Yabusame is the traditional Japanese martial art of archery on horseback and was originally performed for Shinto gods as a form of entertainment. At the beginning of the Kamakura period, yabusame was also a training exercise that, if performed horrendously, could end in seppuku, or ritual suicide. Nowadays, a rider’s terrible form wouldn’t end in such a gruesome death, but the sport is still performed at grand temple celebrations around Japan.
How is Yabusame performed?
Yabusame is usually performed with an archer galloping down a 255-meter track, with only his knees locked around the horse and his bow and arrow in hand. The archer will shout “In-yo-in-yo” (“darkness and light”) as they let their arrows fly. There are three targets and to strike all three is considered a great achievement, with the best rider usually given a white cloth as a symbol of divine favor.
To witness yabusame is to peer into the very heart of Japanese tradition and history as this ritual has changed very little since its beginnings. Even the clothing the riders wear is part of the sport’s long and storied past.
Yabusame at Shimogamo Shrine
Shimogamo Shrine in Kyoto offers a yabusame viewing early each May as a part of their Aoi Matsuri, or Hollyhock Festival. It is one of the three main annual festivals held in Kyoto, the others being the Jidai Matsuri (Festival of Ages) and the Gion Festival.
Aoi Matsuri has traditionally been a festival for equestrian performances, with prayers at the Shimogamo Shrine traditionally including riding horses. As such, the Aoi Matsuri is usually preceded by the Yabusame-Shinji, which takes place every year on May 3rd at the Tadasu no Mori forest. This ritual is believed to cleanse the parade route and also to pray for the safety of those who will proceed down it.
Dressed in traditional Heian-era wear, the archers proceed down a roped off track, shooting at targets at top speed using kabura-ya – arrows that have a kabura whistle attached to them. Archers who perform at the Yabusame-Shinji are from the Ogasawara school, which is one of two schools that have been practicing the way of yabusame for hundreds of years.
If you can’t make it to the yabusame viewing at Shimogamo Shrine, there are also other yabusame events that take place in September and October.
Yabusame at the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine
If you are lucky enough to find yourself in Kamakura for the Kamakura Festival, you can observe yabusame at Tsugugaoka Hachimangu Shrine. Yabusame is performed by horse riding archers for a large crowd of observers here every year on September 16. Dressed up in full gear, three of the riders will perform a ritual for the gods, with a group of 15 other riders later performing a less formal yabusame practice for observers.
Yabusame at Samukawa Shrine
If you miss the yabusame on the 16th September, you can always try and catch the performance on the 19th September at the Samukawa Shrine, which is also located in Kamakura. This yabusame ceremony is performed by Takeda Ryu, one of the two schools that teach the sport in Kamakura.
Yabusame at Toyama Park
Japan has a special holiday called Sports Day that takes place every year on the second Monday of October. On this day, visitors can watch a demonstration of yabusame sponsored by the Anahachiman Shrine in Waseda, Tokyo. This yabusame display takes place in nearby Toyama Park at a special riding track that is set up specifically for the ceremony.
Did you like this article? Then you’ll love tourist note JAPAN!