May 16, 2009
LETTER FROM KYOTO
Taking aim in the here and now
By Janice Tay
TWENTY seconds. That's all the time you have to cover 500m while fitting arrows to an unwieldy bow and firing them at three targets from the back of a galloping horse you steer only with your legs.
Twenty seconds - if the horse is slow. Be prepared to do all that in less than 15.
This is yabusame, a form of mounted archery. References to horseback shooting in Japan go back to the sixth century. The samurai valued it so highly that they called their profession kyuba no michi - the way of the horse and bow.
Today's image of the samurai is of a swordsman. But in the early days, the sword was Plan B, to be used only if the bowstring snapped, for example, or if the arrows ran out.
By the 16th century, the bow had lost its position to spears and firearms. Still, mounted archery had another use: Warriors would offer it as a petition to the gods at shrines and temples.
It is this ceremonial use that has survived to this day. The two schools in Japan that teach yabusame travel around the country to do demonstrations.
On May 3 every year, the Ogasawara school performs the rite at the Shimogamo Shrine in Kyoto as part of the Aoi Matsuri, a festival that dates back to the sixth century. But though the yabusame is conducted as a religious ceremony, there's a touch of the movies about it.
Hours before it begins, a crowd gathers along the 500m track running through the woodland outside the Shimogamo Shrine.
Finally, a horseman in a nobleman's costume appears. The horse under him surges into a gallop, as the bright orange of his robe blazes over the dark hide.
'In-you, in-you!' Calling out to yin and yang, he thunders down to the first target, a wooden board about 50 sq cm. He raises the bow in front of him, draws - I don't see the arrow fly but the target explodes into fragments. And meanwhile, he is already snatching another arrow from behind his back and nocking it.
Too much dust kicked up by the horse; the targets are too far away; I can't see the orange flash anymore but the crowd at the other end cheers. All three targets, down.
'Kakkoii,' breathes the woman behind me. It really is cool - and for more than the apparent reasons.
Most of the time, most of us aren't here. Without realising it, we slip off to the movies we have made from our past and into galleries hung with pictures of a hoped-for future.
But an archer on a racing horse must stay in the here and now if he is to succeed. His whole self present as he raises the bow, pushes with his left hand and pulls with his right. Riding on his focus, we lunge with the arrow he lets fly. Yabusame may be a petition to the divine, but its gift to humanity is an irresistible present.
I piggybacked on another's focus just the day before. The archers at the national contest held by the All Nippon Kyudo Federation shoot on foot, but their bows are much the same as the ones used in yabusame.
When I turn up, the renshi - one of the senior levels in traditional Japanese archery - are entering their last rounds. Competitors fire just one arrow each time: Miss the target and you're out.
After three rounds of this, six archers are left. They kneel in single file and bow to the targets. It is a world away from the colour and noise of yabusame. The archers wear kimonos; blacks and greys predominate.
Whether there is a hit or not, the audience is silent because many of them are archers and know what it is like to miss. Yabusame crowds show no such reserve - cheering, groaning and laughing.
But even in the silence, the pressure mounts and by the fifth round, only two archers are left. The first man draws, his bow rising like a mountain above him. The mountain snaps forward, spinning in the archer's hand. The target is pierced, an arrow near its heart.
The archer behind him takes aim. Unlike the rapid-fire release of yabusame, this is a measured, taiji-slow move. At full draw, the archer has to hold the tension for at least six seconds.
The moment of full draw weighs the heaviest. Even if it is quiet all around, the din inside can deafen. The desire to win, the ghosts of past failure, doubts and questions all speak at once, shouting over one another to make themselves heard.
The archer fires. An arrow sprouts from the target; he has managed to rise above the clamour inside.
Since both men hit the target, they return for another round.
The first archer draws up, no sign of tension apparent. But the arrow he drives into the target lies near the edge; if the contest goes into another round, his mind may not hold.
We will never find out if it would have. The second archer shoots; his arrow lands well below the black and white circle. The crowd sighs - then applauds.
It takes unwavering practice to attain a state of mind that can face a target unshaken. As you hurtle from one 20-second charge to the next, aiming at the targets that flash by, the moment comes when your hand feels no different from the arrow it seizes or the bow it draws - all in an intense present.
Most of the time, most of us aren't here. Without realising it, we slip off to the movies we have made from our past and into galleries hung with pictures of a hoped-for future. But an archer on a racing horse must stay in the here and now if he is to succeed.