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It’s summertime, and since fish are jumping, the living is indeed somewhat easier for a family of artisans creating and selling traditional Japanese bamboo fishing rods, known as wazao.

Opened by the Matsumoto family in 1783, Tosaku Honten has been located in Tokyo’s Inaricho area since that time. Today, Kohei Matsumoto, 65, and his wife manage the store, which is filled with a glossy forest of lacquered bamboo rods. Their twin sons work upstairs.

Matsumoto, a powerful personality with a gray ponytail and a booming voice, shoos me up the narrow staircase of the shop. “If you want to learn about wazao, go talk to my boys,” he says, with a wise wink, as several customers enter the store.

Upstairs, in a long narrow room surrounded by bundled lengths of drying bamboo canes, Ryohei, 29, the older son by a hair’s breadth, painstakingly straightens a length of bamboo over heat. “This process is called hiire,” Shuhei explains, standing over his brother, “and it takes a lot of concentration and a good eye.”

Making the delicate yet strong sectional rods, for which Tosaku Honten has been famous for 232 years, actually begins with the twins scouring various bamboo forests in fall and early spring for a few stalks, among hundreds, that are particularly straight and unmarred. These they bundle by size and allow to dry for an average of three years.


Subsequently, the canes are heated with charcoal, and polished to a gleam in a process called aburanuki (oil-removal). Once the canes are ready, creating the multi-section rod includes kirikumi (selecting one cane for each segment), kirisoroe (cutting the pieces to matching lengths), itomaki (strengthening segment ends with gossamer red silk threads), and finally nuri (applying multiple coats of lacquer). In total, production of a single rod requires about three months of constant work.

“The average wazao costs between ¥20,000 and ¥30,000,” Shuhei says, “and in terms of time invested in crafting it, that’s actually pretty cheap.”

However, he admits, many who would like to purchase a rod and all the accouterments—including a tackle case, traditional landing net, and bobbers—hesitate to spend so much on a hobby. Their customers, therefore, tend to be the comfortably retired.

“Simply put, we survive largely because we have devoted customers,” Shuhei says. “It’s certainly not an occupation where you’re going to get rich, but if you continue doing it no matter how hard times get, it is at least a business. Our great strength is that we’ve kept the work in the family for generations.”

As we chat, I note Shuhei does most of the talking, while Ryohei quietly works, only occasionally interrupting to qualify what Shuhei has said. There’s a subtle hierarchy between the twins that I can’t attribute entirely to seniority, especially given that Ryohei’s advantage is mere minutes.

“I’ve been studying the craft since age 18, just out of high school,” Ryohei explains, “whereas Shuhei has only recently rejoined the family business.”

Does this mean Shuhei will forever have to bow to his older brother’s expertise? Both twins nod, smiling. Shuhei’s main contribution is to curate Tosaku Honten’s Internet presence—a homepage, Facebook page, and blog.

“He updates the world on any new rods I have completed or any trade shows we will attend,” Ryohei says.


A quick peek at the store’s homepage reveals that the last few rods Ryohei has completed have already sold, a fact that pleases Shuhei. “It will be Ryohei’s artisan skills that customers seek out in the coming decades,” Shuhei says with pride, but it occurs to me that it will be Shuhei who helps people appreciate his work.

I wonder aloud if the brothers ever go fishing together. Shuhei, it turns out, fishes all the time, but Ryohei, to my surprise, is not allowed.

“You would think, if you’re going to make rods, you should try them out,” Shuhei explains, “but our dad says if Ryohei takes up the hobby, he’ll only be able to make the kinds of rods he likes, not what our customers desire.”

What I fish out from this policy is that the Matsumoto twins are astonishingly dedicated to their business, and that they trust their father’s wisdom. Just as the beauty of a bamboo rod is partially in its pliancy, Shuhei and Ryohei prove flexible, as well.

Upon learning that fishermen were enjoying capturing tiny, colorful little fish called tanago (Tokyo bitterlings) to sell to aquarium shops, the brothers responded by designing rods and tools that can hook tanago while causing them minimal harm.

“We learned what our customers were looking for, and together we came up with solutions. We developed a tool to take the fish off the hook without hurting or touching it.”

In the future, both Shuhei and Ryohei hope to find mates who will understand and support their family legacy. Though they are both a bit shy, I think they’re pretty good catches, and that’s no crazy fish story.


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Kit Nagamura is a photojournalist with 25 years’ experience in publishing. She writes the monthly Backstreet Stories column for The Japan Times and hosts regular programs on NHK.


Our great strength is that we’ve kept the work in the family for generations.