The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

To please the gods ...

I wrote previously about Samurai Archery. Here is another article about the mounted archer, the Yamabuse. Below is an excerpt. If you click here, you'll be directed to the orginal article.

Time's Arrow

Traveling back 1,500 years through yabusame -- archery on a galloping horse

Baseball may be the jewel of Japanese sports, but this field of dreams -- a boggy expanse of plowed-up rice paddies bisected by a soil embankment approximately two hundred meters long by four or five meters wide -- is set up for something else: a display of horseback archery, known as yabusame.

This ancient mix of sport and ceremony is at the same time refined and vigorous, and, it turns out, somewhat in-your-face. Mounted archers draw arrows in long bows and let fly at targets hardly bigger than opened laptop computers, all the while galloping at full tilt.

Standing below the embankment path during a run is like being passed by a semi-trailer, complete with a cheek-stinging spray of sand and gravel. The sight of the horse charging down the precarious track all straining muscles and pounding hooves, leaves the impression that this sport may in fact be rather dangerous. And the horsemanship is the more impressive for typically being acquired, senior archer Shigenori Tanaka says, on shared horses at sessions held no more than once weekly.

Nami Kaneko

"Our skill level has risen these past few years," says Mr. Tanaka of the Takeda School, one of two groups performing yabusame in Japan and the organizer of this event. "But the real samurai were good shots, not like us Sunday riders." At 37 years old, Mr. Tanaka has been riding for 12 years, long enough to break both forearms and reach the rank of kyoshi (teacher), second only to hanshi, or master.

Mr. Tanaka, who also serves as Takeda's press officer, is radiant and lithe -- almost rubbery -- in his feudal-era striped pantaloons, dusty soft leather shoes and gold-embroidered chest protector. Add in a cheeky red hat strapped around his jaw, and the overall effect is more sweet than warlike. Around him a couple of dozen men and women, costumes vivid against the dull soil and dead stubble, make their final touches. An ensemble of taiko drums has been set up beside a nearby blossoming plum orchard.

Halfway along the track, where Mr. Tanaka stands, is a small watchtower with a single hanging drum for the bugyo, the master of proceedings. Opposite the tower is the central of the three target areas, each with a pole about two meters high. At the head of the track, horses fidget in their corral in front of a Shinto altar.

It all seems like ancient times -- or at least a samurai movie. (Indeed, the school has trained riders for films that include "Seven Samurai" and "Kagemusha"; the late Toshiro Mifune, Japan's most macho movie star, was a graduate.)

Nami Kaneko

Mr. Tanaka, whose day job is in a high-tech division of Toshiba, joined yabusame to reconnect with his Japanese roots. He displays an equal mixture of pride and humility at his skill. "I was already shooting targets two years after I started," he says. "Most people take four or five. In the teacher's judgment, I learned quickly."

Takeda attracts apprentices for both spiritual and sporting reasons, and preserves a practice that it traces back almost 1,500 years, although Yoshikazu Kondo, a professor of Japanese history at Kanagawa University, says it wasn't until the Heian period (794-1185) that the first written mentions appear. Flourishing until the end of the Kamakura period (1185-1333) before losing popularity (perhaps because methods of warfare changed, and civil strife declined), it was revived as a martial art early in the 18th century.

In the Meiji period of the late 19th century, militarism helped yabusame's resurgence, and attached to it -- as to most martial arts -- the formal elements of state Shintoism. "There was no such dimension to yabusame before Meiji," Dr. Kondo says.

But there was always a spiritual side. Yabusame is a sport with a looser approach to competition than you'll find at, say, the Olympics. The point wasn't so much to determine a champion, the professor says, as to please the gods.

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