ZUSHI, Japan – It is about as far from the Olympic sport of archery as it can get. The bow is taller than the person shooting it, and, to the uninitiated, it appears lopsided and unbalanced. There are no sights, no high-tech stabilizers.
And, of course, it is done on horseback, at upward of 40 mph.
It’s called yabusame, and it is the sport of the samurai.
Each year, archers in feudal shooting gear climb atop their decorated mounts for a lively competition on the beach of Zushi, a town just south of Tokyo, galloping in the sand as thousands of onlookers cheer and shout. The first competition was held here in 1199.
The scene is like something out of a movie by the great Akira Kurosawa. Banners flap in the ocean wind marking the beginning and end of the shooting runway. Little boys in bright robes and black hats scamper about collecting the arrows and the debris from the wooden or clay targets destroyed by each hit.
“There is nothing like this outside of Japan,” said Ietaka Kaneko, who heads the Japan Equestrian Archery Association and the Takeda School of Horseback Archery, which traces its origins back more than 800 years.
The targets, held about 7 feet aloft on small poles or scaffoldings, are roughly the size of a mounted opponent’s chest. There are three along the runway, which is only 165 yards long, giving the archer just enough time to raise his bow, load and shoot — three times — all the while spurring on his horse.
When the dull, turnip-shaped tip of an arrow strikes just right, the board explodes in a blur of splinters. But as often as not, the arrows miss, sailing past the targets and thudding into the canvas behind them.
In battle, hitting the target was the whole idea. But yabusame has from its origins been almost as much an art as a sport. In many competitions, hitting the target is almost an afterthought — archers are judged, if they are judged at all, on the beauty of their run and the form they display as they release each arrow.
Here, hitting counts.
“Many schools today see yabusame as more of a ceremonial thing,” said Kaneko, a retired veterinarian. “In our school, it is our earnest desire to connect.”
Each score brings a loud round of awed cheers and raucous applause and each splintered target is branded with a hot iron commemorating the day and recycled as a good luck charm. A long line stretches along the beach well before the competition is over as spectators make sure they go home with a piece for their collection.
Very few people actually participate in yabusame, because few have access to horses or the time to learn all the technique involved in riding them for sport. But Kaneko, whose family roots are in the now-defunct samurai class, grew up around them and his steeds were trained specifically for archery competitions.
“I have been shooting since I was 17,” he said. He’s 87 now, and was on hand to officiate at this year’s beach competition, though he did not shoot at any targets. Instead, he started it all off, as drums beat, with a symbolic draw at the cloud-filled sky.
“The most difficult part is staying absolutely stable no matter how fast the horse is galloping,” he said. “The style is not like Western or European equestrian riding.”
Archers don’t actually sit. They squat, using special stirrups and very light saddles.
There are three main types of shooting.
The first, and most common, involves releasing the arrow at a target directly to the side of the archer from about 10 feet. Targets can also be placed obliquely to the front of the archer’s path, or up to 50 feet away.
“When people think of the samurai, they don’t realize that in the old days, archery was more important in battle than swords,” said Hisashi Yoshimi, one of the featured shooters at the beach competition. “Archers … kept a distance and fired upward so that the arrows would rain down on advancing troops.”
Yoshimi said that tradition is reflected in the longbows, which are better suited for long-range attacks on a general area rather than picking off single adversaries.
“The bows haven’t really been adapted for this kind of shooting, because there is a big part of the sport that is spiritual, rather than practical,” he said. “That’s a lot of its appeal.”