Out of Japan: Getting hooked on a samurai sport

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The Independent Online
TOKYO - In a small room with tatami mats, and sliding windows that let light in from the garden, Enko Kambara sits crosslegged, making fishing rods with bamboo, paulownia wood and Japanese lacquer. He is 83 years old, looks 20 years younger, and is heir to a curious history of craftsmanship that stretches back 400 years, to the days when only samurai could fish.

Mr Kambara's rods are masterpieces - he only makes about two dozen a year, and the most elaborate ones sell for 450,000 yen ( pounds 2,500) each. But fishing is a rapidly expanding sport in Japan - according to government figures, 17 million people went fishing last year, out of a population of 123 million.

They spent Y672 bn on equipment and licence fees. Mr Kambara only needs a few of these enthusiasts to keep him busy.

He relishes his craft, which he has been practising for 62 years. 'Traditional things are very important,' he said. 'These days it is all mass-production and chemical things. It is a joy to make something with one's hands.' He has been fishing himself since he was a little boy, although at his current age 'it has become a little difficult'.

His back has acquired a gentle slope with the passing years and his legs are not as strong as they used to be. But this does not stop him going into the forest every couple of months to select the bamboo he will use in his rod-making. And his face shows none of the stress wrinkles of an office worker from the city. 'I used to have a lot of customers for my rods. But I am 83 now, and many of my old customers are no more.'

To adapt to the new fishing boom Mr Kambara has started making Western-style fly rods, which are shorter and lighter than the 20-foot rods which were traditional in Japan. The old rods had no reel, and the line was tied to the end of the rod. When a fish took the hook, it had to be played by walking up and down the river bank. Mr Kambara's nephew, Tadayoshi Meboso, is helping him on the design of the new fly rods, which he hopes will be able to compete with the best ones imported from abroad.

Mr Kambara lives in Kanazawa, a town on the west coast with a population of some 440,000 people. His family name is in fact Meboso - he took his wife's name when he married, as sometimes happens in Japan if the wife's family has no male offspring to keep on the name.

In 1575 the Meboso clan opened a needle-making business in Kanazawa. Meboso means narrow eye, referring to the hole in the needles. In those days needles were in great demand: they were used to stitch kimonos, which have to be taken apart to be washed and resewn afterwards.

From needles the Meboso family diversified into making fishing hooks, some time in the 17th century. At that time fishing was a sport reserved for the samurai class, who fished mostly for the ayu, a small fish found in Japanese rivers that is related to the salmon and trout.

The Meboso family still owns the property where they began to make needles 400 years ago: it is in the centre of town, and today it is a fishing tackle shop. Shinichi Meboso is in charge of the shop, which sells some of Mr Kambara's bamboo rods, as well as the cheaper but characterless fibreglass rods.

On the wall of the shop is an old painting of samurai fishing for ayu in the Sai river, which runs through Kanazawa. In their conical straw hats, they are perched on rocks in the middle of the river, trying their luck as passers-by watch from a wooden bridge. Two of them seem to have got their lines tangled.

The bridge is still there, although today it has a steel frame, and instead of merchants carrying baskets on their backs, as in the picture, it has lorries and vans whizzing across. The rocks have been submerged by the building of a small dam downstream, which has raised the water level. But, said Tadayoshi, the ayu are still there and he spends many summer days stalking them with his rod, which dates from the 17th century. Japan has not given up all its traditions.

(Photograph omitted)