Yabusame is a ceremony in which archers clad in the hunting outfit of medieval warriors shoot at three targets as they race by on horseback. Among the yabusame events held across Japan, the one that's best known takes place every year on September 16 at Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine in Kamakura.
Until the Middle Ages, shooting arrows while riding a horse running at full speed was an important skill for warriors, and yabusame began as a form of military training combining horsemanship and archery. The shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147-1199), who set up his shogunate (military government) in Kamakura, enthusiastically studied and promoted the art. It was under his order that the ritual at Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine started in 1187. Yoritomo hoped to heighten warriors' mental strength and religious devotion by carrying out yabusame as a Shinto ritual.
Three square targets, made of Japanese cedar and fixed onto bamboo rods, are placed at intervals of about 70 meters (77 yards) on the left-hand side of a 255-meter (279-yard) track. Each costumed archer starts the horse when two people at both ends of the track raise their fans, one red and one white, and shoots at the three targets one after another as the horse gallops along the narrow track. All this happens in less than 20 seconds. If an arrow can't be shot in time, the archer has to drop it and use another arrow for the next target. Three archers perform the ritual. This ceremony is a way of praying for peace across the land, and the arrows and targets that were used in successful shots are treasured as good luck charms.
Go to this page to see a movie of the yabusame ritual.
Photos (from top): A painting of a contest in the past; the competition is popular even today; the beautiful Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine. (Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine)