Visiting tackle powerhouse Gamakatsu in Japan

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In February, WON General Manager Chuck Buhagiar had the once-in-a-lifetime experience of visiting Osaka, Japan’s second largest city with nearly 3 million residents, where he was welcomed by industry friends from Gamakatsu Group. While there, he marveled at the sights, was usually – but not always –  pleasantly surprised by the food and took in the Osaka Fishing Show, a combined consumer and trade event that dwarfs the United States’ own ICAST. – PL

DINNER WITH THE BOYS – From left, Ted Thibault, Gamakatsu Sales Manager, Chuck Buhagiar, Shingo Tsuoka of Gamakatsu, James Hall, Bassmaster Editor, and Syd Rives and Kazutomo Nakamura of SPRO.

I was pleasantly delighted by what a wonderful place Japan is, and what a huge company Gamakatsu Group is in terms of the items they manufacture.

In the United States, Gamakatsu is primarily a hook company. In Japan, they sell rain gear, they sell boots, tackle boxes and all kinds of terminal tackle from Sabiki rigs to sinkers to specialty bottom fishing lures, crankbaits and squid jigs. To illustrate the point, Gamakatsu’s Japanese catalog is 470 pages. It’s no surprise, fishing has been a part of Japanese culture since before the time of the samurai. Fishing is a huge part of the Japanese lifestyle. Freshwater bass fishing is very popular, and there’s a lot of saltwater fishing from the rocks.

SNACKTIME – Baby octopus on a skewer.

Interestingly, Gamakatsu sells a rod for a freshwater fish caught in rivers. It is called an ayu (eye-you). These rods are 30 feet long, telescopic, made of high-end carbon fiber, and the one I looked at was feather light. There’s no reel, just a leader connected to a microscopic swivel tip, and the leader is the same length as the rod itself. Some of the rods are valued at $5,000 U.S.

Ayu fishermen fish with tiny 2-hook rigs consisting of hand-tied trebles – they aren’t welded or soldered but tied. To catch a live ayu you must buy a live ayu and pin it to the hook. These are very territorial fish. You dip your ayu into a riffle and if there’s one around he’ll come out to challenge the one on your hook, giving the angler a chance to snag him on the trebles.

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ROKUON-JI – Known as the Golden Pavilion, this Kyoto shrine was built in 1397 as a residence for Shogun Ashikaga Yashimitsu. The top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf.

Shingo Tsuoka, a Gamakatsu Vice President here in the U.S., told an interesting story about work in Japan. When you start at Gamakatsu, you have an opportunity to live in a dormitory. Shingo said he lived in the dorms for 6 years. As part of the lifestyle of living in the dorm, Shingo and his coworkers would go fishing together every weekend. You start from the bottom so you know the whole process and work your way up.

It made it clear to me Gamakatsu is about the best. They make the best product they can. They don’t want to market anything that’s not of supreme quality, and it’s evident in everything they do. Their business is their heart and soul, and they take great pride in everything they do.

The Japanese people are very polite and respectful. The Osaka Fishing Show was a real eye-opener. It’s a trade show that opens into a consumer show on the weekend. The crowds were massive — it was standing room only – but no one raised a voice or shoved someone to get a look. People were lined up 5 or 6 deep to check out a new rod or reel. There were three retailers at the Show selling tackle, and to get the hot prices customers were calmly waiting in line.

HUGE, POLITE CROWDS at the Osaka Fishing Show.

I visited Gamakatsu’s Osaka office with a group of media and distributors. There I met Mr. Fujii, the CEO of Gamakatsu Group, and Mr. Fujimoto, the Managing Director who runs the office. When we walked in the door to meet the management, all the staffers were standing as a sign of respect.

Mr. Fujii has an original copy of Izaak Walton’s A Compleat Angler¸ a classic and historic book first published in 1653. He generously offered to let me hold it, but I didn’t want to touch it, it is too old and valuable.

While in Japan, I had a chance to sight-see a little with industry friends James Hall from Bassmaster and Kazutomo Nakamura of SPRO (our Anthony Bourdain for the trip, we called him Jungle Fire), as well as Shingo and Ted Thibault from Gamakatsu. We visited ancient temples hundreds of years old in Kyoto. One, the Rokuon-Ji, known as the Golden Pavilion, was entirely plated in gold. It’s the most amazing thing, the shrines aren’t constructed with any nails or bolts. It’s all based on how the beams align and these structures are somehow able to withstand earthquakes with no damage.

OSAKA AT NIGHT

Osaka is magnificent, spotlessly clean, completely safe at all hours of the day and night, there’s no crime. Gas is $6 a gallon so a lot of people ride bikes but they don’t lock them up, they just set them aside. The shops go on forever, above ground and underground in the subway.

We had an opportunity to visit a Japanese tackle shop, Ichiban 8, and it was massive with a selection of everything you could ever want. If it was for fishing rivers, bass or saltwater, these guys had it. If you wanted a color, they had 20. The store went on forever, it was very cool. I bought my son some freshwater bass lures not available in the states. He was very excited when I brought them home.

The food was a revelation. It was incredible. The Japanese obviously love their seafood. We went to a restaurant where we caught our dinner. The diners sat in private rooms, and when we were ready to fish we opened a door to a humungous pool, baited a hook with a piece of shrimp, and within five minutes of catching a red snapper, it was brought back to our table prepared many tasty ways.

We ate a lot of beef, including the best steak I’ve ever had in a restaurant that’s been open 142 years. We had every type and style of beef you can get, tabletop grill, ramen, shabu-shabu, and I encountered some foods I didn’t care for. Items such as baby octopus on a skewer or bonito flakes must be an acquired taste. The Japanese like to use bonito as a flavoring, they dry it out for a year and grate it into tiny flakes used for soup stock. I was the saltiest and fishiest food I’ve ever tasted in my life. Crab guts looked like a scoop of black ice cream but didn’t taste like ice cream so I politely passed.

Every night, the best part was the beer. The Japanese are not afraid of karaoke, but it was nothing like I expected. It’s commonplace to go out after a long day at work, you go to dinner and you visit a karaoke establishment. They aren’t large, more like a bar with a couple of booths like at a diner, and you sit with your group at a table. They pass out multiple microphones, they pass out some beers, everyone takes a turn and the more the beer flows the louder the singing becomes. Everyone was in suits. It was a lot of fun.

We stayed in the Cross Hotel in downtown Osaka. The rooms were small by American standards. It was very comfortable, but what I thought was a small room was huge for the area. Everything is smaller in Japan. The Honda Civic is a big car in Japan. You don’t see a lot of trucks, I didn’t see one pick-up, people own bass boats, but they have to stay at the lakes. You can’t keep it at your house and tow it. If you drove around, you’d understand, Osaka is very densely populated with most people living in high-rises.

We got around in taxis or by foot. The cabs were spotlessly clean, the drivers wear suits, the door automatically open and close themselves, and tipping is not allowed in cabs or restaurants. It’s not a part of their culture.

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