Samurai Sport Still Popular After 800 Years

The sport of Yabusame dates back over 800 years, when samurai would practice it.

KAMAKURA, Japan, May 13, 2010 — -- Mounted on galloping horses, archers race full speed down a narrow dirt path.

The skilled professionals take aim with their bow and arrows to hit three consecutive targets – all within less than 15 seconds.

This form of Japanese mounted archery, or Yabusame, dates back over 800 years – to when samurai would have bow and arrow duels on horseback.

It is an hour-long train ride from the bustling city of Tokyo to Kamakura, the ancient city of the samurai.

Japanese drums sound off in the distance, cherry blossoms are in full bloom, and archers warm up for the day's event.

Legend has it that Yabusame originated "at the beginning of the Kamakura period, the end of the 12th century," the event emcee announced. Minamoto Yoritomo, "the first shogun of the Kamakura shogunate became alarmed at the lack of archery skills his samurai had."

Minamoto, as top military commander, promptly organized Yabusame as a practice drill for duels.

Other forms of mounted archery were also disciplined. Kasagake uses different types of targets and, unlike Yabusame where they are all stationed on the left side of the track, targets are placed on both the left and right. Inuoumono, though no longer practiced, was another archery martial art that used dogs for moving targets.

Today Yabusame skills are taught in Japan at specialized schools and ceremonies are held as rituals.

"To be selected as a Yabusame archer," the event emcee said, was "a great honor as well as a cherished opportunity to demonstrate one's skill to other samurai."

This afternoon archers from the Takeda School of Horseback Archery exhibit their artistry.

Yabusame a Tribute to Samurai

The ceremony starts with the archers at one of Kamakura's most famous shrines, Tsurugaoka Hachimangu. There, in accordance with Shinto religious beliefs, offerings are made to the various gods watching over Japan.

Dressed in colorful embroidered costumes, the archers, judges and horses then parade down the 250 yard track to the beat of a drum and a hushed crowd of spectators.

A team of judges sits by each of the three targets that line the track, ready to retrieve fallen arrows and replace hit marks.

Ten archers are divided into two groups.

Archer's names, like Tatsuro Suzuki and Yoshiaki Koike, as well as their horse's names, like Suisei and Tenzan, are announced over a loud speaker.

A representative at the end of the track unfolds and raises a large gold colored fan with a red rising sun on it and reverse coloring on the back – and round one begins.

The sound of hooves approaching grows louder – followed by cheers from the crowd when a target is hit, or a collective sympathetic sigh when missed.

Look closely and archers can be seen removing their feet from their sled-like stirrups, or abumi, when they pass in front of the main shrine, their elders or those that out-rank them – a gesture of respect.

For round two, the judges remove the larger colored targets from standing sticks and replace them with smaller wooden marks.

When hit, an intense 'smack' can be heard as the wood splinters into pieces.

Yabusame is a sport of control where archers guide their horses with their knees - mastering this martial art of body and mind.

The smallest target – two clay bowls secured together and just seven inches in diameter - is saved for the last round and only the top archers.

It is a challenge that eludes many but ends with triumph and an explosion of colored paper confetti when achieved.

A gift to the gods watching over and a tribute to the samurai of centuries passed.

Fuminori Takeshi contributed to this report.

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