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Fly Fishing in Nikko, Japan  1902 – 1911

Local onlookers were perplexed with the strange ballet of  flycasters in motion. Crowds gathered to watch the duo hook and harvest these unusually vibrant, confetti colored trout on the bamboo fringed stream”

Thomas Blake Glover Fly Fishing

The Samurai Angler

Fly Fishing’s Origins in Japan

Matthew Awalt

Yokohoma in 1902 – New Years Eve, Two moustached fly fishermen are busy ringing in the new year thousands of miles from home. Glasses clink as Auld Lang Syne fills the high celings of the consulate at midnight. The foreigner duo would’ve had good reason to celebrate that winter night in 1902. For the first time in history, Japanese tenkara rods would soon be fitted with reels in the first decade of the 20th century

The previous decades had brought them wealth, prestige, and political clout in Japan. But most notably for our story, 1902 was the year that fly fishing was introduced to Japan by an industrious Scotsman and a British interpreter working at the consulate in Yokohama. Each summer, hundreds of Japanese fly anglers make a pilgrimage to “The Catskills of Japan” to visit a fabled spring creek in Nikko, Tochigi Japan where trout waters flow slow and cold 150 km north of Tokyo.

Thomas Glover, a Scot and maverick merchant, arrived in Nagasaki in 1859 to purchase and export green tea. The profits earned from the tea trade must’ve been meager. Soon after arriving in Japan, Glover turned to the dark arts. Smuggling rifles, gunpowder and cannons to the rebellious samurai clans of Satsuma and Chōshū proved much more lucrative than selling fragrant tea.

His warlord clientele unified in the last decades of the 19th century to defeat the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate in the Boshin War 1869. With power restored to the Imperial Meiji court, the seeds of the Japanese Empire were sown with the help of Glover serving as the arms broker for Meiji Japan. 

By the turn of the century, the Japanese Empire was spreading its colonial tentacles to defiant subjects in Korea and Manchuria.The technology he introduced to the Japanese wasn’t always used for Japan’s expansionary conquests. 1865, Glover assembled the first miniature railway in Japan. The steam locomotive named “The Iron Duke” intrigued the public to what lay in store for Japan’s future. To fuel Japan’s rapid industrialization , Glover was tasked to modernize Japan’s first undersea coal mines on Takashima Island near Nagasaki with the latest in Scottish mining equipment. Alexander McKay’s biography on Glover sums it up very well in his 2012 book Scottish Samurai 

“Glover went on to become a pivotal figure in the rapidly expanding Mitsubishi empire, founding shipyards and breweries. As energetic in his love-life as in business and politics, Glover had a string of Japanese mistresses, one of whom inspired Puccini’s Madam Butterfly. This “Scottish Samurai” became an adviser to the Japanese government; he also arranged for many Japanese to visit Britain and see the wonders of the Industrial Revolution, a lesson they enthusiastically brought back home. Today, Glover is regarded as one of the founding fathers of the Japanese economic miracle”

Togochi flyfishing

Shinkyo Bridge – Nikko, Japan

Equipment & engineers soon arrived on foreign ships at Nagasaki Port. The mine’s output quickly doubled & led to the Mitsubishi corporation acquiring the mining operations on Takashima Island & neighboring Hashima Island.

Less is know about Harold Parlett. Harold Parlett of England was a skilled interpreter, British consular diplomat, and ultimately appointed the Japanese British Counsellor at Yokohama. Compared to Glover, details of Parlett’s time in Japan are vague in comparison to Glover. All that we know is that Glover and Parlett were keen fly fishermen and chances are spent a great deal of time on the water together. Parlett’s legacy is found in the colloquial Japanese language of the fish that still bears his surname. 

 In 1902 the keen anglers  imported fertilized brook trout eggs from a Colorado hatchery in the United States. With Parlett’s assistance, the Yukawa River was soon stocked with brook trout and left unattended for the next few years. By 1904, Glover and Parlett were casting dry-flies to small 8-10” brook trout that thrived in the Yukawa’s slow moving currents.

Yukawa River fly fishing Japan

A colorful American brook trout Salvelinus fontinalis caught on a fly, chances are a genetic ancestor from the original batch of eggs –  Yukawa River, Nikko, Japan

Local onlookers were perplexed with the strange ballet of flycasters in motion. Crowds gathered to watch the duo hook and harvest these unusually vibrant, confetti colored on the bamboo fringed stream. The offspring from Parlett and Glover’s brook trout might still be found swimming in the Yukawa River, Lake Yono, Tochigi, Nagano and Eastern Hokkaido.

The Yukawa river’s Pāretto trout, actually char were named after Harold’s hard to prounouce last name – The more common name is Kawamasu. And brook trout are actually char, not trout at all. Have you ever dreamed of fly fishing in Japan? Get in touch with us to learn more about how to prepare and what to pack for your fly fishing trip to Japan. 

Fly Fishing Tochigi Nikko  Trout Headwaters of the Yukawa – Oku-Nikko, Tochigi – Japan

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Matthew’s photos & articles have appeared in The FlyFish Journal, Waterlog Magazine UK – Medlar Press,  Asia Sentinel & The Korea Herald.  For media & general inquires – send your message here.