Japan Atlas: Festivals

Place: All over Japan

In the Dashing Performance of a Sacred Rite, Riders at Full Gallop Shoot Targets

Yabusame is spectacular rite of mounted archery performed by riders on horseback dressed in the hunting garb of samurai. While speeding along at full gallop, the archers release the reins and fire arrows at three targets. The rite is carried out to ask for bountiful harvests and peace in the world.

First of all, at the sound of a drum, the archers and their attendants line up at the front of the shrine. According to tradition, all movements are proceeded at the signal of drum beats and motion of a fan.

Three targets, each a square of hinoki (Japanese cypress) wood measuring 54.5 cm (about 22 in.) along each edge, are set up at intervals beside an approximately 218 m (about 240 yd.) track. In the rite, the mounted archers release the reins and, while riding at full gallop, try to hit all three targets.

Yabusame originated in the 6th century. To keep the domestic and external affairs of the state from falling into disorder, and to ask for the peace, the emperor prayed at a shrine and mounted on a horse, shot at three targets. In the Heian Period (794-1192) the event flourished as a court ritual.

The Kamakura Period (1192-1338) marked the start of samurai rule in Japan. When government functions were transferred to Kamakura (present day Kamakura City in Kanagawa Prefecture) in the end of the 12th century, the Yabusame rite was performed as the coral Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine, which would became an annual official ceremony. After this, the rite spread to the whole country and was widely performed.

The Yabusame rite, after being in full flourish in the Kamakura Period, temporarily faded, but since the 18th century it has been making a comeback and has survived up to the present day.

These days, in several different styles, the rite is carried out at locations all over the country. Among these the ancient tradition of performing the rite at Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine in Kamakura and the newer way of performing the revived rite at Takadanobaba in Tokyo are particularly well known.

Photo: Yabusame at Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine in Kamakura (Japan National Tourist Organization)

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