One of the greatest tourist attractions in Japan is the Nara Daibutsu, a huge buddha statue housed in the famous temple of Todaiji in Nara City, Nara Prefecture. Apart from the big statue itself there are plenty of smaller statues scattered around the main hall of the temple. The atmosphere is fantastic, air thick with incense smoke, prayers bells and the sunlight filtering in through the high windows. Well, at least if you go off season and on a weekday. Weekends and high season tends to get quite crowded especially recently with the absolute boom in overseas tourism.
There is statuary of all kinds of materials, millennium old wood carvings, bronzes and clay to name a few materials. If you have the opportunity to visit, spare a few minutes for the “other” art treasures of the Todaiji!
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!