A display of the ancient Japanese martial art of archery, or Yabusame, is the featured part of the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine’s annual festival each September in Kamakura. Archers dress in the style of the Kamakura-era and direct their horses at full speed down a 255-meter track while keeping their hands free to maneuver the bow. The string is pulled back behind the ear before loosing an arrow at the target and shouting, “In yo in YO!” which means ‘darkness and light;’ if done incorrectly, the archer can get snapped in the ear or face. Yabusame is part of three days of entertaining the gods. Japanese archery dates back more than two thousand years. Samurai of course used their bows in battle, but also in duels over honor and to train for war. It was taken so seriously that warriors who couldn’t cut it could be commanded to commit ritualistic suicide, or seppuku, where you slice open your own stomach. Practicing Yabusame as a martial art taught samurai skills of concentration, discipline and refinement. Consistency with the bow during battle meant a warrior had conquered his fear and himself. Chris and I watched Yabusame at Kyoto’s Aoi Matsuri festival in May although I seem to have only posted pictures of the parade and not the arrow-shooting part of the festival. Waaaaaay up there by the toriii gate was my only glimpse of action when I first arrived. After an hour next to this kiddo I decided, “Ok, I’m glad I came, but I can’t see anything so I’m getting an ice and maybe heading home.” It was quite le hot packed in there with all the people blocking the breeze. I got an ice on the main walkway leading up to the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine and watched a few more people race by. Then I realized, “Oh wait, I know of a secret back entrance over where I hear the arrows hitting the targets. Let’s see if there’s a vantage point from that direction.” This is the same temple I visited for the Bean-Throwing Festival, and where I came on a cherry blossom excursion. Oh and I scooted by here a few weeks ago. Jackpot! Hardly anybody was over here! Except, of course, all the Yabusame! I got a nice place just to the left of the target where I could even see the whites of the horses’ eyes. THWACK! I’m glad the archers didn’t miss! They blunt the tips so they’ll make a louder noise and get more applause. No one missed the target, but some of the archers didn’t set their shots up correctly or something and galloped by without letting off an arrow. There was deflated silence every time this happened—no pity applause. Tough crowd!
It was really cool to sit in the shade and watch this display of ancient martial arts gallop by. I’m really glad I went! It’s always easier to not go, to stay home, to find an excuse why I should do chores and not ride the train all that time just to rush back to teach an English class I had that evening, etc. etc., but when I start to find excuses I try to remind myself I’m ALWAYS glad I went. I never get home and wish I’d cleaned the house. Instead, when I get into bed at night I like Japan still more…and even want to read my Japanese history book! …which inevitably puts me to sleep in 30 minutes or less.
Anywho, back to the shrine—it looks totally different every time I go. I am LOVING seasons! That may sound very silly, but seriously, I never knew why people said Houston only had two seasons: “hot and not as hot,” but it turns out that is more than just a cliché. In case you weren’t sure, Kamakura continues to reign as my all-time favorite place to visit in Japan.