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Kebari - a traditional Japanese craft that shines out among fishing tackle

Sample of kebari (AFLO)

    There is a piece of fishing tackle known as a "kebari” (fishing fly) that is used as artificial bait in fishing, but in Japan it is also viewed as a craft and something that is pleasing to the eye. The river fish ayu (sweet fish) is typical of the type of fish that kebari is used to catch. In the spring, from late March to early April, the ayu return to the "river of their birth" from the ocean shallows where they have been growing, swimming vigorously upstream against the current. Ayu are delicate fish that live in clear streams and they are not only popular with river fishing enthusiasts, but are also known for their good taste. And kebari, made using traditional methods of craftsmanship, play an important role in ayu fishing.

Kebari as a traditional craft

    While swimming upstream the young ayu eat aquatic insects and moss from the rocks, so that by the summer they have grown into splendid adult fish. From early summer until late autumn, anglers cast their fishing lines to catch ayu.

An angler fishing for ayu in the river

Ayu act as a barometer of water quality because they only live in clear streams(AFLO)

    There are many people who use "live decoy fishing" to catch ayu. This utilizes the natural tendencies of the ayu to attack other bodies that invade their territory by using a decoy ayu with a fish hook attached to it to swim among the ayu that the angler wants to catch. When these ayu then attack the decoy, they get caught on the fish hook. On the other hand, there is also a method of fishing that uses artificial bait in the shape of an insect. This artificial bait is the kebari.
    Making kebari puts the focus on the habit of omnivorous mountain stream fish like ayu to eat insects. It is said that kebari making, passed down to this day, started during the Edo period (1603-1868) in areas like Kyoto where sewing needles were produced.
    These days they are made in Hyogo Prefecture, Ishikawa Prefecture, and Toyama Prefecture etc. Of these, Hyogo Prefecture is the main production area, making some 90% of the kebari in Japan, and the “Banshu kebari” made here in the Banshu Region have been designated as "traditional craft work", recognized by the Japanese Government as a valuable craft that is worth passing down to future generations.

Banshu kebari (courtesy of: Nishiwaki City, Hyogo Prefecture)

    The Japanese Government has certified the skilled craftsmen who produce these Banshu kebari, using old-fashioned techniques and materials, as "traditional craftsmen" (as of January 1, 2019 there were 5 such craftsmen).

Yoshikazu Yokoyama, a traditional craftsman, checks the workmanship of a kebari

Making kebari requires fine, detailed work using the fingertips (Yoshikazu Yokoyama's workshop, Nishikawa City, Hyogo Prefecture)

A treasure trove of craftsmanship

    Kebari are much valued as traditional craft works because not only are they practical implements used for catching fish but, as a craft, they also offer a practical beauty worthy of artistic appreciation. In fact kebari utilize many of the craft techniques used in arts and crafts, such as urushi (Japanese lacquer: sap of trees) and kinpaku (gilt).
    For example, the ayu kebari used to catch ayu, has a different name for each tiny part (measured in mere millimeters) such as the part attached to the base of the metal hook that is made to resemble the head of an insect, and the straight part of the hook that is wrapped in bird feathers to resemble the body of an insect etc. It is made of various materials such as the metal hook, colorful bird feathers, urushi and kinpaku etc.

Names of the various parts of a kebari

    The feathers are skillfully fixed to the hook using extremely fine silk thread, with no adhesive or similar used. Urushi, which has been used since ancient times in Japan as a natural coating for lacquer ware etc., and kinpaku, which is gold that is rolled so thin it will blow away if you breathe on it, are also used to make kebari. Urushi is one of the materials used to make the round kintama ball at the base of the hook and the sakitama ball towards the front. Kinpaku is then attached on to the kintama ball that imitates the head of the insect. The kintama ball is about 1-2 mm, the size of a grain of sesame, and the sakitama ball is even smaller. The overall size is around 1 cm.
    Making kebari requires several years of practice and the skills of an expert craftsman are essential. The reason that each part of the kebari has a different name is because each stage requires the sophisticated skills of the craftsmen.
    If you look closely, you can see the different ways of winding - whether the feathers are wound around the hook with no gaps, or with gaps left open etc. Craftsmen can also create a limitless number of different kebari depending on their choices; such as the choice of feather color, color combination and arrangement etc.

Colorful bird feathers used in kebari

Well-seasoned tools that Yoshikazu Yokoyama uses to make kebari. Many of them are hand-made

Kebari come in various types

    Currently there are more than 500 types of kebari. Each type has a name such as “Ao Lion”, “Shimizu” and “Aka Kuma” etc. Ao Lion means “blue lion”; Shimizu means “clean, pure water”; and Aka Kuma means “red bear.”

Aka Kuma

    A kebari's effectiveness changes depending on conditions, such as the weather (whether it is sunny, cloudy or raining); the time of day (whether it is morning, daytime, or evening); and the quality and clarity of the river water. Just because a kebari has caught a big fish does not necessarily mean it will do so again.
    The real pleasure of fly fishing is the fun of choosing "kebari which catches a lot" depending on the environment. Enthusiasts always have a wide variety of kebari ready-prepared in a wooden box. The wide range in variety also comes from craftsmen responding to the expectations of enthusiasts who are looking for lots of different kebari.

A collection of ayu kebari made by traditional craftsman Yoshikazu Yokoyama for decorative purposes.

Differences with the “fishing fly” artificial bait used in the West

    In the West they also have artificial bait similar to kebari called “flies.” While both flies and kebari share in common the enjoyment gained from the handing down of skills from one's predecessor, they are made of different materials and used in different methods of fishing. Unlike kebari, some types of fly float on the surface of the water, and some use light-weight man-made fibers etc. Even those that use real bird feathers will use a different winding technique.
    Another big difference is that kebari do not have kaeshi (a “barb") which is a thorn-like shape that projects from the tip of the hook to prevent a fish from escaping once it has bitten.

"Flies" - artificial bait commonly used in the West

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