I mentioned yabusame (archery on horseback) the other week in my post on Culture Day, but it’s a topic that definitely deserves its own post. I’d never had the chance to witness yabusame until this past October at the Kumamoto Castle autumn festival but I can now say with authority that it is very, very cool.
Yabusame as a festival dates back to the Kamakura Period (1185-1392), though it is based on the actual archery training of horseback warriors in the medieval years. In its “entertainment” form, a group of mounted archers must ride a straight course nearly 200 meters in length while shooting arrows at three separate targets. The first target is placed 30 meters from the start, the second target at 75 meters after that, and the final target is placed 75 meters from the second. The entire course takes about 20 seconds to ride from start to finish and three arrows must be fired in that short amount of time. A judge sits next to each target to determine if the arrow can be counted. (At the festival I attended, the arrows were blunt tipped and made a nice thwock against the target – or even pierced it – if a rider scored a hit.)
Yabusame is less a sport and more a religious event, so there is always a ceremony before the actual riding commences. Nearly all yabusame festivals are held in the fall, and there are ancient ties to harvest rituals. Yabusame was also seen as the offering of the warriors themselves (or at least their talents) in exchange for the protection of the shrine’s deity when they went off to war.
Each archer is decked out in a costume that is meticulously tailored to account for historical details. Some notable pieces of the ensemble include natsukagemukabaki, deer skin chaps worn by hunters to protect their legs; a tsurumaki, a wisteria-vine ring that archers wrap an extra bowstring around as a backup; the igote, or arm guard, to protect the arm from the bowstring; and the whistling arrows themselves, the kaburaya.
There are some major yabusame events in both Kyoto and Kamakura every October. The JNTO’s October calendar always has the pertinent details on each event. Even if you’re not in either of those areas, ask around at local tourist offices. I managed to catch a yabusame event at Kumamoto castle, part of its annual autumn matsuri.