Thursday, 30 April 2015

Land of the Rising Sun - Part 1

I decided to visit Japan because it has three native salmonid species - Yamame (cherry salmon), Amago (a separate sub-species of cherry salmon found only in southern Japan, also known as red-spotted cherry salmon) and Iwana (white-spotted char). These fish do not grow to huge proportions, in fact a 10 inch specimen would be considered a trophy. So coming from New Zealand it has required a just a small change of mindset. Gone are the hulking 10lb brown trout flaunting their mass in plain view. Instead the challenge shifted to finding and catching each of these three strange and foreign looking little fish from an equally strange and foreign land. I particularly treasure catching new salmonid species on the fly so it wasn't too hard to leave New Zealand behind for the altogether different rewards offered by Japan.

Japan has been a wonderful country to visit. It is so different to anywhere else that I have been. Past centuries of suspicion of all things non Japanese, and a tight present day control over immigration has seen the country retain a strong sense of national identity and homogeneous culture. There simply is no choice but to fully immerse yourself in Japanese culture or, if reluctant, to be fully immersed whether you want to or not! The food is great, presenting a minefield of discovery in a country with a low level of English language proficiency - often I had to choose something from a Japanese menu or point to a photo without knowing what it was (the only time I regretted this was when I was presented with and ate sea urchin roe). Entering every restaurant or shop is greeted by a hearty shout of irasshaimase! (welcome). Hospitable, polite and deeply proud of their nation and traditions is how I would describe Japanese people.

And what a polite nation! Incredibly I can’t recall having heard a single argument or public disturbance since I've been here! Everyone here bows at each other at the slightest excuse and I’m hoping I can kick the habit when I leave or else be thought of as a little odd in the western hemisphere. I went to a cinema and the entire audience sat in dead silence until the very end of the credits. It didn't help that the end credits of American Sniper are played out in complete silence so they were some of the most awkward and longest minutes of my life! I walked through a park where a worker was using a weed trimmer to cut grass with two workers walking in time with him holding a mesh net to prevent debris from being thrown about by the blades. If this wasn't enough of a precaution, as I approached one of them blew a sharp note on a whistle and the weed trimmer was switched off. After I passed a safe distance another short blast on the whistle sounded and the weed trimmer kicked back into action. It’s hard to imagine where else in the world such thought and care to the public would be given to this menial task.  If I was to be brutally picky I’d say the only thing missing from this politeness utopia is the queue system - it can be a bit of a free-for-all at times.

In terms of cherry salmon the best way to tell Amago and Yamame apart is by the colour of their spots. Amago have red spots whilst these are absent in Yamame. Amago are also found in a much smaller area in southern Japan, and only in Japan, whilst its close relative the Yamame is pretty much found everywhere else in Japan and also the Korean Peninsular up to Russia. I’m not aware of any stream which naturally sustains the presence of both Amago and Yamame in Japan (somebody may correct me) so it was always going to be the case that it would take two fishing trips to knock off both from my species list. I decided to concentrate on Amago first.

Through a bit of good fortune I stumbled on the website of the Tokyo Fly Fishing and Country Club and linked up with chairman Ed Yoshida. After meeting Ed, joining the club and discussing fishing over an all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ meal we hatched a plan to spend a day fishing for Amago in the Izu Peninsular south of Tokyo. I’m indebted to Ed for taking the trouble to assist me in my pursuit of this fish. It even turned out to be a real man bonding trip of sorts - a late night drive from Tokyo to the town of Ito in the peninsular, a couple of beers on arrival, an overnight sleep in Ed’s car in a parking lot at the town docks (with a 24hr Seven Eleven nearby to cater for all our needs), an early start to fish, a traditional cold soba noodle and tempura lunch finished off by a visit to the ‘Museum of Dodgy’ (a museum of sex artefacts). I did however decline Ed’s kind offer of getting naked and relaxing at a Japanese onsen (hot baths) which it must be added is a very traditional and customary way for Japanese to spend their time relaxing. So thanks Ed for a truly Japanese experience. We can go to an onsen next time.

Ed discussing tactics before we hit the water

I had mentioned to Ed that I preferred to catch wild fish if possible. I’d come to realise that the needs of Tokyo’s fly fishing hordes are satiated by a widespread stocking policy. Ed obliged by taking me to the very upper reaches of the Ito river, a tumbling fall of water coming down the side of a mountain where no stocking occurs. Every now and again a pool of some substance was created by a concrete weir and I have also come to understand that almost all of Japan’s streams and rivers have been altered by man’s hand and tons of concrete (it‘s a political way of providing employment for people out of the cities and keeping the rural voting bloc happy). So if you do ever decide to visit Japan for fishing, bear in mind that whilst set in mountains and forests of stunning natural beauty the rivers themselves are largely manipulated and unnatural constructs. No matter though, they harbour stunningly beautiful and unique fish.

Ed employing tenkara

Ed Yoshida image

I found wild Amago and enticed three to take my fly, satisfyingly a wide hackled South African dry fly close to my heart, the RAB. None were longer than six or seven inches so no trophies but that didn't matter. They are simply beautiful little fish and it was a pleasure to catch them. It’s fitting that a country as unique as Japan has a unique salmon species.  

The Amago pictured above came from the pool on the right, under the tree roots

An idea of the casting challenge

Ed Yoshida image (would help if I opened my eyes!)

Many other Amago made an attempt to swallow my RAB but most were too small to trouble the sharp end of the hook. Then the heavens opened shortly before 12pm in the afternoon. I donned my rain coat and pushed on, caught my third and final Amago and then slipped and fell into the cold water. With cold water running over the top of my rain coat and soaking my shirt I lost the motivation to continue. I walked back downstream and found Ed passed out in the dry warmth of his car.

Later that evening Ed conveniently dropped me off at a Shinkansen (bullet train) station on the way back to Tokyo and I caught a train to Kyoto. Amago down, my hunt for Yamame and Iwana is to follow in part two.

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