I have been learning traditional Japanese bamboo rod making since winter 2008. At the time I had just had eye surgery and I couldn’t go fishing or in fact do anything outdoors, and among my angling acquaintances here in Tokyo was a fifth-generation traditional rod craftsman who very kindly agreed to take me on as his apprentice. This page is not a guide to teach you how to make Japanese bamboo rods for that would be impractical as most methods are difficult to explain in writing, and sometimes I am at a loss for the English – all the rod making I have learned is in Japanese as my teacher speaks no English. If you want to learn about the basics of traditional Japanese rod making, I would recommend reading the article I wrote for my friends at Fishingfury.com in 2009, which has descriptions and photographs of most of the processes and my own attempt at my first bamboo rod, one designed for fishing for shirogisu, a type of Japanese whiting.
Since then I have made about a dozen rods, for different kinds of fishing: whiting, haze goby, funa (Crucian carp), wakasagi smelt ice fishing and tanago (bitterling). In essence the procedure is the same for all rods, with variations only in the size and type of bamboo used and their fittings such as reel seats, guides or different materials for the rod tip, which can be made from bamboo or other materials such as baleen, steel, fibreglass or graphite.
For me, working part-time and under obligation to no customers, it usually takes about a year to complete one rod; a professional might take half the time, but if he uses proper lacquer and no synthetic substitutes it is unusual for even a seasoned pro to make a rod in less than four or five months. I also like to make and/or lacquer wooden fishing tackle such as bait-boxes or landing nets or hook removers, which gives one’s fishing tackle character and individuality.
The first and most important lesson one learns is that the rod maker’s principal tool is his Japanese knife. My teacher agreed to loan me the use of all his tools except his knife, which I was obliged to buy myself and learn to sharpen, before I could attempt any rod making. The knife is used in all stages of rod making, and after one has begun rod making proper, generally three or four different knives are needed for various roles.
The process of making Japanese bamboo rods and their Western counterparts differs in that the Japanese version is made not from split cane but the whole bamboo is used, and several different species of bamboo are used. Some of the bamboo used for my rod making I take from the wild, and I also grow my own.
Therefore the actual methodology diverges from the beginning as the bamboo used for Japanese rod making needs to be harvested, dried out, cleaned, cured, and above all, straightened out over a fire. The straightening process is one of the hardest parts of rod making and I am still struggling with it, but it determines not only the aesthetics of the rod but also its durability and action.
These and all other crafting steps are done by physical labour alone; indeed, the techniques now considered standard for Japanese rod making were settled in the late 18th century therefore everything is done with a slight sense of archaism.
Even now the only electricity used in my rod making is a good light for my workplace and a vacuum cleaner for tidying up afterwards. This simplicity makes it easy to get started in Japanese rod making, or at least cheaper than buying the equipment needed to build split cane rods: of all the gear needed for bamboo rod making much of it can be obtained from a single visit to a DIY store – and everything else you make yourself.
Other specialised equipment like certain kinds of files and wood rasps can be bought from traditional fishing tackle stores. In particular, I should mention the story of Tosaku, who can lay quite credible claim to being not only the first angling tackle store in Tokyo, but indeed the originator of the traditional Edo-style bamboo rod. Their shop in east Tokyo has been in constant business in the same location since their founding by the samurai Taichiya Tosaku Matsumoto Saburobei in 1788, who is widely credited as being the inventor of the type of traditional bamboo rod we see in Tokyo today. I first visited the shop in 2004 and count myself lucky to know the current owners. At this point I should point out that the style of rod invented by Tosaku and the style of rod I am learning to make, the Edo style, is not the only type that exists in Japan: in the west there is the Kishu rod style, and in Tohoku their own kind too. Since all I have learned is the Edo style I cannot possibly comment on the methodology, traditions and of course worth of these other rods.
Another technique that makes Japanese rods different to Western cane rods is that they are lacquered, rather than varnished with a synthetic substance. Lacquer is a natural product of trees of the Lac family, and has long been synonymous with Japanese craftsmanship: just as “China” was used to refer to porcelain, “Japan” referred to, amongst Western tradesmen, Japanese lacquerware. Lacquer applied to wood confers upon it resistance to water and extremes of temperature and humidity, and even to mould and burrowing insect larvae. In the Age of Sail mariners knew that “Japanned” wooden cases for delicate instruments, and even the Japanned buttons on their pea coats or Magellan jackets would last the journey, whether in the Roaring Forties or the Spanish Main.
However, lacquer in its native form, tapped from Lac trees by dedicated craftsmen, is highly allergenic and toxic and requires great caution for it to be used safely. Although one develops a tolerance to its various effects even after nearly five years of rod making the raw stuff can bring on a nasty skin reaction, and after a couple of unpleasant episodes I have learnt to treat all lacquer with great respect. My rod making teacher was not particularly sympathetic when I reported my first adverse reaction. He simply laughed and said those who wanted to get into rod making must have at least one serious reaction to urushi; then you will learn to respect it and take the utmost care every time you use it. For fairly obvious reasons I shall not go into details of how to lacquer bamboo fishing rods, but would strongly advise those interested to do it only under the supervision of a professional. Just like some other allergens like shellfish or peanuts, for those with an inborn susceptibility to lacquer a serious reaction can be fatal without prompt medical intervention.
In summary, I feel I am most fortunate to be able to learn an artisan craft from a traditional master and I hope I make the most of the opportunities available to me. It is a highly rewarding past-time and I feel there is so much to be studied and practised that it will be a life-long learning experience. It is also a matter of some complaisance that I feel that I can contribute to the continuation of a culture that, like so many Japanese traditional crafts, is under threat from modern innovations and technology. In recent years there has been a certain amount of interest among Western anglers in traditional Japanese bamboo rods for tenkara fishing; I do hope that the culture of Japanese bamboo rods is cherished and preserved by anglers, whatever their nationality, for the future generations.