poster for archery

Samurai archers tug at the strings of Japan's heart

An equestrian archer in samurai clothing releases his arrow at the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine Yabusame Festival in Kamakura, Japan.
An equestrian archer in samurai clothing releases his arrow at the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine Yabusame Festival in Kamakura, Japan.
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By Michael Scott Moore
Sunday, January 16, 2011

Japan's Dosun Festival archery contest is a pleasant Sunday outing for residents of the Miura peninsula. They load kids into strollers, pack bento lunches and make the long hike down a wooded trail to Araihama Beach to watch as athletes dressed as samurai ride armored horses at top speed along a black-sand beach to fire arrows at squares of brittle wood.

Held every spring in a coastal village south of Tokyo, the contest at first resembles a sort of Japanese Renaissance Faire, with archers wearing anachronistic hardware: 13th-century costumes of silk robes, animal-pelt skirts, cloth shoes and ribbon-tied hats. The arrows have wooden turnip-shaped heads instead of sharp points.

But mounted archery, or yabusame, isn't just nostalgic re-enactment. The Japanese admire it as a living sport. One at a time, the riders charge their steeds down a lane marked in the sand and fire arrows at a series of wooden targets, which fly apart thrillingly when clobbered with a turnip head. A hit at last year's festival earned two thumps on a ceremonial drum and a chirpy comment through a PA system by a woman in the judges' tower.

"Actually, it's simple," one spectator, a woman named Yoshie, told me. "Hit the wood."

The sport requires Buddhist virtues of concentration. A rider needs a clear mind to aim a bow with both hands and, using nothing but his legs, guide a galloping horse amid all the bouncing armor and flying sand.

"That's the best rider," Yoshie informed me as we watched another board shatter. "He's very quiet, very slow." She didn't mean the horse, which moved like a fury down the beach.

All mounted archery is a subset of kyudo, the Way of the Bow. The ultimate aim in kyudo is to reach a state of enlightenment beyond apparent opposites such as body and mind, archer and bow, arrow and target. "Confucius practiced the Way of the Bow to demonstrate how a cultured person acts," wrote the kyudo master Awa Kenzo, who died in 1939. "Confucius was not concerned with hitting the target one hundred times out of one hundred shots. He was demonstrating how one hundred shots can be one hundred perfections of character." Still, Kenzo, a master archer who was not a yabusame horseman, apparently never missed a shot.

What I saw was, technically, a kind of mounted archery called kasagake, but yabusame has become the general word for these contests. Another kind of mounted archery, known as inuoumono, is quite different. It involves firing lethal arrows at dogs.

"Inuoumono," according to a dry statement by the Takeda School of Horseback Archery, which organizes the Dosun Festival contest, "is not in practice anymore."

The Dosun Festival (or Dosun Matsuri) celebrates a shogun family that ruled the Miura peninsula until 1516. The story goes that a great warlord named Dosun Miura defended his ancestral territory until he learned that his son had been killed. Then he knew that the battle was lost, and, "fearful lest his own head should be carried across the bay," according to an account of the legend from an old issue of Popular Science Monthly, he grabbed his own hair with one hand, decapitated himself with the other, and flung his head into the sea. Ever since, the Miura peninsula has been haunted by Dosun's ghost, and a shinto ceremony before the show evidently pays respect to him.

The festival, with its archery contest, takes place each May, but it's not the largest yabusame event in Japan. That honor goes to the contest held every September at the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine in Kamakura. The Kamakura event may be easier for tourists to reach from the nearest train station; the black-sand beach where Dosun Miura lost his head was complicated (but not impossible) to find.

After the Dosun contest, a mass of children and other spectators collected oblong pieces of shattered wooden targets and waited in line for local officials to stamp them with an insignia for the festival, as souvenirs.

"The Japanese are very keen on this," Yoshie said. "It's part of their history."

"But it's like Americans packing lunch to watch cowboys pretend to shoot each other," I said.

"Yes, I see," Yoshie giggled, then reconsidered. "Well, perhaps not quite."

Later, on my way up the hill, I realized that she was right. The real American comparison was rodeo - a spectator sport meant to preserve a lost mounted art. And I wondered whether rodeo stars ever study Confucius.

Moore is the author, most recently, of the surfing history "Sweetness and Blood."

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