Kyudo (the way of the bow) is considered by some to be the purest of all martial arts in that it is not only about shooting arrows, but also striving for spiritual development.
The use of the bow and arrow in Japan dates back to the earliest people of the islands, the Jomon, hunter-gatherers who relied heavily on the bow from about 7,000 B.C. From the fourth century until the late twelfth, ceremonial archery became a significant part of court ceremonies. During this time, the bow also rose in use as a weapon of war as the samurai class gained momentum. The twelfth through seventeenth centuries saw the bow and arrow taking on a much more important role in warfare with the first Shogun establishing standardized training for his warriors in the use of the weapon. The design of the bow also evolved and was refined during this time until it was considered to be a perfect design.
The bamboo and wood laminate design that was perfected in the late sixteenth century has not changed in 400 years and the bows used today are virtually identical to the those used in that era. This time also heralded the end of the bow and arrow as a weapon as muskets were introduced, effectively ending the need for the bow as a weapon. The period between the seventeenth the early twentieth centuries was a transitional time for archery and saw the development of the activity not as a method of fighting, but rather as a means of personal development as more members of the general population became involved in the sport.
The modern age saw the standardization of the techniques and in 1953 the kyudo kyohon (a manual) was published establishing the methods of shooting in use today.
Kyudo involves very little hard physical activity and thus, emphasis is placed on spirit and personal growth. Self-control, emotional stability and strict adherence to the ceremonial practices of kyudo are necessary to achieve proficiency at kyudo and are sometimes difficult for the newcomer to understand and accept. While the rules may be somewhat stifling, modern kyudo has borrowed practices of past teachers and the guidelines and techniques are designed to put the shooter’s analytical mind to rest allowing the intuitive thought process to take over.
Kyudo equipment is relatively simple with the main piece of equipment being the yamu or bow, which is much longer than western bows, coming in at over six feet in length. The yamu is traditionally made of bamboo, wood and leather, although synthetic bows are sometimes used and are made of fiberglass or carbon. A glove known as a yugake is used to help hold onto the string and is typically made of deerskin and comes in either a three or four finger version. The ya, or arrow, is traditionally made from bamboo and stabilized with eagle or hawk feathers. Some modern arrows are made of aluminum or carbon and feathers from non-endangered birds are used nowadays on all arrows.
Kyudo is practiced in different schools and there can be variations between dojos, and the form of practice varies. A basic practice session may begin with the shooter sitting seiza style (on their knees sitting on their heels) while meditating. The archer then may do some practice pulls with the bow, gently releasing the string back into the ready position; this serves to stretch and warm up the shooter as well as to check the bow for any serious problems before shooting. Continuing the warm up, the archer may then begin to shoot at a specially designed makiwara (straw target). The makiwara is only about seven feet away and because the arrow will almost certainly hit the target, the archer is able to concentrate on form and technique rather than on where the arrow will go.
After the warm up is complete, the archer will move on to shooting at a mato, which is a target typically about 12-inches in diameter and placed about 28 yards away. This aspect of kyudo is strictly controlled and has been codified by the All Nippon Kyudo Federation and consists of eight distinct phases.
First, the shooter must place his feet into the correct shooting stance, followed by properly aligning his body for shooting. Readying the bow for shooting by placing one’s hands on the string and the bow and turning one’s head toward the target is next followed by raising the bow to prepare for the draw. The draw is done while lowering the bow while simultaneously pushing the bow away and pulling the string back leading into the full draw which ends up with the arrow lined up slightly below the eye. The string is released and the eighth stage requires the archer to remain in the post-release position for a short time as he or she returns from the concentration associated with the shot.
Judging by the number of students on the train carrying the distinctive kyudo bow, the sport and the quest for inner peace will continue for years to come. For a chance to see kyudo, one can visit a dojo or occasionally view one of the demonstrations held at festivals or city-sponsored events. Yabusame, where horsemen shoot at targets while riding at full gallop is also an excellent example of archers using the traditional Japanese bows.
Story by James Souilliere
From J SELECT Magazine, August 2008