Even in Japan, a land awash in tradition, there aren’t too many events that take place today exactly as they did centuries ago. Fortunately, for those seeking to see and learn more about Japanese traditions and customs, there is Yabusame (流鏑馬),a form of horseback archery which is still practiced as it was during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333). During this period, mounted archery was used as a military training exercise to keep the samurai prepared for war.
This spectacular ritual also holds religious significance and is performed today at famous shrines such as Tsurugaoka Hachimangu in Kamakura, Shimogamo Shrine in Kyoto (during Aoi Matsuri in early May) and Meiji Jingu in Tokyo. It is also performed in Samukawa (Kanagawa Prefecture) and on the beach at Zushi (Kanagawa Prefecture), as well as other locations. These events attract thousands of spectators, who come to marvel at the sight of mounted archers in lavish costumes firing arrows at stationary targets while charging at full gallop.
Yabusame simply involves an archer on horseback galloping at high speed down a roped-off track approximately 837 feet long. Without stopping or slowing down, he or she fires three arrows in succession, each at one of the three wooden targets placed about 230 feet apart on one side of the track. The archer then has to slow down quickly before coming to the end of the track. The whole run lasts about 20 seconds, and the score is based simply on how many targets have been hit.
The archers need to use both hands for shooting, so they have to rely on their knees alone to control the horses. As they fire the arrows they shout “in-yo-in-yo,” meaning darkness and light (the two opposite cosmic forces, sometimes called yin and yang). Hitting even one target is hard, and hitting all three is a major achievement; the mark of a supreme expert.
To be selected as a yabusame archer is a great honor, even today. In the past, they were chosen from only the best warriors. The archer who performs the best is awarded a white cloth, signifying divine favor.
Japanese bows date back to prehistoric times, to the J0mon Period. The arrows the archer uses are “turnip-headed.” I believe this stems from one style of mounted archery called “inuoumono” where dogs were used as the targets. Buddhist priests were able to prevail upon the samurai to have the arrows padded so that the dogs were only annoyed and bruised rather than killed. Experienced archers are allowed to use arrows with a V-shaped prong. If the board is struck, it will splinter with a confetti-like material and fall to the ground. The targets and their placement are designed to ritually replicate the optimum target for a lethal blow on an opponent wearing full traditional samurai armor, “O-Yoroi” which left the space just beneath the helmet visor bare.
There are two famous schools of mounted archery that perform yabusame. One is the Ogasawara school. The founder, Ogasawara Nagakiyo, was instructed by the shogun Minamoto Yoritomo to start a school for archery. He wanted his warriors to be highly skilled and disciplined. Archery was seen as a good way for instilling the necessary principles for a samurai warrior.
The other archery school was begun earlier by Minamoto Yoshiari in the 9th century under the command of Emperor Uda. This school became known as the Takeda school of archery. The Takeda style has been featured in classic samurai films such as Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” (1954) and “Kagemusha” (1980). The famed actor of many samurai films, Toshiro Mifune, was a distimguished student of the Takeda school.
Yabusame is an awe inspiring sport that truly has to be experienced in person at least once in a lifetime. If not for experiencing the traditions of feudal Japan, to experience the sheer talent and mastery of the archers themselves as they compete in this impressive sport.