Last of the series of Yabusame photographs I got at the Ogano Spring festival in Saitama prefecture just about a week ago. The horses used by the archers were all traditional Japanese breeds, small and hardy requiring little fodder and fearless in battle. All of them came very close to extinction half a century ago when they were deemed to small for the war effort and the government was focusing on stronger breeds.
The speed can be seen in some of the photos: by the time the archer has released the arrow and the splintered boards of the target start flying apart the horse is already well past the target, speeding towards the next one in line. The boards were collected by the judges and marked by a local calligraphist. They were then sold to the audience to be displayed in their private home shrines as a talisman of protection for the family and home.
The photos may look a little dark. I had to dial the exposure way down to get any sort of contrast, the mountain sun and air bathed the sports field where the ceremony took place in a bright even light that seemed to cast few shadows.
More photos from the Yabusame performance and ceremony in little Ogano Town deep in the mountains of Saitama prefecture. After riding past once, at full speed the horses were wonderfully restless. Looking at the relatively tiny horses I thought that they would slow but I was completely mistaken! These horses were obviously bred for war! The archers use blunted wooden arrows with just enough strenght to shatter the wooden targets rather spectacularly. The three judges at each of the three targets would raise a special pole to signal a hit and each time the crowd would cheer. It happens sometimes that an arrow strays and hits a judge, that is why no metal arrowheads are used in this ritual. There are very few sports or rituals in Japan that are as physically exciting as Yabusame!
I spent weekend in the tiny town of Ogano in deepest Saitama prefecture north of Tokyo, to visit their annual Harumatsuri, one of the two major events taking place in this isolated mountain town. One of the main events of the festival was the Yabusame, ritual horse archery peformed by some of the most famous archers in Japan. Before the archery itself could start there was the ceremony of the omikoshi, a mobile shrine and sort of arc where the kami or god of the shrine is housed. During festivals it is taken out and paraded around the town and it needed to be on place before the Yabusame could start.
The festival is conducted by the Oshika Shrine, on the north of the town but the Yabusame takes place at the much older and original shrine of the town, the Motomiya Shrine whose remains are housed in a protective steel cage. Usually when an actual kami is moved to an alternative shrine the procession is preceded by a man dressed as a guardian tengu, this time he was a big hit with both local photographers and local kids.
I have seen many Yabusame opening ceremonies during my years in Japan but this one was by far the most serious and the most elaborate, involving everything from the firing of special whistling messenger arrows to full on charges with spears and the naginata (a kind of polearm). I will post photos of the actual archery tomorrow, until then, enjoy!
A while ago I visited one of the most famous “obscure” shrines in Japan, the Myotogi Shrine (夫婦木神社, or the Couple Tree Shrine) in Yamanashi Prefecture, west of Tokyo. It is located in Mitake-Cho (御岳町), about 45 minutes by bus from Kofu City. Unfortunately I was not very lucky as the shrine was closed on that day and I was unable to see the mythical tree that is venerated inside the shrine. About half a century ago, a 1000 year old chestnut tree was brought down from the mountains. It has a large, peculiarly shaped hollow inside it, with an even more peculiar growth inside the hollow itself. The huge tree stump reminded people of, you know what (you might have guessed it already). In 1958 a shrine was the tree. It is said that couples that enter the tree together and pray will be blessed with both fertility and longevity and the shrine is full of the earnest prayers of couples wishing to have a baby. For 300 yen a priest will open the shrine for you and explain the necessary ceremony to maximize your chances to conceive. Even though I went there alone I would have loved to see it!
Since shintoism, the original religion of Japan, is an animistic religion there are quite a few shrines, ceremonies and rituals associated with human reproduction and all things related to it, although these days it is downplayed quite a bit to not offend western morals.
The area around the shrine is famous as a “power spot”, especially since it is exceptionally rich with rock crystals. The formations of rocky crystals were first discovered about a thousand years ago but it took off as products for the export market in the Edo period when skilled carvers were invited from Kyoto, to develop the local industry. Today there are quite a few souvenir shops selling crystals and stone decorations in Mitake-Cho (the last two photos show one of these shops, and one that had a massive block of gorgeous deep blue sodalite by the entrance.