Got Wabi-Sabi?

Spend some time around tenkara forums and FB groups and you’re likely to come across the term “wabi-sabi” (侘寂). Well what is that all about? A while back I did a series of posts about hand tied flies – that is flies tied in hand without a vise (post one, post two, post three). You can actually make them pretty neat with a little practice – but why? Why not let go of some of that “control” that you think you have and allow imperfection to infuse your flies with that certain something? Tying flies in hand, I found myself thinking about wabi-sabi.

Now, I could do some online research and write something (after all everybody is a genius in this internet age…well as long as we have web access), but I thought I’d ask a friend, that knows something more of it than I, to write about it. I tapped Craig Chambers to do it for me. I’ve always been a fan of delegating – it’s one of my greatest skills. So here you go

Tasteful imperfections
by Craig Chambers

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When I first attempted to tie a Sakasa-Kebari I was more than a little overwhelmed with wabi-sabi because I’d just struck the Tenkara mother lode, quite by accident, while searching online for Pflueger Medalist reels. I’d found only one other reference to the method during the three years since first reading Andrew Herd’s description in his The History of the Fly and now entirely by chance I had Yoshikazu Fujioka’s ‘My Best Streams’ in front of me, that is sometimes how wabi-sabi works.

Surprisingly at the time, by following Yoshikazu Fujioka’s instructions, I almost produced something that appeared to be correct on my first attempt. It wasn’t until much later, when I’d fully digested the contents of ‘My Best Streams’ that I began to grasp how often wabi-sabi occurs in traditional Tenkara.

The Japanese love of and respect for nature’s transient beauty, firmly rooted in Zen Buddhism, hardly requires any introduction, but wabi-sabi is not so easy for a westerner to recognize. In fact it is often expressed in such modest and subtle ways that it can go completely unnoticed.

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The ’humble by choice’ aesthetic and philosophy is difficult to explain, there is no direct translation and although the two words themselves have their own separate meanings (as if the word ‘universe’ could accurately describe The Universe) together wabi and sabi are elevated to represent the wabibito’s preference for ‘soup and old clothes’. Wabi-sabi is completely at odds with acquisitiveness and entirely resistant to homogenisation but hopefully the basic idea that imperfect or transient things are beautiful isn’t too difficult to understand however much it contradicts western values.

With only the most basic set of fly tying skills it’s relatively easy to parody a traditional Kebari but if it’s tied without being mindful of wabi-sabi it can never really be authentic. While originality and patina are very important to wabi-sabi in general, uncluttered design and modest materials are the most obvious considerations when fly tying. Another may be attempting to tie a Kebari in the hand without a vice or at least to reduce the number of tools being used, I can now easily manage with only a pair of scissors. This was something I tried for the first time after reading the following description of Rikichi Maruyama on My Best Streams “did not use tools, sit cross-legged, twined the thread to the great toe”. This principle of ‘voluntary poverty’ expressed by rejecting material goods, in this case conventional fly tying tools, is heavily laden with wabi-sabi and consequently provides the perfect opportunity for some tasteful imperfection.

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It’s interesting to note that Tenkara was once an unfashionable fishing method even in Japan and participation in such ‘treading off the path’ is also considered as being in good taste when viewed in terms of wabi-sabi.

The unconventional Kebari may not turn out quite as you expect but don’t panic, this is quite normal, try to welcome the tasteful imperfections and soon authentic and original wabi-sabi patterns will be filling up your fly boxes. When I hand tied my first Sakasa-Kebari I borrowed a spool of, never to be returned, brown sewing thread and the freedom I enjoyed as the imperfections, now transformed into gems of wabi-sabi, revealed to me that all the anxiety I’d previously suffered at the vice was only ever caused by my own perception.

Wabi-sabi is liberating and creative, many Tenkara fishermen will recognise this immediately, although some perfectionists might struggle to adjust, enlightened Kebari tying really is as easy and rewarding as it sounds.

Finally, I would like to thank Yoshikazu Fujioka, although I can never express sufficient gratitude to him, for providing such an excellent resource. It was the only English language website available in the days before TUSA and has provided me with constant inspiration, whenever I’ve needed it, ever since.

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Craig Chambers has been a full-time fisherman since 2006 and now lives opposite his favourite river, The Taff in Pontypridd, Wales, where he fishes for trout, grayling and minnows depending on the time of year. He became interested in Buddhism at about the same time he began fishing… watching Monkey Magic on TV in the early 1980’s. He’s been collecting and using Japanese fishing tackle (and ukuleles) for the last 10 years.

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2 Comments on Got Wabi-Sabi?

  1. Interesting, the first time I heard about Tenkara was from My Best Streams after a search for info on a Pfleuger Medalist.

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