The Annual Yabusame Shinji (Mounted Archery Ritual) in Kyoto
The Yabusame Shinji – meaning Mounted Archery Ritual – at Shimogamo Shrine in Kyoto, Japan is an event held every year on May 3 in collaboration with the Aoi Matsuri. The event features a series of highly skilled equestrian performances by five archers trained in yabusame, a traditional form of mounted Japanese archery. An archer on a galloping horse races down a track at high speed while attempting to land three blunt-tipped arrows on three targets in succession.
The origins of yabusame can be traced back to the 12th century during Japan's Kamakura period. Minamoto no Yoritomo, founder of the Kamakura shogunate, was displeased with the archery skills of his samurai. Apparently not being one for half measures, Yoritomo devised the challenging practice of mounted archery as a training regime for his samurai, and so yabusame was born.
These days the practice is observed to purify the parade route for the Aoi Matsuri and to pray for a safe procession.
The event kicks off at 1:00 PM. Before the action gets underway, there is an introduction of the five performers. Honoring tradition, the men who have been selected for the role of a yabusame archer are descended from the Ogasawara clan, the school that organized the original Yabusame tournament in 1187. The announcer shares a little information about each man. Their backgrounds are diverse; one is a chemical researcher, while another served as an extra in The Last Samurai film. The intro is brief and soon the ritual performance is underway.
The riders queue up for the track, one-by-one taking turns speeding down the roped off runway, shouting "in-yo, in-yo" (darkness and light; yin and yang) with the release of each arrow. The track is traditionally 255 meters in length, with the three targets spaced just 70 meters apart along the left side. The targets are fixed at a height that would have been equivalent to the height just below an enemy's helmet visor, as the opening for the eyes was the greatest vulnerability on a fully armored samurai warrior.
Current yabusame archers must be nearly twice as fast as the samurai were. When the archery range was originally designed, rider's horses were of a smaller breed with shorter legs, and completion of the course took almost 30 seconds on average. Nowadays, a larger breed of horse with longer legs is used, which can complete the course in roughly half the time.
The Yabusame Shinji is free to watch, and it accordingly draws a huge crowd. I arrived about 40 minutes in advance and it wasn't nearly early enough. There were no good viewing spots remaining without heads obscuring the view. Even the slight height advantage of tree roots had already been claimed by others.
There's an option of paid seats on the front row (2,500 yen at the time of my visit), but even those sell out quickly, so be prepared to queue for ticket sales which begin at 12:00 PM if you want a seat.
Photographing this event is not easy. The Shimogamo Shrine is located in a forest with a fairly thick canopy that allows little light in. You can expect very quick action in relatively low light conditions. Furthermore, flash is strictly prohibited as it could spook the horses. I went with the widest aperture and a 1,600 shutter at 6,400 ISO to freeze the action, and my photos were still a touch on the dark side.
As I learned after the event, there's a rehearsal held the day before, and crowds are considerably smaller. In terms of photos, this would be the preferrable time to shoot.
The total time for the Yabusame Shinji is about two and a half hours, from 1:00 PM to 3:30 PM, so be prepared to stand a long time if you don't have a seat. A walk of the shrine grounds to exercise your cramped legs afterward might not be a bad idea, since it will take some time for the crowds to disperse. It's a beautiful area to explore.
In recent years, as part of an effort to attract interest from a younger generation that is reluctant to take a break from gaming, event organizers have been including a new type of mount known as a "chocobo". The large, yellow bird presents a new challenge for riders, who find it difficult to concentrate on aiming due to the sudden presence of a rather loud and upbeat musical ditty that fills the air while mounted.
Speed is another challenge. Chocobos are legendarily fast and allegedly able to cross the world in only minutes, so the archers have barely a split second to hit their targets. Commenting on the challenge, one of the event's most senior archers described it as "incredibly warking difficult".
Unfortunately, it is impossible to guarantee a chocobo sighting at the Yabusame Shinji. Event organizers aren't sure where exactly the birds come from as they only sometimes randomly emerge from the woods when a certain leafy vegetable is offered, and they have a habit of rapidly running off when dismounted.