive "product" to the cooperatives because they charge you higher fee, as much as five times for the fishing license compared to Amago's and Yamame's, the cooperatives make sure that whatever they have stocked into their waters don't get prematurely fished before the season officially opens for Ayu. Many cooperatives ban fishing with flies which includes both flyfishing and Tenkara after they release the fries for that season. Consequently for the above natural and artificial causes, flyfishers after the first several months of the season would have to head upstream to avoid the Ayus and the Ayu fishers. For more information on Ayu fishing, visit Ayu Fishing, a home page maintained by Japanese Ayu fishing enthusiasts.
The following pictures are of typical Japanese trout streams.
For flyfishing in the streams of Japan, a light tackle is recommended unless you are after the sea-run trouts, Skaura-masu or Satsuki-masu which will require tackle similar to that for steelheading. I often used 7' to 8' rods for 2 to 4 weight lines. The streams in Japan, especially upstream will become very brushy in the summer so a short rod may come in handy.
The insects here in Japan are quite similar to the ones found elsewhere in the world. Mayflies, Caddis and Stoneflies are the three major aquatic insects in order of importance. Midges such as Diptera play an important role in the cooler months. Crane flies emerge in spring and the fish may care on nothing else during that time. The streams in Japan are free stone rivers often flowing rapidly. There are only few spring creeks in Japan. Therefore you may want to select flies with extra buoyancy for dry fly fishing, such as the western patterns, parachute style flies. One of the proven and most popular dry fly is the elk hair caddis. The average size of the actual insects in nymphal stage are #14 or #16 while size #12 and #14 are typical for adults.
Caddis Adult (Mating)
My Favorite Fly Patterns for Fishing Japanese Streams
Recipes are available, click on any of the picture and jump to the relevant fly tying page!
Tenkara is the name now popularly accepted in Japan as the general term for Traditional Japanese Flyfishing. Tenkara was the fishing method used only by professional fresh water fishermen until recently. Tenkara equipment resembles that of the "western" counterparts in many ways. The fly Kebari, Ke Japanese for feather and bari meaning hook, is very similar to a soft hackle fly. The rod was originally made from bamboo although comtmporary rods are all made of carbon graphite like our flyfishing gears of today. Lines are made of horse tail fibres braided to form a taper. The only major difference may be the fact that reels are not used in Tenkara fishing. Since reels are not used the fishing techniques are somewhat similar to short leader nymphing. Probably the largest reason for professionals adopting this particular method of fishing was because of its productivity. Needlessness of a live bailt is a big advantage when you have to be constantly catching more than 50 fish a day to make a living. To make the method more productive, setting of the hook is not always made after detecting a strike. The fly is rhythmically jerked while drifted downstream expecting two things to happen, one induce trouts close by for a bite and second to hook up undetected strikes. Tenkara is still enjoyed by a few people in Japan. If you are interested in trying out tenkara youself, an outfit may be purchased at larger fishing tackle shops.
Traditional Tenkara "Kebari"
If you have any specific questions regarding fly fishing in Japan, drop me a line, I'll try and answer them to my best of my knowledge. (Although my goal is to improve this page so that it may cover all your intellectual needs. But in the meantime your questions will be valuable in knowing what I have left out) Ken Kamoshida,email@example.com