Japan is a country with a strong cultural and historical identity. Some of the ways japanese keep their traditions alive is with “matsuri” (festivals), ceremonies and by organizing special competitions. Amongst them there is the Yabusame.
Yabusame is the japanese traditional mounted archery: it’s a ceremony in which archers shoot three arrows at three different wooden targets, while standing on a galloping horse. It’s a difficult competition that requires a great balance, concentration and years of practice.
The origin of Yabusame comes from Kamakura period. Minamoto no Yoritomo (heir of the Yoritomo clan and founder as well as first shogun of the Kamakura Shogunate) studied and promoted this art. His aim was to improve Samurai’s fighting and mental skills and, at the same time, he officialized it as Shinto ritual, granting a religious devotion to this discipline. Yabusame officially started under Minamoto no Yoritomo at the Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine.
The ceremony of Yabusame starts with a parade: each archer is accompanied by his “team” and his assistants who, wearing the traditional 13th century clothings, show the three targets made of japanese cedar and escort the warrior to the panel of judges and back to the starting point.
The competition starts: as soon as the referee raises his fan, the archer sets his horse off at a gallop through the narrow straight track and, standing up on the stirrups, he draws an arrow from his quiver and shoots at the wooden target, breaking it in two halves as the arrow strikes it loudly. After the first target, the archer proceeds to the next two ones, elegantly keeping the same position; then, once shot the last target, he sits down on the saddle and reins in the horse to reach slowly the finish line.
Even if this performance lasts just 15-20 seconds, the race is very engaging: the track is about 250 meters long and the horse runs very fast; the archer has to be very capable because it’s difficult to control the horse just with the knees. Moreover, if he can’t shoot the arrow in time he has to drop it and draw another one from the quivel, wasting precious seconds and risking to lose his balance. Sometimes, to make matters worse, because of the many attending people, the horse is tense and runs too fast: at worst the archer can be unhorsed and fall on the ground, risking to hit a stake and getting hurt badly.
For these reasons, an archer who can hit all the three targets, accomplishing the ride flawlessly, is greatly admired and he is awarded with a white cloth that represents the favor of the divinity. The arrows that have centered the targets are kept into the shrine as a symbol of good luck. The whole ritual of the Yabusame is a way of praying for peace in Japan, therefore the successful archers are held in high regard.
At the end of the performance, the archers and their “teams” parade again along the track, heading for the stables.
I’m really glad to have managed to attend to this amazing event. It’s been quite complicated because I had to send a written request many month in advance, and luckily it has been accepted. This event, that takes place near Osaka, is almost unknown to the tourists, who usually go to Nikko.
I think that, documenting this ceremony, I had the chance to show an important and fascinating side of the rich japanese tradition and culture.
During my year and a half of travel in Japan, I’ve been able to discover many fascinating places and events, so my next works will be further steps of this journey and I’ll be happy to share them with you.
A Yabusame archer runs toward the stable. The historical competition of Yabusame is going to start and the archer, dressed with ancient japanese silk clothes, hurries to reach the stable keeping in hand his Zouri to run without hindrance.
A Yabusame archer and his horse take a second to relax. The challengers of the historical competition of Yabusame are accompanied to the meeting point before the race. There are some minutes to relax and this is a precious moment because the ride will require great abilities and concentration.
A Yabusame archer guides his horse to prepare for the parade. The ceremony of Yabusame is going to start and the archers with their assistants and horses are getting ready for the opening parade.
Before the beginning of the Yabusame competition, the archers, the judges and their assistants parade along the track in front of the spectators. For every figure there is a specific clothing that is a perfect reproduction of the original: the materials, the shape and the decorations of each dress date back to the Kamakura period. Attending the parade is like jumping back in time of nearly 800 years.
During the parade, the judges show to the spectators the three target that will be used during the competition of Yabusame. Alongside the archers on their horses, the target inspectors “Matometsuke” show to the spectators the targets that will be positioned on one side of the track, about 70 meters distant each other. The target themselves are quite big and you could think that they’re not so difficult to hit; actually, the opposite is true, as the next photos will show.
One of the challengers of the Yabusame competition concentrates before his ride. The entire ride will last just about 20 seconds, but this discipline requires many skills and concentration is an essential factor. In this close up is possible to have a clear view on some of the traditional elements of the archer’s clothing: the hat, named “Onigasa”; the left part of the upper clothing, named “Igote” serves as protection for the arm that holds the Yumi longbow; the lower part, made of deer’s leather and named “Mukabaki”, protects the legs.
The challengers of the Yabusame competition head for the starting point, going through the track. Three of the challengers of the historical competition of Yabusame are walking along the track, to reach the starting point with their assistants. In this shot is possible to have a look at the lenght of the arrows and at the characteristic V-shaped prong. The arrows are sticked into a cube that is part of the tradtional quiver, named “ebira”.
One of the challenging Yabusame archers hits the target, mantaining a perfect posture on his horse. The arrow with the V-shaped prong strikes loudly the wooden target, splitting it in two halves. This is the second hit; if the archer will hit the third target, placed at a distance of 70 meters, he will accomplish his challenge, obtaining honour and respect and will please the gods.
The Yabusame archer, standing on his legs, tightens the Yumi bow as he approaches the target. Being a special longbow, the archer has to tighten it above his head and then align the arm to the eyes just before shooting the arrow. It’s a very difficult position to keep, while standing on a running horse. During the act of shooting, called “hanare”, the archer shouts “In You” that means “Yin and Yang, Darkness and Light”, the two opposite forces of the universe. Shouting these words, the archer focuses all his spiritual energies inside the arrow that, through the Yumi, is thrown to the source of the Universe, the true essence of Buddha.
The Yabusame archer, standing on his running horse, shoots the arrow. The judges carefully evaluate his performance. Striking all the three targets is a remarkable accomplishment.
The Yabusame archer loses the balance and falls from his horse. Due to the complexity of riding the horse and take aim on the target while standing up on the stirrups, falling from the horse is a concrete possibility. Losing the balance is a matter of a fraction of second. Moreover, if the horse is nervous the ride is even harder. Luckily, in this case, the archer has fallen just a few centimeters beyond the poles and he didn’t report any injury. The jury is watching the scene with worry…
The judges and their assistants parade after the conclusion of the historical competition of Yabusame. The ritual is over, the Yabusame Archers have hit the targets, pleasing the gods and obtaining the respect due to a samurai. Now the masters of ceremony, the judges and the assistants parade one last time in front of the spectators. In this shot is possible to see the beautiful outfit of the samurai, from the crested helm “Kabuto”, to the spaulders “Sode” and the faulds “Kusazuri”. Every element is a perfect reproduction of the ancient, original one.
As you probably know, some of the previous shots have been awarded with the bronze medal in occasion of the 2014 PX3 Prix de la Photographie Paris. If you want to know more, just follow THIS LINK and read the article posted last year on my blog. As a consequence of this much appreciated reward, I’ve had the chance to organize a solo photo exhibition in Rome, from December 2014 to February 2015 (you can read more about this event HERE); this blog post is a sort of digital version of the exhibition so, if you had not the opportunity to come in Rome this winter, I hope you have enjoyed it.