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The Tenkara Industry

The Tenkara Industry

In 2008/2009 I started creating the business of Tenkara USA. The objective was to show people how simple fly-fishing could be by introducing the method of tenkara outside of Japan. In the course of developing the business, before I officially launched it, I realized I was about to create a brand new category within the fly-fishing industry. I also realized a new category would eventually become bigger than ourselves.

A new category within an industry is not something that happens very often, but when it does it has the potential to create a movement. And, of course, it also has an even greater potential of not taking hold. When a new category successfully gets established, one clear sign of its success is that it supports an entire range of companies entering the market to support it and to compete in the space.

One day, as I started working on Tenkara USA, I was talking to a colleague at my previous career and talked about my vision for what would happen. I told him I suspected there would be a range of companies that would emerge in support of tenkara: backpacks, guides, accessories, lines, flies, and eventually others would compete by offering rods too. It was far fetched at the time, but I believed one measure of success would be when more companies started offering tenkara too. Fast-forward 5 years and that original vision has started to realize.


On September 27th we hosted the Tenkara Summit here in Boulder, Colorado. In my opening remarks I talked about “The State of Tenkara”, which was my perception of how far tenkara had come and where it could still go. This is something I had been thinking about for quite a while. I had been looking at where we were, the number of companies that had sprung up in support of tenkara, and in more recent times the number of competitors that were appearing in the market. In my remarks I mentioned how this was very a very good development.

Even though I enjoyed our run without competitors, for it allowed me to do my thing without getting distracted by others, I genuinely believe competition is very good for this nascent category. It changes the dynamics in the market. We no longer need to continue to say what tenkara is, and we can start talking about why tenkara matters, to provide more in-depth information about the method, and also to focus our energy on developing innovative products rather than just marketing what tenkara is. This environment creates a rising tide with ever more people taking up tenkara. So long as the new entrants to the market offer something of value, and hopefully do not copy our products, there is great opportunity for more people to take up fly-fishing because of tenkara,  as well as for new companies to emerge because of it.

In the last five years we have seen a lot of companies come about in support of tenkara and companies springing up because of tenkara. In addition to the dozen jobs we have directly created here in the US because of this new category, I can think of roughly 30 other people either making a living or supplementing their living because of tenkara. I’m super proud of that. And who knows where this will all go.

There are pack companies, such as Vedavoo and Zimmerbuilt, which are creating products with the tenkara angler in mind. And companies offering accessories for tenkara, such as Richard Kolodny’s tenkara rods cases at Fly Fishing Artwork. There are fly-fishing guides that offer tenkara classes and trips as part of their services as well as individual guides and outfitters solely devoted to tenkara, such as in the UK (which has also created an instructional DVD and great content), and the Tenkara Guides in Utah. You can see several tenkara guides in the Tenkara Guide Network, which we created to support them. I think these examples all point us to a small revolution, a movement, that started five years ago.

We are also seeing competitors coming about, weekly it seems. Some are established companies that have added tenkara to their offerings, others are companies being started from scratch. Most recently, and the big elephant in the room, is the entry of Patagonia into the tenkara market, which no doubt has introduced a lot of people to the method. Orvis has added tenkara to their offerings by offering Tenkara USA products, and we have been stoked with their support of the method and our company. We’re also seeing companies being created because of tenkara. Not far from our home here in Colorado there is Zen Fly-fishing, as well as Jason Klass’ new Tenkara Shop, offering rods made by Masami Sakakibara, as well as an assortment of line holders and boxes made by the Colorado company Finest Fly Tying Benches of Colorado. A while ago Adam Trahan started offering unique rods from Japan as a service to forum members. On the other side of the country Anthony Naples just started Three Rivers Tenkara offering rods by a company, Tenkara Times, which started in the Czech Republic. The Tenkara Rod Co., despite a frustratingly confusing name for the marketplace, also saw a lot of interest in its Kickstarter campaign a while ago. A bit earlier we had already seen appear, as well as Chris Stewart starting TenkaraBum. There are several other companies that make furled leaders and have been offering them as tenkara lines too, such as Cutthroat and Moonlit, and also our own partners who make lines for us BlueSky. And, you can now even buy a $449 tenkara rod made in the US, or the packaged components, which you will assemble yourself. Along with Tenkara USA several of these companies just came together at one more event devoted to tenkara, the Tenkara Jam. There are another dozen companies that have sprung up or developed items for tenkara, but space will keep me from listing them all. Lastly, we should definitely not forget the number of specialty shops that have also embraced tenkara by offering our products, often times having tenkara as a best-selling category in their shop; you can find a list of dealers carrying tenkara equipment here.  Suffice it to say five years ago tenkara yielded about 60 Google results (50 of which were in Japanese), now there are 708,000! To all the new tenkara companies that have joined us, we have one thing to say: Welcome, and thanks for helping spread tenkara!

As you can see, tenkara has become bigger than just Tenkara USA by now. That’s good. It validates the appeal of tenkara to a very large number of people. Five years ago my wife was nervous when I left my career to start something new, and which, for all she knew, I was the only person interested in.  Two and half years ago Lefty Kreh told me that “tenkara is a fad, and it won’t last long” while riding an elevator with me, and now the company he represents also makes tenkara rods; I don’t think he could have foreseen this industry category developing the way it has. 

I was not the first person to learn of tenkara, or see it in person. Many others, including people involved in the fly-fishing industry knew about tenkara before I did. But, many also dismissed it quickly. I do not say it often enough, but I am actually very proud to look at something I  started a few years ago having this type of impact in a mature industry and in the lives of several people. I’m happy to know I’m not the “only crazy dancer” around (I highly recommend you watch the “only crazy dancer“, to see how a movement forms).

The new environment is pushing us to innovate in terms of products; the Rhodo, a tenkara rod we developed a year ago just won a Kudo Award from Fly Rod and Reel magazine, indicating tenkara’s legitimate presence within the fly-fishing industry. It also pushes us to always do better in terms of customer service and support. It’s a good thing for you.

From our part, I have decided that Tenkara USA will stay committed to doing what we have always done, which is to make great tenkara products that will keep your fly-fishing experience truly simple. We’ll always strive to keep the method rooted in its origins by sharing the tenkara story and how it is practiced in Japan. We will maintain our authenticity, and will continue creating great products, and provide support for you to have a good experience with tenkara. Our mission will continue to be to tell you the tenkara story and inspire you to get out there – and, perhaps even create your own tenkara company!