A mounted archer aims for the target. (Shonan Advertising Inc.)
Every year from September 14 to 16, a grand festival is held at the Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine in Kamakura, 45 kilometers (28 miles) southwest of Tokyo. The highlight comes on the final day, when a yabusame (mounted archery) ceremony is held. The ritual is a page right out of history, and is a symbol of this ancient city.
In the yabusame ceremony, archers on horseback shoot at three wooden targets about 68 centimeters (26 inches) square and 1 centimeter (3/8 inch) thick while speeding along at full gallop. The targets are placed up to about 80 meters (87 yards) apart, so the riders must draw arrows in quick succession if they want to hit all three. Each time an arrow makes a hit, a big roar goes up from the crowd, followed by applause. Sometimes the shots cause the target to shatter, making a big cracking noise.
The yabusame at Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine features 18 riders in all. The first 3 are clad in the hunting gear of the Kamakura period (1185-1333), while the remaining 15 are attired in the samurai dress of the Edo period (1603-1867).
Kamakura became the seat of the shogunate (military government) in 1192, when Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147-1199) was named shogun, and continued to serve as the center of rule by military clans for about 150 years. Horsemanship and archery were highly valued skills. Yoritomo himself was an enthusiastic practitioner of both, charging across fields and hills on horseback and hunting for game with a bow and arrow. Yabusame is a ritual that combines these two skills. In 1187, it was performed before Yoritomo to pray for a peaceful rule. This was the first time it was held in Kamakura, although it had been around for hundreds of years by then.
To see yabusame in motion, visit SHONAN NET 134.