Kashima Jingu Shinto Shrine is a treasure. As regular readers of this blog know, I love to go there, whether for an exciting festival or just a peaceful walk through the forest of ancient trees.
Each May 1st they hold a Rice Planting Festival, and young girls pantomime the work in a paddy field as flutes and drums play. I have yet to see that, but this year I did see, for the first time, another event - horseback archery or "Yabusame".
Yabusame, like other martial arts in Japan, is deeply spiritual. According to a woman who kindly offered me a place at the front of the crowd, it started in China, but over the centuries was lost there. In Japan it was practiced as far back as the Nara period (710 to 794) and evolved over the centuries. At Shinto shrines it is performed as a form of offering.
"Turnip Headed" arrows.The object for the archer is to ride his/her horse at a gallop along a 240 meter long path and hit three targets along the way using blunted "turnip headed" arrows designed for the purpose. The targets - "mato" - are thin sheets of cedar wood about 60 cm (24 inches) square, which are mounted atop a bamboo post two meters from the track and shatter when struck. The sound of the arrow striking the target is said to transfer the courage of the archer to the audience.
There are target keepers and assistants at each target and a judge's and announcer's box at the midpoint of the track. The last target is 45 meters from the end of the track to give the riders room to slow their horses. The first rider reads a solemn vow from a scroll at the start of the track, and then performs a ceremony called Age-ogi in which he tosses a ceremonial fan into the air as he starts his horse. When a hit is scored the target keeper raises a stick with a white paper tassel into the air to signify it. If a rider scores a full set of three hits (kaichu), he is presented with a long white silk sash by the master of ceremonies from the judges stand. The broken fragments of the cedar targets are considered lucky, and are signed and dated and sold along with the arrows to raise money for next year's event. The targets fetch 10,000 yen (about US$83.00).
I've done a bit of horseback riding (Western style) and find it difficult enough just to stay on a horse during a gallop, let alone try to shoot an arrow. (My youngest daughter might laugh at that, as she was president of her university's rodeo club.) As a kid I once participated in a mock battle on horseback. We made "bullets" out of tissues filled with flour. Lining up in two teams of several riders each on opposite ends of a field, we charged each other at a canter (slower than a gallop) and as we approached our opponents, licked our "bullets" and threw them. If we hit another rider, the wet tissue would burst and white flour would mark our hit. It was a lot of (scary) fun, but it also gave me an appreciation for how hard it was for people to do battle or to hunt buffalo on horseback.
K and I came early and awaited the procession of participants which follows the main street into the shrine. Various shrine officials led the way followed by a white horse. Animals are sacred in Shinto, acting as messengers between the gods and humans. The white horse represents purity and is believed to drive off evil spirits and a carried a special white paper "gohei" on its back to attract the attention of the kami (gods).
The other horses followed, there were five in all this day, led by their handlers. The horses are a small breed, which originated in Aomori and Iwate prefectures in northern Honshu. More people followed in turn (I'm not sure what the function of each person was) and finally, the archers, each with a bearer to carry their bow and extra arrows.
As we entered the shrine and looked at the beautiful costumes, the traditional saddles and archery equipment, and Shinto priests, it seemed as if we had traveled back in time. In a way, we had, as we were witness to a centuries old tradition, with old stones under our feet, four hundred year old buildings around us and the trees of an ancient forest towering above. Aside from the modern clothing and cameras of the spectators, the scene was probably not much changed from hundreds of years ago.
After a brief stop at the Haiden - offering hall - the entourage assembled at the end of the long, straight path where the demonstration was to take place. Perhaps I should just let the enlarged version of this picture speak for itself, but I must say that the image before us was striking. A gentle rain was falling adding to the mystical atmosphere of "other worldliness".
What followed was a ceremony during which a priest made offerings to the gods, chanted a long prayer, and blessed each of the of the groups involved, each then leaving to take their place. Note the cool hats and clogs worn by the priests and shrine officials.
Finally, the horses were blessed, and the main event was about to begin.
We found a spot near the last target and the woman I mentioned earlier invited me to stand at the rope. The rain began to come down a bit harder as the riders warmed up by riding up and down the path before us. To my dismay, my pictures appeared to be out of focus or blurred.
My unfamiliarity with the camera, the darkening skies (made even darker by the forest canopy), the speed of the riders and the rain all conspired to make my photos blurred. I finally realized that in trying to protect the camera from the rain by putting it under my jacket I had inadvertently turned a knob causing the focus problem. But the darkness and the speed of the action also meant I could not capture the events clearly with still shots - even when the horses were at a walk.
By then, the rain was coming down steadily. I decided to try the video feature of the camera thinking that it might handle the motion better. I wasn't sure how much memory that would use, so only made one short clip, but it not only came out clear and focused, but recorded a successful archery shot!
The rain became harder, prompting many people to leave. We moved down toward the end of the run to see what the view was like there. I took a few more shots of the archers as they shot at the target. Horses and riders were getting soaked, but were still often finding their mark.
As the riders passed us they were slowing their horses to a stop and resting until all five of the riders had made their run. Each rider made three runs and at the end of each run they all would walk their horses back to the starting point together.
As if their task was not difficult enough under ideal conditions, the gods had made it pour rain, but the horses and riders had all met the challenge. I hope the kami are pleased and will grant a good harvest.
As for us, of course we were anxious to see how the pictures looked when downloaded to the computer, but good pics or no, we were filled with awe and gratitude just to have experienced Yabusame at Kashima Jingu.