Buddha has perfect posture, but I’m awkwardly hunched in the earthen alcove we’re sharing. The street lanterns of Yamanouchi, Japan, don’t illuminate much, so I’m grateful for the bulbs of this shrine. I’ve just traveled 6,738 miles — nearly nonstop — but I don’t know where to go from here.
Yamanouchi’s geothermal waters attract people from all over the country — as they have for thousands of years. In a nearby tourist district, visitors are strolling around in yukata robes and wooden sandals, seeking hot springs that are rumored to be healing. But in this neighborhood I haven’t seen another soul on the street.
My cellphone isn’t working, and my damp paper map is beginning to disintegrate.
I suppose it won’t be a great loss, since — under Buddha’s electric halo — I just noticed it doesn’t list street names. The path to my intended ryokan, or traditional inn, is marked only with arrows. I try to convince myself that’s a good sign, since I’ve come to learn Japanese archery: kyudo, the Way of the Bow.
Moments later, she appears.
The woman is young. Maybe 25. I don’t call out as she passes, but I consider following her back to the train station, where I saw a rotary phone. Before I can adjust the wheels of my rolling suitcase, she’s turned back toward me, the disheveled traveler at Buddha’s feet.
“Can I help you?” she asks.
I sputter the name of my ryokan. “I will take you,” she says.
Her kindness feels like a tangible gift, and its weight grows with every block we walk into darkness, in silence. Through narrow streets. Across a bridge. Under a metal arch guarded by snow monkeys.
Finally we reach Uotoshi Ryokan. The stucco-sided building is more traditional than most structures in the area, where even at night you feel the presence of mountains pressing against sky.
“This is where you’re supposed to be,” she says.
Then, without another word, she’s gone.
I inherited my interest in archery from my grandfather, Richard Earl Henion, a retired military man covered in faded blue tattoos. His passion for bows stretched back to the South Pacific during World War II. One day, on an Army scouting mission, he walked around a mountain pass and came upon a tribesman traveling in the opposite direction. My grandfather had his gun drawn. The local had a bow and arrow raised. They could not speak each other’s language, but they somehow managed to persuade each other to lower their weapons.
Richard Earl accompanied the man to his village, where they spent the night cavorting around a campfire. Before leaving, he bestowed upon the local a pack of smokes. The man, in return, gave him the bow that could have killed him.
My grandfather and I never found time to pursue archery together. But years after his death I started shooting traditional long and recurve bows under the guidance of a neighbor in the Appalachian Mountains. We live not far from where the “Hunger Games” movies were filmed, and my teacher — a mountaineer who can make bowstrings out of tree bark — encouraged the instinctive shooting style made famous in the films.
Japanese archery seems as far from Appalachia’s intuitive, wild-woman approach as I can get, geographically and metaphorically. Kyudo is one of Japan’s oldest martial arts, and it remains one of the most respected. The practice was banned by occupation forces after World War II. But in 1949, the All Nippon Kyudo Federation introduced a standardized method. Suddenly, anyone could study it.
The samurai-warrior practice is closely associated with Zen Buddhism, and it draws from Confucianism, Taoism, Shinto and onmyodo. Its ancient formality runs against my shoot-from-the-hip nature, which makes it all the more important for me to be here. I’m only 5-foot-2, but I take up a lot of space. The first word I learned, by necessity, while navigating crowded stations to get here: “Sumimasen.” Excuse me.
My kyudo teacher, or sensei, Kazuhisa Miyasaka, didn’t set out to be an archer — or an innkeeper.
Like me, he’s at Uotoshi Ryokan because of his grandfather.
Miyasaka — a man with bushy eyebrows and unruly wisps of gray hair — studied archry briefly when he was a child. But it wasn’t until much later that he started to take it seriously. When he left to attend university in Tokyo, he never thought he’d return to the inn, which was founded by his grandfather and later run by his parents. But that changed when their health failed.
