Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Bullseye! The Art of Archery in Shinto Ceremony

(This post comes from Emilie. Emilie, あざーす!)

Kyūdo (弓度, litt. ‘the way of the bow’) has been present in Japan for thousands of years, with archaeological digs revealing wooden bows and stone arrowheads dating back to 5000 B.C.E. Japanese archery has strong spiritual connotations, not only with Zen Buddhism (mainly in the latter half of the twentieth century) but also through its use in Shinto ritual. While archery is used in hundreds of ceremonies across the country, especially those involving harvest, purification or coming-of-age, only two will be touched upon here: Momote-Shiki and Yabusame.

Kyūdo is markedly different from Western archery, namely through the fact that a Japanese yumi (bow) is 2 meters long and gripped below its center. Kyū-dojo are highly ritualized spaces built in an almost mandalized fashion, following concepts of Chinese geomancy (Feng Shui); the dojo’s construction is based on the cardinal directions, with the target area in the south, the arrow-collecting path in the east, the social rooms to the north and the altar, along with the judges’ seats, in the west. This improves the flow and interaction of yin and yang energies, as well as elemental energy; if the dojo layout is changed, this is thought to affect the archers’ performance. The standard length of a kyūdo shooting range is of 28 meters, based on ancient hosha (archery on foot) principles--thirty meters was the ideal killing range. Besides hosha, the two other forms of kyūdo are mounted archery (kisha) and temple archery (dosha).

The common ‘archer priestess’ trope, in which a miko (shrine maiden) uses a bow to exorcise demons, will be familiar to those who watch Japanese animation: popular examples include Kagome and Kikyo from Inuyasha, or Sailor Mars from Sailor Moon. The connection is not entirely incongruous; Amaterasu herself uses a bow and is equipped with “a thousand-arrow quiver; on the side of her chest she attached a five-hundred arrow quiver” (Kojiki 14:5). In temples all across Japan, miko prepare the hamaya (破魔矢) or ‘demon-breaking arrows’ that are sold as lucky charms during the New Year’s festival. Hamaya are long white bamboo arrows that ward off misfortune and attract good luck. During the Edo period (1603 to 1868) they were also given as gifts to celebrate the arrival of a male baby, usually paired with decorative bows, or hamayumi (破魔弓). Hamaya and hamayumi are still used to consecrate and purify a new house, which is done by placing these symbolic weapons in the southeast and northwest corners of the home, as these directions are susceptible to evil.

Momote-shiki (百手式), the hundred-arrow ritual, is performed at Meiji shrine each January in honour of seijin-no-hi, coming of age day, as well as in November to pray for a bountiful harvest. A kaburaya (whistling arrow) is used to start off the archery ritual; the noise it makes is said to ward off malevolent kami. The ceremony gets its name from the practice of having ten archers close the ceremony by firing one hundred arrows at a central target.

Yabusame (流鏑馬) is the most well-known and formal of the kisha (mounted archery) ceremonies. Yabusame was created originally not only as a form of practice for mounted archers, but also as an offering of entertainment to the gods. It involves bolting down a 220-meter-long straight track at full gallop while attempting to hit 3 targets set up on the left-hand side. The targets are 80 meters apart, and the ite (archers), garbed in full 13th-century hunting gear, use forked arrows designed to incapacitate prey. Yabusame generally demonstrates the skills of about eight to twelve archers, each requiring at least 5 years of practice in order to participate.

In sum, Kyudo reveals itself to be not only a complex and ritualized martial art, but also an important element of many Shinto ceremonies. Often showy, these rituals are designed to capture the attention of the gods in the hopes of attaining luck and prosperity. The arrows alone are capable of warding off evil and purifying their bearer--though the New Year’s hamaya are often thrown out when their efficacy ceases!

A.N.K.F. website.

Kyudo vids:

Momote Shiki:

Some impressive Yabusame videos: