Horse Archery in Aso

Yabusame is a festival that involves house-mounted archers, special arrows and targets, and Shinto ritual. As luck would have it, last fall we happened to be in the right place at the right time to attend such a festival.

We were on a trip to Mount Aso in Kumamoto Prefecture. Kumamoto borders Fukouka to the south. Aso is a group of five peaks inside a large volcanic crater, or caldera. One of the peaks is an active volcano, having erupted more times in recorded history than any other. Rather than hot molten rock flows and pyrotechnics, Aso’s eruptions are usually mud, rock, or ash. Still, what it lacks in quality, it makes up in quantity. As for the large caldera, by large I mean really really big. Inside the crater there are multiple train stations, villages, shrines & temples, hot springs resorts, tourist traps, rice fields and more. No naval bases or durian that I could see, though. The crater measures 18km east to west, and 24km north to south and is the largest of its kind in the world. It would make a great location for an Austin Powers movie.

As luck would have it, we were in Aso with no fixed plans on September 25, 2004. So we made our way to Aso Shrine (Aso-jinja) to watch the yabusame festivities. From what I’ve been able to find out through cursory web searches, yabusame is performed as a kind of public ritual at Shinto shrines. The participants often wear period garb or some other special costume.

I had originally intended to include five or six photos in this post—I even uploaded them to my server and captioned them—but one of them stood out while the other five reduced the impact of the one. If anyone wants to see the others, let me know.

Before the start of the archery, the riders warmed up on their horses by walking circles in the shrine courtyard for several minutes. After the warmup, they filed out on parade and then split up to ride the course in pairs. The course was a straight gravel path in front of the shrine. After they finished this preliminary ride, all of the riders gathered in front of the main gate of the shrine where the priest gave them a blessing. The riders bowed frequently, an action that was made more pronounced by their tall hats.

During the archery part of the festival, each rider made multiple runs down the course, equipped with one arrow for each of the three targets. The arrows had special bulb-shaped safety heads that looked like they were made of rubber. The targets would scatter various amounts of confetti, depending on how close to the centre they were hit.

Some of the riders were excellent archers, and others were excellent horsemen. The former would ride slowly and aim carefully, while the latter would ride hard but could rarely hit a target. The ones who could do both were astounding. In addition to their period costumes, the riders were also wearing assorted fur leggings. I’m not sure what the significance of the wardrobe was. Regardless, I can imagine the challenge.

Yabusame Instructions
Acquire horse, animal skin, and fancy period costume for self and horse. Horse must be alive. Animal skin must be dead. Wear costume and skin. Dress horse in horse costume. Ride horse. Fast. Hit three closely-spaced targets with non-standard arrows while riding at a gallop. Avoid crashing into crazy foreign tourists and their cameras. But get close enough that the pale-skinned demons can get good photos and a good scare. But not close enough that horse will get spooked. Do not allow your pope-worthy hat to go askew. Do not fall off horse. Cultivate appearance of nonchalance about the whole affair. If eligible bachelor, strike poses often. Separate poppy seeds from ashes. Avoid Ringwraiths.

I’m not sure those last bits came from. Refugees from other mission-impossible stories perhaps. But as usual, I digress. At the end of the festival, riders who had hit one or more targets were given another kind of special arrow—this time with the the head removed and a fortune tied to the shaft—to throw into the crowd.

And finally, here’s the one photo that survived my severe edit.

A horse-mounted archer takes aim during yabusame festival at Aso-jinja in Kumamoto-ken, September 2004:

a horse-mounted archer aims at a target (closeup)

5 thoughts on “Horse Archery in Aso

  1. How can he possibly remain on the horse? How many riders were injured during training? Where do they keep the broken riders? What kind of a day job do these young men have, that allows them to practise riding and archery twelve hours a day? Are there female riders and archers? Do the riders come from certain families? Is this a religious and spiritual pursuit as well as an athletic activity?

    Thank you for such a tantalizing entry, Ed. I’ll check out archery classes in the morning.

  2. …..separate poppy seeds from ashes….indeed!!! Any Baba Yaga types lurking around the horse archery area? It seems the Japanese like to engage in “Mission Impossible” type activities striving for absolute excellence. I wonder if there’s a Japanese version of the Baba Yaga/Vasalisa story. Just imagine the extreme tasks….I wonder what the doll would look like….

    I’m enjoying your blogs Ed. I couldn’t let that refernce go without a comment….

    Anita AKA the doll

  3. Pat: after seeing how intensely the various clubs—including a traditional Japanese archery club—at my school practice, you probably wouldn’t wonder where they find the time. Most people here have one hobby, and it consumes all of their leisure time. As for your other questions, I’m not sure but I can l look into it.

  4. Anita, there were many grizzled old crones in the crowd at this event. There’s striving, and then there’s the appearance of striving. I don’t know if there’s an equivalent Baba Yaga story here, and even though it wasn’t intentional, I’m glad I finally managed to post something that got a reaction from you.

  5. They are skilled enough to remain on their mounts probably because they have been training since they were young. The sport though dwindling in modern times is an ancient practice since the mid 5th century onwards after horse-riding and warrior skills were introduced via the Korean-and-Han-Chinese immigrants who passed on these Altaic-Mongolian skills on mounted archery to Japan. There remain traditional horse centers in Japan which are remnants of the once flourishing horse nurturing areas that are also incidentally the strongholds of samurai training. Some horse centers are associated with ancient shrines dedicated to horse longetivity or horse deities, or shrines closely connected to Hachiman god history. These skills are still passed down and are taught to school kids in the vicinity.

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