It was around that time that he encountered a kyudo teacher on campus. The sensei told him that — if he was going to return to the ryokan, which uniquely included a shooting place — he should study kyudo and become master of his own dojo. Ultimately, archery inspired Miyasaka to come home.
“Destiny?” he says of the timing. “I don’t know.”
Miyasaka has changed into the formal kimono he wears for demonstrations. We walk to the shooting hall, which is sided in rusty metal. The entire town of Yamanouchi is alive with surface streams that run alongside roads like veins. You can hear them, even when you cannot see them.
The entryway of the dojo, or training place, is a bridge.
Matos — hollow targets made of round wooden frames and black-and-white paper — line the interior of the shooting hall. One side of the building is composed of garage-style sliding doors. Miyasaka rolls one open to reveal a hidden courtyard. We’re across from a target house, where a roof protects the sand dune that holds matos in place. To reach it requires shooting over a kudzu-trimmed pond, approximately 90 feet.
“Almost same as battlefield space,” Miyasaka says.
When Miyasaka first took up archery, he was only interested in winning competitions. At one point, when performing an examination to advance to the next level of kyudo he consistently made his target. Still, he did not pass.
“My teacher said I was hitting very well. But my form was not beautiful,” Miyasaka says. “To some, archery looks like sport. To some, it looks like spirit. If you ask one hundred people, you will find one hundred different answers. ... Body remembers correct action. If we are not thinking, we get the target natural.”
It’s a case of matter over mind. And Miyasaka takes the challenge seriously. Sometimes, as a test of muscle memory, he turns off the dojo lights and shoots in the dark.
One of the dojo’s kerosene heaters has a teapot on top of it, so archers might warm themselves from the inside. I’m here, wearing every sweater I packed, because Miyasaka told me that it would be visual training to watch the masters’ night practice.
Twang goes the string. Thwak goes the target.
Still jet-lagged, lulled by the song of the bow, I fall asleep sitting up. Then, an arrow.
My whole body jolts, as if startled by an alarm clock.
In kyudo, the sound of a pierced target is meant to awaken the archer from a dream-world clouded by ego and cultural conditioning, revealing the interconnectivity of self, nature, everything. When I realize that I’ve had a literal awakening, I chuckle quietly. Miyasaka notices.
“Japanese archery is serious,” he says. “You have to have poker face at all times.”
“Because if your mind is empty, there’s no expression to read?” I say.
“Exactly,” Miyasaka says, nodding. “If enemies can read your face, they know what you might do next.”
He invites me to shoot an asymmetrical yumi, or bow, for the first time — not at an outdoor target, but at the traditional makiwara, a rice-straw bale positioned at eye level. Unfortunately, I’m only adept at dropping my arrow.
When I’m finally able to hold it correctly, I hit the straw bale’s center. “Lucky,” Miyasaka says, pointing to a hole near the ceiling. “Sometimes, beginners do not do so well.”
Miyasaka says of my next attempt, “I would call that good, but you did not follow through.”
Outside, in the arrow path, rain on the pond sounds like tiny arrows beating a drumhead. As if he can hear me wonder what would happen if a projectile was lost to the water, Miyasaka says, “If you worry about pond, that is not correct. So we practice more. Training mind.”
Another arrow hits the floor. I laugh at myself. Miyasaka is not amused.
“There is no laughing in Japanese archery!” he says.
Sore from hours of archery practice, I take a break to explore the surrounding mountains. Locals have long called this place Hell Valley. Now, it’s sometimes referred to as Paradise of the Monkey.
Jigokudani Monkey Park , within walking distance of Miyasaka’s dojo, was founded by an outdoorsman who saw that human development had pushed Japanese macaques into agricultural and resort areas where they weren’t welcomed. The wild animals now relax in their own man-made onsen, or hot spring.
A resident macaque wanders over to me, and we sit together for a while. When he falls asleep, I study his heart-shaped face. Another macaque is facedown in the onsen, sipping the water like steaming coffee. In an attempt to capture the scene, I crouch with my camera in hand. Then, suddenly, a blur of fur and pink hands reaching. I fall backward, and the human crowd takes a collective step back from the flying monkey that almost landed on my back.
Then they begin to laugh, some of their faces shrouded in surgical masks.
Walk through any crowd in Japan and you’ll encounter a handful of women, men and children with their mouths and noses covered. Mostly because, in close proximity, they’re protecting others from their illnesses. Increasingly, studies find that citizens — particularly teenagers — wear them to avoid revealing feelings. But even masks can’t hide unified amusement.
I’m a little shaken. But I laugh with them, momentarily forgetting the advice I’d received from a friend once cornered by granola-thieving monkeys. The gist: Don’t look monkeys in the eye. And do not, under any circumstances, smile at them.
I remember the warning too late. Thankfully, the macaques don’t notice my faux pas.
I’m poised, ready to shoot during my last scheduled lesson. But I’m not looking at the target as I’m supposed to. I’m looking at Miyasaka. “Why?” he says. “No one is going to help you! I cannot know what is in your mind. Only you!”
That’s what worries me.
Even non-archery-related aspects of Japanese culture have me concerned about my ability to adhere to protocol. Take, for instance, the attention given to shoes: Remove upon entry. Put on slippers. If you go to the bathroom, remove those and put on special bathroom slippers. Take off, put on. Continually.
It seems simple enough, but I keep finding myself in my bedroom wearing red shoes marked toilet. I forget my slippers and end up in the lobby wearing socks. And the dojo has its own footwear-related etiquette. When I reach the shooting hall after retrieving arrows, I no longer casually kick off my borrowed slippers, as I’ve done in the past. I carefully place them near the door.
“Make the target, don’t make the target. It doesn’t matter,” Miyasaka says. “Action is the same.” I nod and go through my forms again. When I release, my arrow comes so close to the target that the ping of the string is followed by a hollow knocking. I’ve grazed the mato’s wooden rim.
Miyasaka’s tone softens. “I’m sorry I teach you so strongly,” he says. “I do this because I know you can do well. You have problems, but you have the ability to clear them. I know, because you accept everything. I’ve been watching you. You are better than some Japanese students. How, I do not know. I thought you would hit the target. Lessons, everything too compressed.”
This apology, folded into a compliment I didn’t see coming, makes my eyes sting.
When I first contacted him to ask if he’d consider offering a kyudo intensive, he’d agreed, even though he’d been characteristically modest. In a country of kyudo masters, he’d asked: Why me? Then, he’d answered his own question: Your family has long history with archery. My family has long history with archery. I feel a strange relationship.
We have not talked about the fact that, when our grandfathers were alive, our nations and families were adversaries. Or that when I asked him to introduce kyudo in just a handful of days, I was making an impossible request. But we both knew.
“Too little time,” Miyasaka says. “I beg of you, stay one more day.”
There is a well-known story in Japan about a man who goes in search of an archery teacher.
When he finds one, the master agrees to be the man’s sensei and advises that proficiency will take 10 years. The prospective archer is impatient. “What if I practice every day?” he says. “What if you tell me everything you know, and I practice into the night, twice as hard as any other student?”
“If you do that,” the master says, “it will take 20 years.”
The next morning, Miyasaka and I take our positions. His sweeping hand instructs me to pick up arrows. I play my forms out in my mind before I take a step. If I lead with my left, it’ll all fall into place.
Left. Right. Left. Slip across hardwood, slick as ice.
Flip the bow. Raise the arrow. Turn to the target.
It’s difficult to not look at Miyasaka to read his face for clues about how I’m doing. It’s hard to resist the urge to seek approval. But, as hours pass, the impulse falls away.
All that exists is my bow, this arrow, that target, pulled together by unseen threads.
