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Yabusame – Japanese Archery

April 24, 2008

On a overcast day in Tokyo it felt as if I had been transported back to the days of Edo. Under a peaceful canopy of greenery and cherry blossoms, magnificent horses and their riders (ite), dressed in traditional hunting attire (a-ge-shozoku), thundered down a narrow 240 meter track (baba), taking aim at three targets with their bow (shigedo) and arrow (ebira) along the way. I was watching a demonstration of Jabusame (Japanese archery on horseback), a martial art dating back about 900 years.

Royal guards or local samurai displayed their skills in exhibitions of Jabusame as a form of entertainment for the nobility as early as 809. After the decline of the nobility the practice of Jabusame continued as a martial art that was considered exercise for young samurai, not only in horsemanship and archery but also in concentration, discipline and refinement.

The practice of Jabusame is considered spiritual by many and the demonstration started with a procession of officials from the Dempoin Temple in Asakusa. Drummers, beating the yose-no-taiko (attacking signal), led the procession down the Nakamise, with the five story pagoda as a backdrop, to the Asakusa shrine where the procession paused and, with a solemn bow, petitioned the Gods for good fortune in battle.

The procession continued on to Sumida koen (park) and down the length of the baba with the mounted ite following in all of their finery. The stage was set for a fine display of Jabusame which starts when the Bugyo (head official) raises his fan to confirm that all the targets (shikinomato) are in place and the track is safe.

The ite then set their horse to a full gallop and guide their mounts with their knees as they take aim at the three shikinomato spaced 80 meters apart along the baba.

With a shout of “In-Yo!”, meaning to align the spirit and soul with the universe, they release the ebira towards the shikinomato.

If their aim is true, the ite will be able to celebrate, with a smile of satisfaction, the shattering of the shikinomato and the resulting shower of confetti, as the crowd cheers on loudly.

Check out this video of Jasubame and you will see how you could, if just for a moment, believe that you were back in old Edo.

Photo Credit: Personal Collection, Sources (History): Ogasawara – ryu website, Encyclopedia of Shinto Yabusame page, The Takeda School of Horseback Archery