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What Is Yabusame?

The History of Yabusame

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.

The Yabusame no Zu shows how yabusame used to be played (Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine)

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. Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147–1199), who was the first shogun of the Kamakura Shogunate (1185–1333), enthusiastically studied and promoted the art. It was under his order that the ritual at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine started in 1187. Yoritomo hoped to heighten warriors' mental strength and religious devotion by carrying out yabusame as a Shinto ritual.

Yabusame nowadays (Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine)

Yabusame at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine

Three square targets, made of Japanese cedar and fixed onto bamboo rods, are placed at intervals of about 70 meters (approx. 230 feet) on a 260-meter (approx. 850 feet) track that runs east to west through the grounds of the shrine. When two people at either end of the track raise their fans, one red and one white, three costumed archers take off one by one and shoot at the three targets one after another as their horses gallop along the narrow track.

The beautiful Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine. (Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine)

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.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.

As well as the traditional yabusame rituals, it is also enjoyed as a competitive sport, which is judged by how many times the archers hit the targets.

Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine Yabusame Track (Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine)
Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine Yabusame Track (Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine)