The Way of the Bow

The bow and arrow have been used for hunting and war for thousands of years. In Japan, archery began to be used in religious rituals during the Nara period (710-794) and Heian period (794-1185), and found its way into Imperial Court events as well. Archery in Japan is called "Kyudo" which means "the way of the bow".

During the Edo period (1603-1868), an annual contest used to take place at a famous temple in Kyoto which goes by the popular name "Sanjusangendo" (hall with 33 bays). This temple, the actual name of which is "Rengeo-in", was founded in 1134 and has buildings that date back to the 13th century. It features a very long building that houses 1000 statues of Kannon, the Bodhisattva of mercy. K and I visited there in Spring of 2004.

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The 1,000 statues of Kannon

The main building has a corridor that measures 2.2 meters wide, 5 meters high, and 120 meters long (in yards: 2.2x5.5x131). Warriors would enter a contest of skill, called toshiya in which they would see who was best at launching arrows the length of the hall without hitting the walls, ceiling or floor. (For comparison, the Olympic archers shoot at the range of 70 meters.) Moreover, they would have to do this while sitting and shooting arrows all day and all night - 24 hours. The best recorded performance was in 1686 by a samurai named Wasa Daihachiro who took 13,053 shots, of which 8,133 succeeded!

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The 120 meter long hall

As gunpowder weapons came into use, the bow was used less and less in battle, but Kyudo was retained as a martial art form. During the Meiji era it was brought into school curriculum, and today some high schools have Kyudo teams. The bows (yumi) measure over 2 meters long, with the grip positioned below the halfway point. As with other martial arts in Japan, in its purest form, Kyudo is a spiritual art. The point is not merely to try to hit the target. "Correct shooting is correct hitting".

The rice planting festival at Kashima Jingu shrine each May 1st features demonstrations of "yabusame" - horseback archery. Unlike Kyudo, yabusame is only used for religious rituals.

Today, one of K's students who stays in touch, Emi Kinoshita, sent K an email. Emi is a serious Kyudo student and holds the top position in high school Kyudo competitions for Ibaraki Prefecture. She will be representing Ibaraki at the national competition being held in Fukuoka (on Kyushu island) next weekend.

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Emi Kinoshita takes aim.

We know that Emi will do her best and wish her the best of luck. Gambatte, Emi!


The Moody Minstrel said...

I've been to Sanjusangendo many times. It's hard to get the full effect of just how impressive it is from that picture. Each of those statues of Kannon is man-sized. The scale is quite overwhelming.

I used to practice kyudo. During my first job here in Japan, my three-year stint as an assistant language teacher (ALT) at public senior high schools in this area, I was doing it regularly, mainly at the invitation of the students. I even participated in one well-known competition at Itako's famous Iris Festival (after only having practiced it for a week! I wasn't in last place, though...).

As I mentioned in the story about Kashima High School on my blog, I was finally asked to stop practicing kyudo by both the students and the coaches because, for some reason, the new freshmen that had entered the school that year were extremely anti-English and anti-foreigner, and they refused to come into the dojo if I was there. I lost all desire to keep at it after that, and my equipment has been gathering dust and mold ever since.

There are different kinds of kyudo, too. I don't remember the name off the top of my head, but there is a style of competition that involves long-range shooting and, therefore, a different shooting technique. (I tried it. I never reached the target.) There is also a famous event at the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine in Kamakura that involves yabusame, or kyudo from horseback. The competitors shoot at a very small target from the back of a running horse.

Actually, the kyudo bow is assymetrical in design, long on top and short on the bottom, in order to facilitate use from horseback. The drawing technique is also designed to keep the body balanced for that reason.

Ack...I'm burning up space!

Pandabonium said...

This post must have hit the mark with Moody as it were and struck a chord. A long repressed desire perhaps to dust off his kyudo equipment and pluck that non-musical string.

The Moody Minstrel said...

If I'm not mistaken, Emi Kinoshita is a student at my academy (though I don't teach her grade). Seishin's kyudo team is quite strong, and they've been doing really well in competitions.

K said...

