It’s springtime in Sumida Park, and the cherry blossoms are in full bloom. The sun shines down on a freshly-made dirt path along the river in Asakusa. Seats are carefully arranged, banners are mounted, and flyers are waiting to be handed out. What’s going on here? It’s Yabusame. Usually a once-a-year occurrence for the public, the ritual Yabusame is a treat to see. This stylistic mounted archery traces roots all the way back to the Kamakura period, but can still be enjoyed today if you are lucky enough to be nearby mid-April. In Asakusa you may be able to buy a ticket ahead of time if you want a seat, but if you don’t feel like shelling out too much cash, you can watch the competition a little farther away (and a little higher up). Either way, it’s still an amazing competition to watch!
The basics of Yabusame are that there are three targets, and the rider flies along on his or her horse at a breakneck speed. They do not stop while they shoot their arrows, so they are controlling the horse completely without their hands. It would be hard enough alone to shoot the targets with such large and powerful bows, but doing so while completely in control of a horse at top-speed is another feat all together. The goal is to break the wooden boards that make up the target – and for the audience’s benefit, once broken, little sakura petals explode out from behind the target and flutter to the ground. Overall, it is quite fun and exciting.
Yabusame may be a competition, but it’s also a ritual and a tradition. All of those who are participating in the competition (judges, assistants, riders, and more) wear traditional Kamakura-era clothing, and the riders also don special chaps made from deerskin. The entire event is also treated as a ritual – beforehand there is a long procession and an offering of thanks to the kami. Afterwards, the competition begins. Each rider gallops one by one along the lane, bursting targets as best as they can. This year, there were several different groups of archers, and whoever won in their particular group had the honor of wearing a white banner as they rode their horses back along the path to dismount.
Want to get a taste of kyuudo (Japanese traditional archery) yourself? The club that helped host this year’s Asakusa Yabusame also held a small practice in the neighboring hall for anyone interested to try. Not only could you test out the beautiful bows, you could also see how the arrows and bows were made (and if you really wanted, bows were for sale right then and there!). Besides the bow and arrow exhibition, there was a beautiful gallery with excellent photos of both archers and their equipment on display. If you have any interest in archery, or traditional Japanese culture, this is an event worth going to, even if just once. Asakusa, Kamakura, Zushi, as well as several other places all host annual Yabusame competitions – so even if Asakusa is not near you, there is still a chance for you to experience this amazing sport!