//By Alyssa Cantrell//
It’s a cold, windy night in Yurihonjo and my dashboard reads 7:45 as I pull into the parking lot of my destination. I park my car, grab my things, and head towards the front of the building. As I turn the corner I can hear the familiar thwack that I have become accustomed to—the satisfying sound of an arrow hitting its target. I have come here to practice kyudo, the ancient Japanese art of archery.
I pull open the huge sliding wooden door and shout out an onegai shimasu in greeting and the other members respond in kind. There are usually anywhere between five to twenty people present, depending on the day and the proximity of the next competition. Today is average, around ten to twelve people.
I leave my shoes in the genkan, the entryway, and walk in, nodding and murmuring onegai shimasu as I pass by people on my way to set down my things on a long, narrow table against the wall. As I sit down and begin to discard my fuzzy socks for more traditional Japanese ones called tabi, I glance around at the other members scattered about the dojo. A few middle-aged men sit at a small table in the middle of the room repairing old bowstrings. A young woman sits in seiza next to a small, portable heater in an attempt to stay warm while she puts on her kake, a special three-fingered glove worn on the right hand. A stout, elderly woman helps an elementary school girl in the training room while her father watches quietly. But it’s the archers in the shooting hall that my eyes are drawn to.
The wall between the main area and the shooting hall is mostly window, so I have a good view of the archers. Most of them practice in just their kyudogi, a thin, white robe that comes down to the knees, with sleeves that reach the elbows, though there are a few wearing the entire uniform as well: the obi, a sash worn around the waist, and the hakama, a pair of very loose-fitting dark blue trousers. The kyudo uniform is simple, yet elegant, and the archers cut a dignified figure as they stand in position, bows raised, arrows notched, ready to fire. Time stands still until they do, and the subsequent noise—either a thwack or a dull thump—announces whether or not their arrow hit its mark.
Either way, they do not allow their disappointment or their satisfaction to show on their face. They either simply move on to the next arrow that they have carefully hooked in place underneath their right pinky, or go back to the main hall to get two more.
Besides, in this style of archery, hitting the target is not what matters most. In kyudo, accuracy comes second to form. It is the precision and the beauty in the movements where the archer focuses their attention, and it is this mindset that sets kyudo apart from its more pragmatic Western counterpart. It is believed that when the stance is correct and proper care and attention has been given to form, that accuracy will inevitably follow. The phrase ‘seisha hitchu,’ or ‘true shooting, certain hitting,’ embodies this idea.
The movements are classified into eight steps, called hassen, that guide the archer through the sequence—from the correct way of approaching the target to conducting themselves after the arrow has been released. Most of the steps are very practical and provide instruction on correct posture, such as ashibumi, which outlines proper footing, and dozukuri, which focuses on stance. But many are quite ceremonial and provide instruction for spiritual development, such as yugamae, which has the archer contemplate the target before shooting, and zanshin, the step after release which has the archer hold their position, right arm still thrown out behind them, and consider the spiritual energy put into the shot.
The idea that physical and spiritual development are intertwined is not uncommon in budo, Japanese martial arts. Kyudo not only provides instruction for how to train up one’s body, but how to live one’s life outside of the dojo as well. The precision and care put into one’s movements during hassen can be applied to every aspect of life. After every practice, when the members work together to keep the dojo and kyudo equipment clean, that cooperative spirit and the respect for the things we have been allowed to use should be considered when handling anything that isn’t ours. And when we finish cleaning and thank each other for our hard work, we should remember to show the same kind of appreciation and gratitude to others in our life.
I always feel very calm after a kyudo session. It is very meditative and allows for a lot of time for reflection. The fact that it is something that can be done individually, at one’s own pace, lends to this. But like many things in Japan, even while being individual, it is cooperative. Everyone helps everyone, giving advice and correcting each other’s posture, helping each other improve. And after being only on the receiving end of a lot of much-needed patient, helpful advice, I was finally able to return the favor to a friend who was interested in learning the basics. Hopefully they come to appreciate kyudo as a beautiful, meaningful art form as much as I have.