Yes, you're right. She goes to Seishin High School and sent me her picture recently.
Also she was interviewed on FM Kashima. I hope she does well in the national competition in Fukuoka.

agus said...

Whoa, Moody, that must be sad for you, for anyone in fact, when racism gets its way.

This is a risky thing to say but it could be that the freshmen took their History lesson and patriotism very seriously.

Emi looks very sharp by the way.

@ロウ 。LOW@ said...

K should learn from Emi that she could aim at Panda hundred of yards away.

No funny. Be careful, anyway :)

Robin said...

The Japanese arrow is "Ya".

The price of the arrow depends on the feather of the arrow eg feather of a hawk, of an eagle, and of all different kind of birds.

there is a Japanese saying, that arrows you shoot off would be picked up and shot off by the enemy to you.

I have been to the temple Sanjusangendo many times too, but have always afraid to take pics..


Pandabonium said...

low - K doesn't need a bow and arrow at any distance. :D

Robin, hmmm, is that how ping pong came about? Of course the pics I used are not mine. >>>>>----->

Happysurfer said...

MM, interesting that students were allowed to dictate the rules sort of. It must have been tough for you at the time.

The Moody Minstrel said...

The strangest thing was that at that time, for the first time ever, every single one of those new freshmen had had a native English-speaking teaching assistant in their junior high days (most of them American). Theoretically, the (foreign) Assistant Language Teacher program was supposed to help the kids become more internationalized. It appeared to do the opposite. The kids entered my senior high schools with an even greater dislike of English and a more negatively stereotyped view of foreigners in general. Many of the students in that class went so far as to refuse to refer to me as "sensei" (teacher) because, in one student's words, "Gaijin ha sensei ni naru wake nai yo." ("There is no way a foreigner will be my teacher!") Many of them wouldn't even refer to me by name. I was simply "ano gaijin" ("that foreigner"). That included the new members of the kyudo clubs at Kashima, Kamisu, and Itako high schools, and they refused to practice if I was there. That's why the coaches finally asked me not to come.

I had never seen anything like that before, and I haven't seen anything like it since. However, it has left my interest in kyudo sadly dulled.

The Moody Minstrel said...

Perhaps I should add one point, now that I think about it. After I left the ALT program, I worked at a private English school before I was recruited (headhunted?) by Seishin. During that time, I had a few students that were from that strange freshman class. They seemed afraid of me at first, but then we got along fine.

After a few weeks, one girl from that class, a student at Kamisu HS who was taking individual lessons, suddenly said, "Sensei, you're not at all like I thought you were. I'm sorry!"

I was surprised at that, so I asked her to explain.

She replied, "Everyone was saying you were a really cold and harsh person."

I was even more surprised, because, up till her class, I had generally gotten along well with the students. I asked her why they'd thought that way, and she said that she didn't know. Apparently I just had such a reputation at the time, and that reputation had preceded me.

Whatever. It's all past history.

FH2O said...

I was going to say something but by the time I finished reading moody's marathon comments, I'd completely forgotten what I was going to say(!)

Thks moody! And it warrants a posting on its own from you. ;)

Nice post panda!

Chen said...

I never know the bows (yumi) is so "huge".. measureing over 2 meters long..
I guess it is not feasible to carry around.

Good luck, Emi :)

Pandabonium said...

Moody, that's the problem with holding pre-conceived notions with no basis in fact or experience. You were ostracized for no reason, but when someone actually came to know you they found out the predjudices were 180 degrees from the truth. If I had a solution to that, I'd also have a nobel peace prize.

FH2O, enjoy your wine. There were booths selling all sorts of ume products at the festival.

Chen, Thanks. The yumi is the longest bow in the world. Due to its average length of 2.3 meters, the handgrip is located closer to the bottom, and the upper part of it has a distinctive forward curve. Inspite of its length, warriors did carry them around and the most decisive use in battle was when used by mounted archers. It would be a problem to get one into a car or onto the bus!

The Moody Minstrel said...

Incidentally, the results from the national competition just came back.

Emi is #4 in the country.