Sa­mu­rai archers tug at the strings of Ja­pan’s heart

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY MICHAEL SCOTTMOORE travel@wash­post.com

Ja­pan’s Do­sun Fes­ti­val archery con­test is a pleas­ant Sun­day out­ing for res­i­dents of the Miura penin­sula. They load kids into strollers, pack bento lunches and make the long hike down a wooded trail to Arai­hama Beach to watch as ath­letes dressed as sa­mu­rai ride ar­mored horses at top speed along

A rider needs a clear mind to aim a bow and, us­ing noth­ing but his legs, guide a gal­lop­ing horse amid bounc­ing armor and fly­ing sand.

a black-sand beach to fire ar­rows at squares of brit­tle wood.

Held ev­ery spring in a coastal vil­lage south of Tokyo, the con­test at first re­sem­bles a sort of Ja­panese Re­nais­sance Faire, with archers wear­ing an achro­nis­tic hard­ware: 13th-cen­tury cos­tumes of silk robes, an­i­mal-pelt skirts, cloth shoes and rib­bon-tied hats. The ar­rows have wooden turnip shaped heads in­stead of sharp points.

But mounted archery, or yabusame, isn’t just nostal­gic re-en­act­ment. The Ja­panese ad­mire it as a liv­ing sport. One at a time, the rid­ers charge their steeds down a lane marked in the sand and fire ar­rows at a se­ries of wooden tar­gets, which fly apart thrillingly when clob­bered with a turnip head. A hit at last year’s fes­ti­val earned two thumps on a cer­e­mo­nial drum and a chirpy com­ment through a PA sys­tem by a woman in the judges’ tower.

“Ac­tu­ally, it’s sim­ple,” one spec­ta­tor, a woman named Yoshie, told me. “Hit the wood.”

The sport re­quires Bud­dhist virtues of con­cen­tra­tion. A rider needs a clear mind to aim a bow with both hands and, us­ing noth­ing but his legs, guide a gal­lop­ing horse a mid all the bounc­ing armor and fly­ing sand.

“ That’s the best rider,” Yoshie in­formed me as we watched an­other board­shat­ter. “He’s very quiet, very slow.” She didn’t mean the horse, which moved like a fury down the beach.

All mounted archery is a sub­set of kyudo, the Way of the Bow. The ul­ti­mate aim in kyudo is to reach a state of en­light­en­ment be­yond ap­par­ent op­po­sites such as body and mind, archer and bow, ar­row and tar­get. “Con­fu­cius prac­ticed the Way of the Bow to demon­strate how a cul­tured per­son acts,” wrote the kyudo mas­ter AwaKenzo, who died in 1939. “Con­fu­cius was not concerned with hit­ting the tar­get one hun­dred times out of one hun­dred shots. He was demon­strat­ing how one hun­dred shots can be one hun­dred per­fec­tions of char­ac­ter.” Still, Kenzo, a mas­ter archer who was not a yabusame horse­man, ap­par­ently never missed a shot.

What I saw was, tech­ni­cally, a kind of mounted archery called kasagake, but yabusame has be­come the gen­eral word for these con­tests. An­other kind of mounted archery, known as in­u­oumono, is quite dif­fer­ent. It in­volves fir­ing lethal ar­rows at dogs.

“In­u­oumono,” ac­cord­ing to a dry state­ment by the Takeda School of Horse­back Archery, which or­ga­nizes the Do­sun Fes­ti­val con­test, “is not in prac­tice any­more.”

The Do­sun Fes­ti­val (or Do­sun Matsuri) cel­e­brates a shogun fam­ily that ruled the Miura penin­sula un­til 1516. The story goes that a great war­lord named Do­sun Miura de­fended his an­ces­tral ter­ri­tory un­til he learned that his son had been killed. Then he knew that the bat­tle was lost, and, “fear­ful lest his own head should be car­ried across the bay,” ac­cord­ing to an ac­count of the leg­end from an old is­sue of Pop­u­lar Sci­ence Monthly, he grabbed his own hair with one hand, de­cap­i­tated him­self with the other, and flung his head into the sea. Ever since, the Miura penin­sula has been haunted by Do­sun’s ghost, and ash into cer­e­mony be­fore the show ev­i­dently pays re­spect to him.

The fes­ti­val, with its archery con­test, takes place each May, but it’s not the largest yabusame event in Ja­pan. That honor goes to the con­test held ev­ery Septem­ber at the Tsu­ru­gaoka Hachi­mangu Shrine in Ka­makura. The Ka­makura event may be eas­ier for tourists to reach from the near­est train sta­tion; the black-sand beach where Do­sun Miura lost his head was com­pli­cated (but not im­pos­si­ble) to find.

Af­ter the Do­sun con­test, a mass of chil­dren and other spec­ta­tors col­lected ob­long pieces of shat­tered wooden tar­gets and waited in line for lo­cal of­fi­cials to stamp them with an in­signia for the fes­ti­val, as sou­venirs.

“The Ja­panese are very keen on this,” Yoshie said. “It’s part of their his­tory.”

“But it’s like Amer­i­cans pack­ing lunch to watch cow­boys pre­tend to shoot each other,” I said.

“Yes, I see,” Yoshie gig­gled, then re­con­sid­ered. “Well, per­haps not quite.”

Later, on my way up the hill, I re­al­ized that she was right. The real Amer­i­can com­par­i­son was rodeo — a spec­ta­tor sport meant to pre­serve a lost mounted art. And I won­dered whether rodeo stars ever study Con­fu­cius. Moore is the author, most re­cently, of the surf­ing his­tory “Sweet­ness and Blood.”

ALAMY

An eques­trian archer in sa­mu­rai cloth­ing re­leases his ar­row at the Tsu­ru­gaokaHachi­mangu Shrine Yabusame Fes­ti­val in Ka­makura, Ja­pan.

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