Yabusame - Shrine horse archery in Kamakura

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October 15th 2019
Published: December 2nd 2019
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My usual travel companion hurt her back. She had decided on the event in Kamakura 9 years ago. She booked us rustic but clean and adequate accommodation central to our interest in the Yabusame ritual at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine - realistically horse archery in a shrine complex showing off authentic 12th century samurai archer costumes and horse paraphernalia. Our friends from Hay Flat are country girls, one of whom is a serious equestrian eventer whose daughter practices horse archery in Australia. So they jumped at the chance to see the rare event. Alas our hostess could not join us on our long weekend ( a holiday to repect older people!!!)

So we had to travel hundreds of kms on the Shinkansen and local trains to a the shrine in Kamakura. I forgot that I am so used to the teaming millions who use the train system near and in Tokyo that I just race from platform to platform, up lifts, down stairs round corners through lanes and lanes of people also frantic to make their connection. We got out of the bullet trainn and had exactly 9 minutes to transfer to the local station and get on a limited express train. So off I lead us. I was just at the bottom of the down escalator when our train pulled in. The train was crowded and the platform full. I yelled out make sure to get on. "Just keep moving forward". I looked over my shoulder and one friend was there. We both yelled to the last to get on. And she did. We were in a crush. Our last traveller did not understand a local was trying to get her (gently but physically) to move her backpack so the train door would close! We had four more stations to go. At each a few people alighted but more crammed in and the big squish continued. There was no time or space to explain that had we waited for the next train, it would have been equally crowded and we would have missed our next connection. Finally we were freed from the train crush and repeated the dash to the next platform and our last train. We had just caught our breath and it arrived. Later we created the name 'crowd shock' for the very unnerving feeling of closeness of bodies pressed against each other in significantly confined and crowded spaces.

Kamakura is by the sea, but quite mountainous, south of Tokyo. I’ve heard it said the rich move to their holiday houses in Kamakura in the summer to obtain relief from Tokyo’s humid heat. In South Australian terms, it could be as Victor Harbour is to Adelaide, except it is in the southern part of the region around greater Tokyo, where 36 million people live so in my companions’ image making words - ‘not even Victor Harbor on the January long weekend on speed would cut it.’

Not every one would travel 600 kms north, join thousands upon thousands of Tokyoiites and others on their long weekend sit in the rain on tree roots in the shrine grounds for 3 hours to gain a good view of the archery course, then stand on tree roots for 45 minutes while a monotonal rendition of the cultural, historical and connectedness to religion that the event held interspersed with English translations, blathered on. But that was the price we paid to see a parade of horses, archers, attendants, shrine officials and priests assisted by local school kids dressed in period costumes paraded up and down the 254 m archery course.

The judge, official shrine guests (it was rumoured a member of the Emperor’s family was there, but I had no idea if it was true), and friends and families of the archers arrived hours later than us, were given umbrellas, bento boxes and programmes. They sat on comfortably dry seats on the north perimeter of the course.

After all this, 50 minutes after the scheduled start time, our patience and perseverance was rewarded. Three archers rode the course one after the other. Each letting off 3 arrows on targets along the course. My skilled horse eventer friend explained that hitting the first target was easy because the archer had the bow and arrow in place from the start and just had to ride up to the target aim and shoot. In the interval between the first and second target, the archer had to reach back into his quiver, select an arrow, raise the bow, set the arrow then do what they did for the first. Now at pace, they had to repeat the whole process for the final arrow and stop their mount quickly as the course ended and they’d be up a couple of cobbled steps into city traffic if they didn't!

I got used to the historical re-enactment noise the archer let out prior to releasing the arrow. It was both high pitched and guttural. It sounded to me like a long ‘ooiiiiiiihhhhhhh’. I was bedazzled by the shimmer of the costumes as the archer flew by me at speed. I heard the thwack of the arrows hitting the target - not many of these competitors missed! I heard the gasps of the crowd waiting for each arrow to thwack the target after the archer called his oooiiiiihhhhh - yes all the archers were men because it is an authentic re-enactment of the 1100s world and women had no status in it except servitude and baby making. I heard the shutter noises of hundreds of cameras and smart phones as we all extended our bodies extremities to obtain clear sight of the event and/or have our camera at a stretch beyond the next persons.

Like many sports you practice for years to reach excellence. These archers travelled themselves and their horses which is a wee bit harder in crowded Tokyo than rural or outer urban Australia, practised for yonks, expended fortunes on their sport, tried desperately not to harm the costume they rode in (worth up to $200,000 per person) and got all of 30 seconds of fame to let off three arrows. But it must have been a high honour for them and their families.

In true Japanese style the English announcement after the signal from the judge was Mr X successfully hit target 1. Not X only managed target 1. Not wow a perfect score from Y. Instead: Mr Y successfully hit targets 1,2 and 3.

The three archers then walked their horses back to the commencement point of the course and dissappeared. Many of the crowd on our side of the course left.I was a bit taken aback - 4 hours of discomfort for a short parade of archers and 5 horses and only three archers riding the course and we are finished!!!

Not us hopefuls. We waited through a further half hour break and 18 more archers showed their skill. We watched and enjoyed, the skill, the costumes, the pageantry....... it took longer than we had thought because there were only 5 suitable horses. So after 4 or 5 archers showed their prowess, they, officials, attendants and horses paraded back along the course for the next group of riders to mount. This gave us time to observe the costumes and saddlery up close.

Now look at the photos attached. Appreciate the size of the archer, the bow, the costume. It’s not a small bow, heaps longer than the height of the archer. The ‘nobs’ on the end of the arrow were somewhere between golf and tennis balls made of solid wood, not a fine arrowhead. Even I could see the stirrups looked wrong. You won’t see anyone in the Olympic equestrian events riding in things like that! Also, note the deerskin on the lower half of some of the archers. No I don't think that would be acceptable today.

Half way through the archery performance the drizzle stopped, the sun shone, umbrellas disappeared and we enjoyed this rare and sumptuous spectacle. The termperature remained above 30 and the humidity above 95%.

So we were on a high but so tired we couldn’t follow google maps to a vego restaurant but inadvertently lucked on a fabulous pizza eaten outside as the sun started setting. Then as tired sexagenarian adventurers do, we hopped on a train and travelled to the beach and wallowed in an onsen. The soothing warm waters removed much of the stiffness acquired on tree roots enabling us later to sleep soundly on futons on wood, not tatami.

To end our adventure we trained and walked to the beach at Enoshima. It’s an island, akin to Granite Island in the South Australian analogy. Remove the long white sandy beaches and make the sand deep grey brown. Yes there was 4 kms of beach full of surfers, but the seafront looked more like Sydney on steroids than Victor Harbour. We escalated (literally) up the island to a garden an Englishman created in 1870. We felt extremely comfortable in the rotunda by the rose garden. We took the lift 60m above sea level to an observatory that enabled us to view long beaches and distant mountains. Mt Fuji had its head in clouds but we did see it from the train on our way.

My Hay Flat friends who often swim and surf at Carackalinga, could not resist a dip and walk along the sea shore before we retraced our steps on 3 trains home.


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