In 1606 a cocksure samurai named Asaoka Heibei gave a demonstration of his kyudo (archery) prowess at Sanjusangendo Temple shooting 100 arrows in rapid succession the length of the temple veranda (120 meters/394 feet) hitting the target 51 times. This was the beginning of the annual archery competition known as Toshiya.
The early competitions were something like an archery marathon including the Oyakazu event in which archers would shoot on average 10,000 arrows over a 24-hour period. This extreme archery competition was replaced in the late 19th Century by a more civilized version called O-mata Taikai (Festival of the Great Target). Now some 2,000 archers from all over Japan come to Sanjusangendo to shoot two arrows in two minutes at a target 60 meters (197 feet) away.
The timing of the event coincides with the Japanese national holiday Seijin no Hi (Coming of Age Day) which celebrates the passing from teenager to adult (20). For whatever reason, the participants in O-mato Taikai are predominantly female. I must say, it is an impressive sight to see hundreds and hundreds of young women dressed in gorgeous kimonos shooting arrows across a courtyard.
Like so many Japanese festivals O-mato Taikai is a magnificent spectacle. Colorful bunting hung from the eaves of the ancient temple and food vendors filled the east veranda with their equally vibrant booths. The west veranda, where the competition is held, had great medieval-style tents erected with red and white striped panels.
This is not your Olympic archery competition with high-tech graphite and aluminum recurve bows, sights and other doodads. These are beautiful wooden long bows, the same as what Heibei-san would have used in the 17th Century, requiring genuine agility and excellent vision. The female archers, dressed in kimonos and traditional hakama (a sort of pleated skirt worn over the kimono just below the bust line) bow before stepping onto the low wooden platform in their white tabi socks. Their movement is fluid and graceful, like a ballet dancer or master of t'ai chi.
Watching is something like being a spectator at a tennis match or golf tournament. The crowd is hushed. Except for the odd "Ohhh. Sugoi." when an archer has hit the target, there is no applause or reaction from the audience. You can literally hear the arrows whiz by and thunk in the 75 cm target, or clatter across the gravel when the archer loses their concentration. I was surprised at the speed with which the arrows travel. It is not difficult to watch it fly from the archer's bow to the target.
Only in Japan could a deadly weapon be turned into something of grace and beauty.