Yabusame Festival, Tsuwano, April 2007

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There have been horse-mounted warriors in Japan for more than 1500 years, and the bow was in use for a long time before that. By the Heian Period, ( 794-1185 ), contests between mounted archers were commonplace,  but Yabusame as it is practiced now, was not invented until the 12th Century when  Minamoto Yoritomo, the founder of the Kamakura Shogumate, was concerned with the skill levels of his samurai, so invented Yabusame as a way for his samurai to train and practice.


 From the 16th Century, and the introduction of gunpowder weapons into Japan, Yabusame became less and less popular until finally disappearing, but was revived  during the Edo period more as a mental and spiritual discipline for the Samurai who, no longer having much in the way of military exploits to take part in , brought to a zenith many of the “arts” now considered typically Japanese. Tea Ceremony, composing poems, as well as other martial arts were among the other ways Edo Period Samurai cultivated themselves.

 A Yabusame course is 220 meters in length, and 3 simple wooden targets are placed along it equal distances apart. Starting at one end the archer gallops along the course and tries to hit all three targets. The arrows used are not sharp, and have a rounded head, so if a target is struck the sound is loud enough for the onlookers to clearly hear it.

Yabusame contests are usually held in the grounds of Shinto Shrines, because the events are staged primarily for the entertainment of the Kami (Gods/Deities). The entertainment of the human onlookers is secondary. Sumo is another sport that has its roots in Kami entertainment.

Yabusame tournaments are held throughout the year at many places in Japan, but the tournament held in Tsuwano, Shimane, is unusual in that it is held in the only remaining original Yabusame grounds in all of Japan.

Tsuwano is a small castle town in the mountains of Shimane Prefecture, near the border with Yamaguchi Prefecture. The castle and its town were built in the 14th Century, and standing at the base of the castles mountain is Washihara Hachimangu Shrine. Hachiman is the God of war, and was adopted as the tutelary deity of the samurai, and so Hachiman shrines were built wherever the samurai settled, which is why they are now the commonest type of shrine in Japan.

Washihara Hachimangu was rebuilt in the 16th century, and at this time the Yabusame grounds were constructed. An elongated oval, 250 meters long and about 15 meters wide, the centre of which is an earthen embankment faced with stone. The top of the embankment is planted with cherry trees so that in mid-April, when the tournament is held, the trees are usually in full bloom.

Preparation for the tournament take days, so that by the day of the tournament the shrine and grounds are adorned with banners, the course itself is roped-off to prevent onlookers encroaching into the space. Outnumbering the riders and other participants are the hordes of photographers that descend on similar traditional events anywhere in Japan.

A couple of hours before the contest begins, the participants are suited up in their 13th Century outfits. As well as the rider/archers themselves, there are dozens of other participants and attendants as this is a highly ritualized affair. The riders walk the course with their horses and then everybody heads to the main shrine building for a series of ceremonies. There are rituals to purify the shrine and all the participants, and rituals to invite the Kami to attend and enjoy the competition.

Then the whole entourage, led by the priests, moves to the course itself where further rituals are held to purify the ground and the horses. The procession, with the riders now mounted, moves once around the course and then with one final set of rituals everyone moves to their correct place for the contest to begin. After the morning of rituals and ceremonies, the faces of all the participants exhibit an intensely distant, yet focused expression, a clear sign that this is a sacred event, a spiritual activity.

And then it starts! …. And it’s over, almost as soon as it’s begun. It takes just 20 or so seconds for the horse and rider to gallop down the course letting fly three arrows. Each “Think” of a target hit rouses a cheer from the onlookers nearest the target. The rider and horse walk slowly back to the start down the backside of the course, and then the next rider begins a run. It’s mostly men who do Yabusame, but there were a few women riders, and one non-Japanese rider.

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