In the history of warfare there has seldom been a more impressive warrior than the horse archer. Riding a steed at full gallop, letting go of the reins with both hands, and leveling a bow and arrow against the enemy was truly a fearsome sight on the battlefield. These highly mobile combatants were especially useful in battles across open plains involving thousands of men, as was often the case in medieval times.
As weaponry advanced, however, the horse archer was rendered obsolete. For one thing, a man and a horse together were a much easier target than superior armed foot archers. When firearms became light enough to be wielded by cavalry in the 1600s, the horse archer disappeared altogether. But those eye-catching skills employed by mounted archers have not vanished entirely.
In Japan, the ancient practice of shooting arrows from horseback is known as “yabusame.” It was considered one of the highest of the martial arts a Japanese warrior could aspire to. Only the finest samurai would be permitted to shoot arrows from the back of a horse. Today the skills of yabusame are on display every year at the Rokujohachimangu shrine in Kobe City on the second Sunday in October. (http://www.kansaimatsuri.com/en/matsuri/1339/). What can you expect to see?
Horseback archery in the 21st century is performed primarily as a Shinto ritual. There are three styles of Japanese archery that can be re-created on the riding grounds. In classic yabusame, an archer carrying a large sword and five Kaburaya arrows (the type that make a whistling sound through the air) on his back gallops down a straight course of approximately 218 meters long firing at targets. The traditional warrior garb is likely to include an ayaigasa on his head, a sulkan with bottom and sleeves tied to prevent interference with the shooting movements, a mukabaki around the waist, and a glove on the bow hand.
During the exhibition there will be orchestrated rituals to note including prayers and ceremonial shouting as each target is approached. Watch for when the archer stands up in the stirrups and spreads his or her knees in a technique called kuramawari. There are also exacting methods for posturing and fixing the arrow to the bow.
Kasagake is a form of horseback archery competition drawing on the practice rituals of ancient warriors. In Kasagake the accuracy and efficiency of shooting the arrows is more critical than the pageantry. The riding grounds are half as long – the equivalent of 51 lengths of an unstrung bow. Archers must keep their steeds within the boundary of the course as they shoot their arrows. The targets of yore were often conical shaped reed hats and the arrows were checked not only for accuracy but depth of penetration. Gambling on the horseback archers was often a part of kasagake.
A third style of Japanese horseback archery no longer gets the re-creation treatment. Inuounmono was a training technique for hunters and involved horse archers maneuvering through a large riding ground known as a umada with 150 dogs on the field. The competition was to shoot the most dogs in a prescribed time limit. The archers would use special ‘inuuchihikime’ arrows designed not to harm the dogs but this spectacle was discontinued nonetheless.
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