Yabusame – Right On Target
Due to the Japanese belief that humans consist of a part mortal and part divine nature, Yabusame allows participants to polish their mental and physical strength and accuracy. Annually hosted, this three-day event is a traditional ceremony where archers dressed in medieval outfits aim for three targets while racing on horseback.
The Japanese Shinto belief accepts that a human carries the nature of sacredness. “Kami”, which means ‘deities’ in Japanese, manifest themselves both as an object of faith and the reality of human existence. This belief in humankind’s inherent divine nature has been the motivation for the Japanese samurai to attain a seamless continuity between worldly life and spirituality. Outwardly their bodies were subject to strict martial arts training and battle engagement but their actions were guided by inward moral ethics and a quest for inner calm.
Encompassing such mental and physical refinement is Yabusame, the skills of horseback archery. Three targets are placed within a track of approximately 250 metres and riders shoot arrows toward the targets on a galloping horseback. Mastery of Yabusame is the simultaneous mastery of Zen breathing techniques, focus, and development of physical stamina. As it was widely practised among the samurai clans, different shrines and families have developed various styles and manners of Yabusame over the centuries.
One of the samurais, Minamoto Yoritomo studied the ancient rites and required his warriors to become skilled in Yabusame and its etiquette in order to perform it as an offering to the Hachiman “kami” at the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine in Kamakura. The Azuma Kagami annal states that all archers perfectly struck all targets in the first Yabusame event held at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu in 1186. Legendary samurais such as Naozane Kumagaya and Nagakiyo Ogasawara were also known for their Yabusame skills. It became the proudest thing in the life of every Kamakura warrior to be selected as an archer in Yabusame.
Fast forward to the modern era, Yabusame continues to be an integral event in Shinto rites. It is one of main rituals in the major Reitaisai (Festival) of the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu that lasts three days from 14th September to 16th September every year. As many as 20 archers participate in the ritual for the festival that receives thousands of pilgrims and visitors during this three-day period.
Similar to the olden days, mounted archers would be dressed in Kamakura-period hunting attire and have experienced training for 5 years at the Ogasawara Ryu, the Japanese martial arts and etiquette school founded by a the Ogasawara clan, which is related to the Minamoto. Nevertheless, foreigners can also be a Yabusame archer provided they join Ogasawara as a member, and have practised the art at the school for just as long!