Miyasaka touches my arm, tightening my actions like the precise folds of origami. My projectiles hit sand, nearer and nearer the target. Until. Twack. I pierce paper. The target is so far away I’d need binoculars to see exactly where my arrow rests.
I’ve achieved an obvious goal. But my release felt no more important than my stance, this arrow no more special than the one sent before it. I arrived in Japan hoping to understand why hitting a target isn’t the most important part of this tradition. Now, I know the closest I’ll come is the realization that it doesn’t matter to me whether I hit.
When I hear the target rip again, from a second arrow, I realize that I had not been listening for it.
Miyasaka has been recording my final day with a video camera. He turns my attention to a flat-screen television, which seems out of place in front of the chalkboard where he sketches feather patterns. When he pushes play, I see a woman I do not recognize. She moves through the stages of kyudo form with deceptive ease. At one point, she closes her eyes.
When I see the pale cocoons of my eyelids, I think to myself: Seriously? I remember none of it.
Miyasaka looks out at the target and says, “You did that yourself. You have real skill now.”
But the sound of my target-slaying was not one of accomplishment.
It was a signal that, as long as I’m alive, I will not be done.
From Miyasaka’s dojo, it takes a handful of trains to reach Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine . As soon as I enter the grounds, a jungle crow swoops so closely that I can hear the thwa, thwa of its wings. Together, the bird and I move toward the planned location of a Momote-shiki Shinto ceremony.
When I step from pebbled path to soft earth, I notice that the crow has dropped a feather.
It marks the field where ceremonial archers will enter.
We’re surrounded by a 170-acre, human-designed forest. It’s composed of diverse tree species that were sent from all over Japan to honor the spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife in the early 1900s. Each cypress and camphor arrived with the promise of what it might become in the presence of others: a sanctuary.
Today, traditional culture is on display as part of the shrine’s annual fall festivities. On a far-off stage, flutists are turning their breath into a processional song for 66 bow wielders. They’re led by a Shinto priest in white. He holds a freshly clipped sakaki branch that will be used to bless the participants — and me, as a member of the audience.
The ceremony is being overseen by the Ogasawara-ryu school of archery. Its headmaster, Kiyotada Ogasawara, is in attendance to witness the manifestation of lessons whispered by his grandfather, great-grandfather, great-great-grandfather — on and on for more than 850 unbroken years.
Despite kyudo’s patriarchal origins, roughly half the archers participating are women. Through the Way of the Bow, they’re claiming their cultural ancestry.
When the event’s last arrow has been sent, I head out for a mounted archery, or yabusame, demonstration that’s scheduled elsewhere on the grounds. There, masters on galloping horses will shatter clay targets that discharge confetti.
I hurry past dozens of picnicking cosmopolitans. Men in full samurai armor are leaning against trees, eating apples. Women and girls — wearing kimonos and flowers in their hair — weave through the crowds with me, trailing the scent of nectar.
The pageantry is gorgeous. It’s also distracting. I take a wrong turn. Then another.
Soon, I’m lost in the emperor’s forest.
Through trees, I see a uniformed man standing guard. I’ve somehow ended up back at the entrance. When I approach him, I don’t even attempt to speak English. Instead, I make the universal gesture for drawing a bow.
The soldier laughs at my antics.
Then, using his arm as an arrow, he shows me the way.
If You Go
Kaede-no Yu foot bath
At Yamanouchi’s Yudanaka Station, a free foot bath flows by a 400-year-old maple tree. snowmonkeyresorts.com
Jigokudani Monkey Park
If you visit, Caution: Resident monkeys may swim away with unattended cellphones. en.jigokudani-yaenkoen.co.jp
Meiji Jingu, a Shinto shrine
Take in displays of kyudo and traditional music that honor enshrined deities. meijijingu.or.jp/english/index.html
Leigh Ann Henion is the author of “Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer’s Search for Wonder in the Natural World.” To comment on this story, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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