Shoichi Saito - Hero of Itoshiro’s Wild Fish, Traditional Tenkara and Bamboo rods

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Shouichi Saitou

Life is full of surprises. You don’t often know when you are about to meet people of great significance.

Instead, you usually only realise over time…

This is how it was when we first heard about Mr. Shouichi Saitou from Gifu prefecture in Japan. During our 2014 visit to Japan, John (Pearson) and I had somehow been fitted into a documentary about tenkara by Dr. Ishigaki via his contacts with NHK – the Japanese national broadcasting corporation. I suspect the “weird blue-eyed foreigners doing a traditional Japanese minority sport” card had been played pretty hard! We managed to catch a few fish for the cameras and to communicate some of our enthusiasm and love for the Itoshiro river system, its fish, landscape and people to the program-makers.

It was only when we were able to watch the finished documentary back at home in England that we saw many of the other characters that it featured. It was also clear that “Catch & Release” fishing was a major theme – because this is almost unheard of in Japan. In fact, one of the very first (and still almost unique) examples of coupling “Catch & Release” with “Habitat Improvement” came from a small group of anglers in Itoshiro. They challenged the conventional wisdom of replacing fish taken from the river with iwana (char) and amago (trout) grown in captivity and stocked into the river from fish farms. Instead, they believed there was a much better way. Their way would protect nature and restore balance to their wild rivers.

Whole bamboo rod made by Saitou-san

The man who was responsible for making this change to special sections of the Itoshiro river system was Shouichi Saitou. Together with a small core of like-minded members of the local fishery co-operative (including the president; Mr. Itoshiro), Saitou-san rewrote the rule book. He did this with no training and no specialist advice. 

And yet he got the recipe pretty much perfect.

Now, through my work with the Wild Trout Trust in the UK I could perfectly understand what a huge achievement this was.  I was really impressed at the observation and understanding of nature that Saitou-san displayed. Let me give you an example…

Dams are pretty common features on Japanese mountain streams – often installed in an effort to control soil erosion. Saitou-san realised that this cut many fish off from their breeding grounds. His solution? Dig out a new breeding stream tributary that enters the main river below the dam!

As well as getting the slope of the pools perfect (to make the current speed right for breeding), the fishery co-operative volunteers hand-sorted and sieved pebbles and cobbles from the main river bed so that they could construct spawning gravel beds in their new nursery stream. The team also ensured sufficient flow in the stream by routing water from above the dam into the stream.

The efforts of Saitou-san and team made a big impression on me. I managed to contact him and I asked whether he would consider writing down a brief story of his work at Itoshiro – so that I could include it in the annual magazine of The Wild Trout Trust (Salmo trutta). As well as the technical side of his achievement I was struck by what a heroic effort it was for Saitou-san to fly completely in the face of convention. I know, from my own experience, that pioneers are not usually thanked by the wider community. Instead, to borrow a phrase I have heard before, “pioneers normally return to camp with arrows sticking out of them”.

To my delight, Saitou-san did me the great honour of accepting my request – and you can even read the article that we wrote exactly as it was published in the 2015 edition of “Salmo trutta” magazine (CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD PDF). The original article was written in Japanese and the excellent translation was made by Satoshi Miwa – who is a friend, fishery scientist and fly fisher. Of course, at the time that it was published we still had not met Saitou-san in person. But it was during making the arrangements to meet him on our 2015 trip to Japan that I found out a lot more about the true extent of Saitou-san’s heroic character…

You see, it turned out that he was truly committed to sharing the story of the Itoshiro river Catch & Release project, the teaching of tenkara as a traditional form of fly fishing to local school kids and the provision of habitat to allow wild fish to breed. It was a source of great happiness to him that there was an organisation like The Wild Trout Trust that believed and taught the same principles he had learned through trial and error. How do I know he was so passionate about the subject?

Well, during our correspondence I discovered that Saitou-san had actually been undergoing a very painful and difficult course of chemotherapy when I had asked him to write his article. Although I did not know it at the time, the deadline for articles that had been set for that year’s issue meant that it had to be written right in the middle of that treatment – or it could not be published. He completed it ahead of time and I think it is one of the best pieces in the 2015 issue (Volume 18). That took determination and a true love of his work for wild fish and wild rivers.

So we were absolutely delighted when we managed to meet up in person finally in May 2015. We discovered that we shared so much in common in the way that we viewed streams and the mountain environment. Saitou-san also taught us a lot about the little-known aspects of tenkara history from the Gifu region. He did a fantastic interview with us that actually forms the opening scene of our Volume 3 DVD – explaining traditional fly patterns of the region, presentation techniques and also about the traditional practice of tenkara (before it became a hobby).

Perhaps you can imagine how humbled and honoured I was to receive a gift of one of Saitou-san’s beautiful little cane tenkara rods? I hope you can because it is difficult to put into words. After all, there is no way I can repay the kindness of such a gift. The only way Saitou-san could explain why he wanted me to take it was that it made him so happy to meet like-minded people. He felt good to know that somewhere else in the world there were other people who shared his philosophy and approach to fighting for wild fish and the places they live.

As for the rod, well you can see from John’s great photos that it is a thing of beauty. Saitou-san makes rods from unfinished whole cane (not split cane – he uses the hollowed-out whole stems). Apart from a light rubbing of oil, there is no lacquer finish on his rods. He makes small fly rods for light lines and small reels as well as tenkara rods in this style. The handles are the highly featured roots of bamboo plants. These roots are much denser than the main stems (which are light and flexible of course). Even so, both John and myself were surprised at how well-balanced the reel-less tenkara rods were. At least part of this seems to be due to the comfort and also density of the bamboo-root handle.

I like to think that there is a nice connection between Saitou-san bringing a natural balance to the wild fish of Itoshiro streams in the same way that he brings balance to his rod-making. Saitou-san’s bamboo rods are perfectly in-keeping with the humble traditions of tenkara as well as being perfectly balanced in the hand.

I will write much more about Shouichi Saitou in future, including explaining where his “Kan-san” nickname comes from (and how that is used in his “hanko” official stamp for his rods). For now though, I hope you can share my appreciation for a genuine hero of wild fish conservation and traditional fly fishing of Japan.