My Early Experiences with Kyudou (Japanese Archery)

Photo: Frédéric BISSON

My Early Experiences with Kyudou (Japanese Archery)

Jackson Lee

*Thud*

The first time I heard the sound of an arrow piercing through the paper on the target, I wanted to replicate that sound myself. It was a random Sunday afternoon, and I was out exploring the city on my bicycle. I found the Saitama prefectural martial art center and saw some people wearing Hakama, walking out very slowly, and carefully preparing the shot. Every movement was deliberate and precise, yet natural and elegant. It was admirable.

I knew absolutely nothing about Kyudou back then, but before I realized it, I had already grabbed a friend and we signed up for classes weeks after. We had no idea what to expect, and that only made it more intriguing.

Kyudou dojo hallway

During the first couple of weeks, we arrived at the dojo wearing gymwear. The teachers taught us how to walk in the dojo, how to turn, how to sit (on your knees, Japanese style), and how to behave as a practitioner of the ways of the bow. We were nowhere close to touch the bow and arrows yet, but we understood that patience is essential to kyudou, so my friend and I held our excitement back and focused on practicing the basic steps of shooting with air bows.

Everyone was taught in Japanese, of course, and my friend and I had difficulties with some of the words. Fortunately for us, the demonstrations of the basic steps and postures were all shown by the instructor, so we could simply copy and follow what we saw, until we missed something and the assistant instructors came to fix our postures.

Kyudou dojo arrow racks

On the other hand, we were also pulled aside individually to be measured for the kyudou outfit and arrows. Although it’s rare, our martial art center took even beginners classes seriously enough that we were required to order a proper uniform for the purpose of learning. We also placed orders on our arrows, which were measured to match our arm length and the colours were customized to our preferences. A few weeks later, everything arrived, and I had a hakama (traditional trousers) with my name written in Katakana, as well as a set of 6 arrows that were light purple with flashy windy-line patterns on the feather (my American friend got red roses on his, and literally everyone else got standard solid colours.) With our new gear, the teachers spent a couple of weeks teaching us how to wear the outfits, as well as how to put them away properly.

Students practicing kyudou

It must have been about 6 weeks in before we were assigned our own bow, based on the length and strength of the string. The feeling of holding a long bow in my right hand and my own arrows in my left was a moving moment. I felt like the patience of waiting had paid off, despite the fact that I hadn’t actually started shooting yet. But with all the motion mimicking and air-shooting we practiced, my friend and I felt ready, and boy, were we wrong.

Kyudou oshidegake glove in action

Photo by Aabh at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
For weeks, our arrows flew everywhere. They hit straight into the grass, some shot through the flags hanging above the target, and my friend shot the roof and made a spark (which also bent his arrow). The rebound from the shooting also led the string to hit my ears, my hand, and my cheeks numerous times. Once, the bow actually turned with such impact that I dropped the long bow and made a ruckus — almost three months in, and it was quite an embarrassment that almost broke my confidence.

But the instructors came by every time, kept their calm and helped us recover our broken concentration. They kept reminding us not to be discouraged by the results, as our personal progress is what we should focus on. Kyudou is drastically different from western archery, because it is more of a meditation on our form than a sport, and if we were to continue on the ways of the bow, we had to experience it and understand it. When I hit the target for the first time, I had learned to hold my excitement in so my mind could take it in and remember not just the hit, but how I shot it. The idea is to learn from each attempt, successful or not, and improve upon it.

Kyudo archery targets

Kyudou targets. Photo: Ozizo (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
From my initial experience with kyudou, I understood that I came in with the wrong mindset. I was excited about hitting the target, but actually, Japanese archery is about how we shoot each arrow and not if we hit the target. The purposes of kyudou are 真 (Truthfulness), 善 (Virtue), 美 (Beauty). After months of practicing, I had only the shallowest glimpse of what I was getting into, and I was fully intrigued. It eventually led me on to continue practicing on my own and passing the first level of kyudou, but that is an experience to be shared another day.

For all about the expenses involved in learning kyudou, see The Cost of Getting into Kyudou.