Like many countries, Japan has had a long relationship with the horse. Introduced to the island nation in the beginning of the fourth century, horses have not only been a means of transport and military conquest, but also held a place as sacred vehicles between this world and that of the gods. Big festivals in Kyoto such as Aoi Matsuri and Jidai Matsuri exemplify the status of the horse throughout the ages, however Kyoto also honors its equestrian past with events that focus solely on the horse and its historic and spiritual usage. From mounted archery to acrobatics to races, here are a few annual equestrian festivals open to the public throughout the year.
When: May 3, 13:00 – 15:30
Where: Shimogamo Shrine
Yabusame is a form of mounted archery in which competitors gallop on horseback down a 255 meter-long track while attempting to hit three stationary targets. The scope of skill required to hit even a single target at such speeds is incredible. Hitting all three is nothing short of amazing. Archers wear traditional clothing and shoot bulbous, blunted arrows from a traditional Japanese long bow. The wooden targets, which are about 30cm square, shatter upon impact, making a sound that is clearly audible over the sound of the horse’s hooves.
Yabusame dates back to the Kamakura period when mounted archery was used as a means to train samurai. Much like medieval jousts, mounted archery duels featured two archers riding toward each other while attempting to shoot the other with three arrows. The martial art eventually took on a more spiritual aspect in which archery competitions and displays became a means of requesting favor and protection from the gods. Like modern standing archery in Japan, yabusame is highly ritualized and ceremonial, and usually begins and ends at the shrine with a blessing and a parade in period clothing.
If you’re interested in watching yabusame at Shimogamo Shrine it’s best to arrive at least an hour or two early. Seated tickets for the best viewing location are available on a first come, first serve basis. This event is very popular, and is part of the Aoi Matsuri weekly pageantry, so be prepared for crowds and cameras.
Ashizoroe-Shiki and Kurabeuma-Shiki
When: May 1, 13:00
Where: Kamigamo Shrine
When: May 5, 13:00 – 15:30
Where: Kamigamo Shrine
Admission: Free, however a prime viewing seat costs 500 yen.
Kurabeuma is a ritualized form of horse racing which birthed all modern horse racing in Japan. In this competition, twenty riders called Norijiri are split into two teams, the red team on the left (Taguraku) and the black team on the right (Kamaboko). The teams race against each other, two at a time. At the start, one Norijiri leads by a full horse length. To win the race, the leading Norijiri must finish with more than one horse length between him and his competitor. If the following Norijiri manages to close the starting distance by any length at the finish, the leading Norijiri loses.
The first race of the event is always staged in favor of the Taguraku team. This is because traditional belief states that the success of the year’s harvest depends on the left Norijiri’s win. After this ritual has finished, the following races are real competitions.
Kurabeuma-Shiki dates back to the eighth century, and was traditionally performed on imperial or noble court grounds. In 1093, Emperor Horikawa moved the ceremony to Kamigamo Shrine where it has been performed ever since.
Four days before Kurabeuma on May 1, Ashizoroe-Shiki is performed at Kamigamo Shrine. This ceremony is meant to test the condition of the horses to rank and order them before the real race on the 5th. Each horse is physically examined before being run in a test race to determine its order for Kurabeuma-Shiki.
When: May 5th, 13:00 – 15:00
Where: Fujinomori Shrine
Falling on the same day as Kurabeuma-Shiki, short-term visitors to Japan may find themselves faced with a hard decision of which of these dazzling equestrian festivals to attend. Kakeuma-Shinji is an annual event that showcases the amazing acrobatic maneuvers riders perform on the backs of galloping horses. These tricks are steeped in military history, and while the streamers and parasols of the modern ceremony don’t present much of a martial image, the tricks performed by the riders reflect real, practical maneuvers ancient riders employed to dodge arrows and enemy weapons. While most of us struggle to perform a headstand with the aid of a wall, these talented riders managed to keep their balance by holding onto nothing but the neck of a horse galloping at full speed. The sight is stunning to say the least.
The Kakeuma-Shinji isn’t the only part of the festival to see, however. A parade in the morning takes a portable shrine (mikoshi) to Fushimi Inari-Taisha—another must see site in Kyoto. Because Kakeuma also shares a date with Children’s Day in Japan, the Fujinomori grounds themselves become a tightly packed venue of food and fun for kids both big and small. If you’re looking for a place to sample the fine flavors of Japanese summer, this is a perfect place to start.
With so much to see and do, it’s definitely a good idea to arrive early. This event attracts large crowds and if you’re looking to secure a prime viewing location, you’ll need to stake it out while attendants are still setting up the track. On clear, hot days it is also a good idea to bring adequate sun protection, as the long track is exposed to direct sunlight.
When: October 16, 13:00
Where: Kamigamo Shrine
Like yabusame, kasagake is a form of mounted archery, with a few key differences. Firstly, the running yard is shorter by nearly half; a kasagake track is only 109 meters long. The targets in kasagake are varied and can range from square wooden boards, to hand fans. At Kamigamo Shrine, riders shoot at targets of two different sizes: a square board roughly 30cm wide and another square board half that size, set close to the ground. Additionally, women are permitted to compete in kasagake.
Kasagake takes its origins from the tenth or eleventh century, when it was used as a form of martial training. Hats (ayaigasa) from which the sport takes its name, were hung on target stands to be shot at by mounted riders. While yabusame diverged down a spiritual path, kasagake is much more of a competitive enterprise. In this way, it is more of a sport than yabusame. There are still ceremonial elements to it today, however, notably in the opening purification ritual.
Like all of these events, kasagake attracts many people and it’s best to come early if you want a good seat. Bring sun protection on days with hot weather as unlike at Shimogamo the Kamigamo track has no tree canopy protection.
Whether it’s a love of horses, the ancient traditions of Japan, or just colorful pageantry, the equestrian festivals in Kyoto have a little something for everyone. If you find yourself in the city in May especially, the week of Aoi Matsuri is a perfect opportunity to take a glimpse into the past, and see Japanese history from the back of a horse.