A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty "hi-yo Silver". The Lone Ranger rides again - (Japanese style!)

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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.

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"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.

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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).

(please DO click images to enlarge them when possible!)

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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.

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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.

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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".

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


ladybug said...

The pictures and video are truly amazing! I like the fact you highlight various aspects of dress and "dressage", especially for us folks not in Japan.

Otherwise, we'd be none the wiser! (lame, but I had to try...)

I must say my horse experience is limited to a very few touristy trips (at most a 2 hours long), so I can appreciate the work that goes into really riding a horse!

Don Snabulus said...

Thanks again for sharing a bit more of the Kashima Jingu life with us. I was an archery director for a couple of summers in the Boy Scouts. I had my hands full teaching kids with my own limited skills. Adding a horse into the mix is well beyond me I am afraid.

That camp also had a horse corral, so a sufficiently motivated person could recreate a Yabusame demo there. Maybe it will happen someday.

Swinebread said...

I'm blown away... great stuff.

Pandabonium said...

Ladybug - thank you. It was sure an amazing experience. I am still high from it.

"lame" - another horse joke?, you card.

Snabby - beyond me too. riding a horse or using a bow are each plenty for me to deal with. And yet, there was a time when hunting or fighting battles were done on horseback as a matter of course.

That aspect aside, the whole pageant was really something to see.

Swinebread - we were blown away too. K had not seen it before either. We can't wait until next year.

bonnie said...

Marvelous! I would've stood in the rain & watched too!

That white horse with the gohei is absolutely beautiful!

I have got to get back on a horse one of these days. Been too long. There's actually a stable not far from where I keep my kayak, and we see people cantering along the beach all the time. I mean to investigate once my gauntlet of overplanned weekends is over. I was a horse-crazy kid & never entirely got over it - it's just that keeping horses happy & healthy in NYC is a pretty expensive proposition. The only riding school in Manhattan - the one where you could rent a horse and go ride in Central Park, which I used to do sometimes before I moved to brooklyn, just closed because of that, and the stable near Prospect Park lost one of their buildings a while ago. The land is just too valuable.

Hill said...

OMG! I ride regularly and I cannot imagine trying to shoot anything while the horse is at gallop. No way!
Amazing photos & the photobucket movie really showed how unbelievably skillful these riders are.

Quarsar9 said...

A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty "hi-yo Silver". The Lone Ranger rides again - (Japanese style!)

Just my cup of tea
Fast Horses in full flight
archery, bow pulled tight,
and the stars filled night
with zillion lights bright

And tea to make all things right!

Pandabonium said...

Bonnie - My thought was, if they could take the rain, I could take it too.

I imagine it would costly having a horse in NYC. Owning a horse is my youngest daughter's dream, but 'til then she found a stable not too far from her city where she can take a ride once in a while.

Hill - well, we seem to have enough riders here to form a posse (to go arrest Bush and Cheney) :D Happy trails to you...

Quasar9 - thanks for the poem! As you are from the UK, would that be Japanese green tea or Earl Grey? :p

Martin J Frid said...

The rain could have been a blessing actually - I imagine it would have been much more crowded on a fine day.

You managed to get some really special photos there, and the video was terrific. Lucky shot? Taking good photos like that must be very similar to riding and doing archery at the same time!

Pandabonium said...

Martin - Thanks, you're too kind. The video clip was pure skill on the part of the archer, lucky shot on my part.

And you're right about the rain. We were amazed at how many people were already there waiting.

loloma said...

Ah, I miss all these things about Japan...

On an unrelated note, finally! I thought I'd never be able to post a comment again... :)

QUASAR9 said...

lol Pandabonium,
Earl Grey is ok
But I like Green Tea
They drink green tea in North Africa (Morrocco & Tunisia) too.

Wonder if they have less arthritis because of the green tea or the warmer weather - or - possibly a combination of both.

QUASAR9 said...

PS - I liked this post and the next one, on Yabusame so much
I've opened a link to it. Hope that's ok with you.

Pandabonium said...

Quasar9 - I didn't know that about northern Africa and green tea. (I'll spare you the complete list of things I don't know.)

We drink green tea, of course, but we also keep some Darjeeling around for an afternoon cup. :p

Link? I'm delighted that you liked it enough to do so. That's what the "link to this post" link is there for. Thanks!