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Minakami - Headwaters of the Tone River

June 03, 2016

The mountain town of Minakami (みなかみ町) is located in the northern edge of Gunma Prefecture. It is also the headwaters for the Tone River and the home of Tanigawa-dake (aka The Mountain of Death) and is also the gateway to Oze National Park. So when my friend Hama asked me to take him fishing somewhere in Japan I decided to explore the Minakami area, particularly the area around  Mount Kasa (笠ヶ岳). From the flanks of this magnificent peak (which still had some snow on it in late May) flow hundreds of tiny keiryu (mountain streams) that run cold and clear through the summer.

Minakami aka Water Town

Venturing into the mountains around Minakami it becomes readily apparent why it is referred to as the "Water Town". Not only are there hundreds if not thousands of keiryu but the region also get quite a bit of rain - about 1,734mm (or 69 inches) every year! During the winter that rain becomes snow, and so ski resorts in this area tend to be the first to open and the last to close in Honshu.

The drive into Minakami went smoothly, albeit a tad slow because my Kei van tops out at a blistering 85kph (53mph)! Thankfully the speed limits on the highways are between 70kph and 100kph, so I was able to keep up with some of the traffic. Having lived in Japan for 18 months now I have become fully accustomed to the slow speed limits - now they seem normal and not out of place to me.

Once we got off the highway and into the mountains the sun came out of the clouds and then we spotted a Kamoshika (Japanese Serow aka Mountain Antelope) grazing in a clear cut next to the road! Finally after having left Tokyo three hours ago we arrived at the campground. There were several nice thing about this particular campground:

1 - It was free

2 - There were numerous small creeks (to small for fish but still nice to listen to at night) and springs all around

3 -There was an unlimited amount of free firewood all over the ground (courtesy of the groves of Buna trees that cover these mountains).

4 - It was free :)

After setting up camp we drove down the road a bit until we found a nice turnout to park in. I donned my sawanobori gear and my friend Hama and I set off up a small stream in search of Iwana. Once we were out of site of the road I setup my TenkaraUSA Ito rod and began to demonstrate to my friend how to Tenkara. On my third cast I hooked an absolutely beautiful (and quite large) Iwana but before I could bring her to hand she flopped off the hook and darted under a rock. I handed the rod to my friend and gave him some quick pointers. In the next pool he caught his first fish, in his entire life too I might add.

We leapfrogged up the river, switching up who had point every 10 minutes or so. Towards the end of the trip my friend Hama had caught and released five Iwana to my one - he was experiencing some great beginners luck.

The river was very tight, with almost no room to cast at all. So I employed the long rod/very short line technique that proved to be quite effective.

After fishing upstream for an hour or two (amidst an epic hatch too by the way) we turned around and headed back to the main river.

Back at the main river I set about teaching Hama how to cast with a more traditional line setup aka a line that was as long as the rod. The river was right next to the road and so I was very doubtful that we would catch anything. However, within a minute or so I had hooked a very large and beautiful Iwana.

After working with my friend on his casting technique for an hour or so the river suddenly turned murky brown. They were doing construction upstream on the road and apparently a large amount of sediment had been knocked into the river. We decided it was a sign that we should pack up and head back to camp.

Back at the campground we cooked up some tasty ramen and soba before settling in around the campfire where we sipped on whiskey and talked about religion, fishing, and life. Later that night, after we had turned in, the skies opened up and it rained until morning.

The next day we tore down camp and headed back to the river. Today's session was to be considerably shorter as my friend had to start night shift that evening and we still had a four plus hour drive home. I continued working with him and his casting technique but we did not catch anything, nor did we see any fish. It was as if they had vanished and yesterday's superb fishing was just an apparition - a figment of our imagination. No matter what it was it had been a spectacular few days surrounded the silence of nature and some beautiful fish too.

Written by Isaac Tait who now lives in San Diego but dreams of returning, one day, to Japan. You should follow him on Twitter