Yabusame: The Japanese Art of Horseback Archery


Horses and archery probably aren’t the first things that come to mind when you think of Japan, but in fact, bows date back to Japan’s prehistoric Jomon era (14,000-300 BC) and historical records of mounted archery date back to at least the end of the Heian period (794-1191). These days, you sometimes hear about festivals featuring an old custom known as “yabusame,” where an archer on a running horse shoots three special “turnip-headed” arrows at wooden targets in quick succession. It’s a rare chance to glimpse a page right out of Japanese history–a chance I took advantage of just a couple of months ago.


But first, a bit of history! How did yabusame come to be a part of Japanese culture? Well, mounted archers played an important role in the civil wars of the feudal era. According to some sources, yabusame was established during the Kamakura period (1185–1333) by Minamoto no Yoritomo, who became alarmed at his warriors’ lack of archery skills. He organized yabusame as a form of training for them. The sport came to be practiced as a divine rite offered by warriors to temples and shrines, in hopes of victory in battle. The custom of yabusame was interrupted in the turbulent Muromachi period (1334-1573), but it was revived during the Tokugawa period (1600-1867) by the eighth shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune. These days, yabusame is almost exclusively considered a religious rite; in addition to the aspect of offering involved, the archers’ performance is used as a means of divination for the year’s harvest.

Yabusame Event Poster

On October 8th, a Yabusame event was held at Toyama Park in the Takadanobaba neighborhood of western Tokyo. This area was actually historically associated with horses. During the Edo period, it was a riding ground where samurai trained in archery and horsemanship. A garden was constructed for Takatanokimi (the mother of Matsudaira Tadateru, the son of the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu). Thus, the area was called “Takata,” which later evolved into Takada(nobaba). According to the Shinjuku City website, the Takadanobaba style of yabusame began in 1728, when Tokugawa Yoshimune ordered it as a prayer offered at Anahachimangu Shrine for the healing of his son’s illness.


Before the ritual, the participants gather to pray for a successful conclusion of the rites, after which they proceed to the archery grounds. Above you can see the horses and riders making their way from the shrine to Toyama Park in preparation for the events to come. It’s always fun to see little bits of history juxtaposed against modern scenes of everyday life.


The actual rites took just about an hour, must of which was spent in anticipation, since the archery itself took relatively little time. This particular event in Takadanobaba seemed like it was probably more low-key than some of the bigger events I’ve heard about. Both the archers and the horses seemed a little less experienced than I was expecting, which resulted in some hilariousness (such as a horse stopping part way through the course and turning back to the beginning, only to be chased back down the track by a costumed assistant). But still, it was fun to see the colorfully-dressed archers attempting to hit the targets from horseback–it looked pretty difficult, so I’m not one to criticize! Plus, it was an excellent opportunity to practice taking pictures, which I definitely enjoyed.


It was fun to try and capture the riders and horses in mid-stride, with all of the excitement and emotion written on their faces. And being that this is Japan, I had plenty of SLR-toting companions in the crowd.

Graphic courtesy of Kasama Inari Jinja

My favorite thing about the event might have been the costumes, which were pretty great–sort of like what you’d think samurai cowboys would look like. The image above is a handy guide to to the complex set of clothing, which came in a variety of bright colors.


All in all, it was a very interesting glimpse into Japanese history. If you ever have a chance to go to one of the big yabusame events, I’d recommend it. They are held at various times of the year, generally near Shinto shrines. According to Wikipedia, the Aoi Matsuri (Hollyhock Festival) in Kyoto in May includes yabusame. Other locations include Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū in Kamakura, as well as Samukawa and on the beach at Zushi.

Here’s a pretty cool video (in real time and in slow motion) from 2009 at Samukawa Shrine:

You can compare this to my much less exciting attempt at video from the Takadanobaba event:

As you can see, the pace was a little bit slower. :)


Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the pictures and learned a little about Japanese history. I have so many posts waiting in my backlog–but I’m hoping to get more of these up in the near future! In the meantime, please take a moment to like A Modern Girl on Facebook! And your comments are always appreciated.

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