Taiken Japan

Autumn Leaves 2016

Yabusame Performances in Zushi - When Traditions Meet Entertainment

Photo: Jeff Laitila on Flickr

Yabusame Performances in Zushi - When Traditions Meet Entertainment

Marina Lizio

Zushi is a beach town in Kanagawa prefecture, only 30 minutes by train from Tokyo and reachable by Keikyu line (get off at Shin-Zushi) or JR Yokosuka line from Shinagawa. Both lines stop in Yokohama station as well, so really it is super easy to go to.


It is a popular spot in summer among the young crowds for swimming and sunbathing. But there are plenty of other reasons to visit Zushi, even if it's not hot and humid! Around the end of November, for example, there is an interesting event that takes place right on the beach, which is called Yabusame. Yabusame means horseback archery, and what one can expect to see is indeed men and women riding a horse and hitting targets by bow and arrows while the horses run as fast as they can. It sounds easy, but it is very difficult and requires excellent skills such as aiming, balance and strength.


This practice was once used by samurai as a form of training, in order to sharpen their aiming and speed skills.

During the show, archers, both men and women, wear traditional, wonderful uniforms composed of riding pants, a jacket and a mantel that only covers one arm (the one holding the arrow), while the other arm is left uncovered so that the edge doesn't wedge in the bow. Over each leg they wear deer leather batwings (yes, exactly like cowboys), and on their head they wear a hat, strapped tightly around the head and face in order for it not to fly away during the race. Finally, archers bear an arrow holder, which is tightly strapped on their backs. The arrows have a round tip, for these occasion at least they are not real, so even in case of a very bad aim from one of the archers (which never happens), no one gets injured. But I can imagine that sharp ones were once used in battle...


The arrows for the show, instead, are designed in a way that when they hit the target, the jury can clearly hear the noise...in fact, that's the only way to know when an arrow reaches the target, because they are thrown at a speed that by eye is impossible to see them!

The entire performance is fascinating, it starts with warming up the horses, by doing some dummy races along the circuit, and then the action is on. Each archer throws three arrows per round to three targets that are placed at regular intervals along the riding track.


I couldn't believe that in less than one minute those archers could perform so well by doing so many things at once! In what looked like a unique fluid movement, they could launch the horse to full speed, drop the rein, extract one arrow, aim at the targets on their side and throw on the go.


I have to confess that I was not convinced at the beginning, but when I saw what these men and women were capable of, I had to reconsider my views immediately, and I was raptured with amazement. All of them could hit their targets, no one fell, no one got injured, and the many people gathered along the boardwalk enjoyed everything with loud clapping of their hands.

This is what happens when one puts together a beach, horses and traditions. And after the Yabusame performance is over, one could always sit on the sand waiting for the sunset, which is beautiful in November.


But, if you can't wait until November to see such a show, there will be another chance earlier in April and it will be right in Tokyo's Asakusa district! The third Saturday of April, head to Senso-ji early in the morning in order to pick a nice spot along the race tracks. If you choose well, you'll be able to capture traditions (horse riding) and modernity (Tokyo Sky Tree).