More action packed photos of the grand Yabusame (mounted horse archery) event at Asaskusa’s Sumida Koen from a couple of weeks ago. I was too busy covering other parts of the event to be able to stand in line for tickets to the proper seats but I was just in time to get a good standing spot (free of charge and no lining up necessary) just at the beginning of the yabusame run. Close enough to smell the horses and get having to dusting of my camera and clothes after each run even. My first impression of Yabusame was similar to my first impression of sumo wrestling, in that there is a great deal of ceremony, parading and ritual, and in between fast and furious violent action that is often over in the blink of an eye. Yabusame is very much like that. In the photos it might seem almost leisurely but in real time the horses are gone past before you know it. On previous years I have had photos where the arrow is still in the air on its way to the target while the horse and archers has completely passed out of the frame even! Thank you Nikon, for making these high tech fast shooting cameras for us!
One weekend a year is heaven for all fans of Yabusame, the traditional mounted horse archery of Japan, and easily one the rarest forms of martial arts in the country. It is the weekend when you can see the archery in Asakusa on Saturday and the traditional show in Kamakura on Sunday. This year I only had time to visit one of them and so I picked the one in Asakusa. It has been years since I visited and it seems to be much more well organized these days with orderly lines of people, mostly tourists, waiting from early in the morning to get tickets to the best seats. In my opinion, the best seats are just before or about 10 meters of one of the three traditional targets.
Although the form of the sport has remained the same for at least a millennia, the horses have not. The traditional Japanese samurai horse has largely disappeared and been replaced by much bigger and much faster horses, making the sport many times as dangerous and difficult as it used to be. The larger modern horses can cover the distance between two targets more than twice as fast as the smaller horses of the older times, giving the archers very little time to draw their arrows and aim for the targets. The faster the horse, the less likely the archer is to hit his target. It is a very action filled sport, as the audience is just a couple of yards away from the thundering horses, often close enough to get showered in dust!
I will post more photos during the week so stay tuned, but for now please enjoy the horses, the archers and the colorful costumes they are wearing!
The wonderful tiny Goryo Shrine in the city of Kamakura to the southwest of Tokyo is dedicated to the 11th century warrior Kamakura Gongoro Kagemasa, born in 1069 A.D. He was a samurai of the might Taira clan, and his first claim to fame was in 1085 during the Gosannen War when he fought for the Minamoto clan. During the early part of the battle his eye was shot through by an enemy arrow, piercing his visor. From his point on the stockade he quickly pulled out his own bow and slew his attacker with a single arrow. Despite having the arrow lodged in his eye socket he continued fighting until his side finally won. Safely back in camp one of his friends volunteered to pull the arrow out by putting his foot Gongoro’s forehead, a huge insult to any self respecting samurai. After having berated the poor fellow for his lack of manners Gongoro had the arrow removed in a more honorable fashion. To commemorate his bravery the shrine to this day is marked with a crest showing two arrows fletchings and people with eye problems traditionally comes here to pray. Naturally, his physical bravery and good reputation proved to be a hit with the ladies and he sired not one but two mighty samurai clans, the Nagae and Kagawa clans. By enshrining his spirit in this shrine it is hoped that his soul will find rest and that it won’t be back to haunt his former enemies.
Another peculiar thing with this shrine is how close it is to the train line of the Enoden Line, which runs barely a couple of feet from the front gate of the shrine, making it a popular spot for trainspotters and photographers alike. The shrine is also the home of many famous trees and even more Gongoro memorabilia which I will talk about later. Among locals, the shrine is often called Gongoro-san, to show respect and familiarity with the great samurai.
One of my favorite shrines in the city of Kamakura southwest of Tokyo in the neighboring Kanagawa Prefecture is the Goryo Jinja (with the name meaning roughly “a shrine dedicated to a honorable soul”). The shrine was founded sometime in the latter half of the 12th century when Kamakura was the capital of Japan to honor and appease the spirit of a great warrior. The shrine is easily accessible from Hase Station on the Enoshima Line or by a rather long walk from Kamakura station, but it is well worth the visit as there are two great temples in the same area, the Hasedera and the Big Buddha of Kamakura. More photos of the shrine, the trees and the story behind the man who inspired it to come!