Kamakura. A place of deeply rooted history and culture in Japan. Prior to Tokyo, and even Kyoto, it was once the capital of Japan during the Kamakura period in the 12th century. It is also known for the emergence of the samurai. It is also in that time when Yabusame was born.
Yabusame (流鏑馬) is a traditional sport, that dates back to the beginning of the Kamakura period. It was initially used as a way for samurai to practice for the constant battles Japan faced.
These days, however, the need for samurai have long gone, and Japan is no longer a warring country. Yabusame still stands as a traditional sport, and even a Shinto ceremony.
In the Shinto religion, there is a heavy focus on purity and life, and that all things have a spirit, animate or inanimate. Even the computer I’m typing on has a spirit. These spirits are called kami, which is often mistakenly translated to “god”. While there are more powerful kami than others, not all are gods in the Western sense, like in Roman mythology. Most are just personifications of an object. However, having respect for these spirits is important. Thus, Yabusame is used to not only entertain us, but also the millions of kami. Their joy will hopefully bring prosperity to Japan and its people.
I witnessed this connection to Shintoism and Yabusame up close in Kamakura’s Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine, which has a history of 800 years performing Yabusame. It began with a procession of colorfully dressed boys and men, holding banners and the wooden targets the archers would later hit. They made their way to the shrine in the pavilion. The archers and priests ascended the stairs, and rested on their knees in a most courtly way. Square shoulders, elbows pointed almost outright, I was reminded of the Japanese dolls dressed as courtesans in the Heian period.
The priest began his prayer. His monotone chant carried throughout the court, each word bringing blessings to the archers, their horses, their bows and their arrows. The bugyo, or grand master, also chanted following the priest. This year’s bugyo was none other than the Danish ambassador Freddy Svane. He chanted in Japanese, and surprisingly well. I had to commend him on his abilities!
While the ceremony was closing, we were led to the track ahead of the archers. We were seated at the same side the targets were placed, near the second target. This wasn’t my first time at this event, but none the less I was still very excited for the procession.
Processed with Snapseed.
As the archers came down the track on their horses, the bugyo led the way. Each archer had their own unique costume from the 13th century. The most unique part of the clothing was the white spotted deer skin on their legs called the mukabaki (行縢), of which I’ve always admired. They all wore brightly colored clothes that were either vermilion, indigo or violet. Their straw hats (aya-i-gasa 綾藺笠) helped to complete the look.
Per tradition, they began their mad dash from the east and ended in the west. They only have 255 meters (837 feet) to hit three targets. With less than 85 meters (279 feet) between each target, riding by on a beast as fast as a motorbike, it’s no wonder it’s an honor for these men to even be considered to take part in this event.
This year, the second target didn’t attract as many arrows as the years before. As exciting as it is to witness the almost impossible feat of shooting a standing target mere seconds after the archer took aim at the previous one, no one in the audience can complain. Only because no one in the audience can do any better! I think it’s the thrill of watching these men ride down at high speeds on a horse that is the most impressive. With each pound of each hoof, you can feel the vibrations up to your chest. I even had some pebbles kicked my direction!
The whole event lasted 90 minutes, with intermissions in between showing off the next archers to take aim. Each of them showing respect to the bugyo by bowing their heads when passing by him. Within my line of sight, I saw maybe five successful hits or tekichuu (的中) out of 20 attempts. For some reason, the first and third targets were luckier this year.
Even though the Kamakura Yabusame event has completed, there are still many more exciting events to watch within Japan.
Check the map on this website for when yabusame will occur next near you.
Unfortunately the site is only in Japanese, however, a short list of upcoming events near Tokyo are:
- Harajuku Station - Meiji-Jingu Shrine - November 3rd, 2016
- Zushi Station - Zushi Kaigan (beach) - November 20th, 2016
- Minatocho Station - Kawasaki Keibajo (Horsetrack) Kisha-shiki - January 3rd, 2016
- Rokugodate Station - Rokugo Shrine - January 7th, 2016.
- Asakusa Station - Asakusa Shrine - April 15th, 2017
If you have any questions about Yabusame, feel free to contact the author of this article, Miko Hayashi.