Split bamboo Rod making is an age old craft well over 100 years old, but the birthplace of this traditional technique is unclear as there are several claims between the English, French, American and Chinese makers. Before stepping into the home of our new friend Yudai in central Hokkaido we had no idea about this complex world of fly fish rod making. Japanese people are famous for a number things, especially for their attentive detail with hand crafted objects, and Yudai’s rod making was no exception to that rule.
Way Back When
This story begins in 1981 in Yamanashi near Nagano, where a five year old boy caught his first rainbow trout and somewhere between then and now that boy decided to dedicate his life to the art of crafting tools to catch the perfect fish. Originally from the countryside Yudai headed for the city lights of Tokyo in his late teens, but his passion for fishing was still strong. In his early thirties he started learning this craft from a master rod maker, and every month for six years he would travel halfway across the country to visit his sensei. He has now been making and testing his rods for over a decade, and the recent move to Hokkaido means he has much better access to prime fishing grounds.
Our plan before meeting Yudai and his family was to have a short overnight stop before heading into mountains above Furano, however after hearing about the complexities that go into make a fishing rod I was eager to see Yudai at work. But there was a problem, he starts every day at four in the morning! That was going to be a tall order for me, so we agreed I’d be at work by 6am, and luckily the workshop was only flight of stairs away. Yudai eased me into the day with a cup of hot coffee, before watching him painstakingly heat and bend strips of bamboo to get them perfectly straight. He told me each rod takes around 200 hours to make, and we were at the early stages of a customer's order.
The Design Concept
The concept of a split bamboo rod is to straighten 12 pieces of bamboo for a 2 piece rod, (6 for each section) taking particular attention to the areas around the node (the raised part between the sections of the bamboo stalk) as its very important to keep these fibers in the surface layers in tack. The idea is to try and get a near flat surface on each strip of bamboo without shaving off too much of the node as this would break too many of the important power fibers. Looking at a cross section of bamboo the outer fibers on the surface are dubbed the power fibers in the world of rod making, because they contain an acid that gives the bamboo an extreme strength and flexibility, and once we move closer to the core, the fibers become less dense, meaning the strength is minimal.
All rod makers agree that power fibres are a must and everyone will try their best not to compromise on this, however beyond that the combinations in design are endless. There are many species of bamboo, and Yudai has his favourite, but he explains that the nodes are large and take a lot of working to bend the power fibers straight. The gold standard is a chinese species that naturally has a flatter surface, but Yudai thinks it's too rigid and doesn’t give his rods the feel that he’s after.
Bringing It Together
Once all the sections of the hexagon are straighten, flattened, tapered and sanded, Yudai begins the laborious task of carefully hollowing sections out of each piece. This task has to be very accurate, as he doesn’t want to take away any of the precious power fibers and one mistake could put hours of work in the bin. This is a procedure that many rod makers leave out due to the time it takes, however Yudai believes it is an essential part in the process to make the rod have a balanced and natural feel to convince the fish that a fly has just landed on the water. Having tried many combinations of depth, length and spacing between the hollowed sections he now has his ideal recipe.
When this task has been completed he binds the two sections comprised of six pieces each and bakes them in a specially made oven. This baking does something to the power fibers to give them an immense strength and flexibility. With the tip of the rod just a few mm in diameter it is incredible that it doesn’t break whilst reeling in a fish. When the baking process is over, Yudai glues the rod together, sands it down and oils to finish. A few more touches are added like the cork handle and guides for the line, but once this is all done its ready to catch some fish.
We're Going Fishing
During our first evening together Yudai asked us if we’d like to stay another night, we were in no hurry, I could see him do his work and we could take a day off from the bike. Casually I mentioned that maybe we could go fishing in the afternoon, he paused to think for a second, then a large grin covered his face, and with absolutely no persuasion he started planning our day. We were going fishing. Some morning errands had to be run, one of them was collecting some melons from a nearby farm for his fishing friend, we took them to his house and it turned out he also needed no persuasion to go fishing either. After a few minutes, the garage shutters were down and his gear was thrown into Yudai’s car.
Down The River
We drove for almost an hour from Yudai’s friends house, and finally ended our journey on a small gravel road, deep in the mountain. Looking over a small bridge near to where we’d parked, I could see the water was a beautiful blue hue, and after a bit of preparation we were suited and booted ready to go wading up the river. It was my first fishing trip and it was so much fun, especially scrambling over all the rocks in the water, quite honestly I didn’t care if I caught a fish or not, just being in that place felt so good. But of course with the high quality tools Yudai had made, it didn’t take long before we landed a couple of fish!