Kyudo - The Way of the Bow


Sensei Oueda is very thoughtful. At 85, he has every right to take his time and think about the passion that has taken most of his life.

“I pull the bow in such a way that it really”, and he pauses, “adheres to my body”. After a while he says, “I become the bow… ”

The Sensei has just performed the opening ceremony of an archery competition in Kyoto, for many Japan’s spiritual heart. He is tall and dignified with a shock of pure white hair. He was a physicist for his working life and took up Kyudo - ‘The Way of the Japanese Bow’ - in his late twenties.

“For fifteen years, I just wanted to hit the target but then I became influenced by a student of a really great master, Mr. Awa”.

It was only then that the full significance of Kyudo became clear to him; because strangely, Awa was not really interested in hitting the target at all… The Bow (or ‘Yumi’), has been central to Japanese culture for centuries. It is seen as a cultic and ritual object but also an object of great aesthetic beauty. Historical contact between China and Japan had a great influence on Japanese archery, especially the Confucian belief that through a person’s archery their true character could be determined.

The plucking of the bowstring forms part of an ancient ritual of the shamans in Japan, which opens a channel for them to the next world. The ‘Hama-Yumi’, or the “evil-destroying bow” is used in numerous ceremonies in Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, and is set up in a place of honour to guard against evil and is seen as an object of purification.

Modern Kyudo is descended from the Heki school of Kyujutsu, the art of killing by the bow. Of course, in Japan it is only a few generations since the old ways of combat were replaced by modern weapons and indeed Kyudo, like Japanese swordsmanship, was the preserve of the Samurai - an idealised and refined warrior class.

On a cold February night, dozens of ‘little Samurai’ are practicing after school at Sensei Ito’s Dojo (practice hall) in the hills above Kyoto. A mix of boys and girls of mostly High School age, they stand, regal in their ‘Hakama’ (wide skirt) before huge straw barrels. These are called ‘Makiwara’ and they provide close range target practice so the students can study their form and stance in the mirrors that surround them. Ito passes through the groups adjusting an elbow here, shifting a foot there.

Aya, 13, stands back from the group. She is small and serious with a determined face.

“I was passing a temple and saw a lot of Kyudo people shooting”, she says. “They looked very shiny and grand. I wanted to try… ”.

“I’m very happy to be doing something traditional. I only practice twice a week but it’s a challenge to me. I need great concentration… ”.

For Ha Na Ka Seito, 13, Kyudo is simple.

”…When I hold the bow, I can hold emptiness in my mind… ”. At the other end of the Dojo, archers in rows aim at circular targets (’mata’) thirty metres away into the dark night. The sound of the bow strings releasing with a ‘twang’ is hypnotic and you find yourself, without looking, waiting to hear the ‘chunk’ of the arrow hitting the target or the ‘hiss’ as it drives into the sand surround. It is a kind of music.

“The ‘power’ for the shooting comes from just below the stomach - “The centre of the body” says Oueda.

The Japanese call this the ‘Tanden’ - a region just below the navel. Each movement of the shooting is co-coordinated with the archer’s breath. At the more experienced level of practice, the archer is attempting to release the bowstring when his energy levels reach their peak. It has been said that the target becomes the mirror of the archer’s soul. The shape of the ‘Yumi’ physically frames the whole process.

Indeed, says Oueda,

“Western people tend to think logically about hitting the target. This is a burden… ”

The Japanese bow looks very odd. Its centre of gravity is very low - sixty percent of the bow is above the archer’s hand and it’s not held at shoulder level. As soon as the arrow is “knocked” into position, the bow is held with the arms nearly at full stretch, above the archer’s head. To draw the bow, the archer must pull his arms apart until the head of the arrow peeks a little from the edge of the bow. After some six seconds at this full stretch, the archer releases the bowstring. “If you want to learn about the bow, you had better see Mr. Chibata” says Nakagawa Sensei over a bowl of food in his noodle shop.

“He’s been making bows a long time”.

Nakagawa, an unassuming and rather humble man in his sixties is one of the most respected archers in Japan. His tiny frame belies the strength of mind that decades of Kyudo have given him.

In fact, Chibata Kanjuro belongs to a family that has been making bows for 21 generations. His wife answers the door at their tiny but historic house and we edge past a very modern and very large SUV in the courtyard. Chibata, 52, is sitting cross-legged on a raised platform (only 150 years old) banging in staves around a bow that he has just started to work on. He is short and stocky, gruff and unshaven - every inch a craftsman. With the staves hammered around the seven-foot bow, it looks like the spine of a great beast. Chibata works quickly on the bow, lost in his thoughts. He is absorbed and until he finishes doesn’t speak.

“There are five curves to the Umi,” says Chibata, sweating slightly after the work. “In Japan, our clothes, our art - many things are largely imported, but this bow is uniquely ours.”

The bow itself is a delicate sandwich of bamboo layered around four or five pieces of bamboo inside. It is this design that gives the bow its incredible shape and strength. Chibata cuts the bamboo himself usually during December and uses wood that is about thirty years old. “The best bamboo comes from Kyoto,“ he says with a smile. “The bamboo I use, I cut myself”.

“I still shoot but I’d like to be known as a good bow maker before a good archer”. His small dog sniffs the air and somewhere a temple bell rings.

“This is my utopia”. He says as he picks up his tools again. In the 1930s, Eugan Herrigal, a German Professor who had lived in Japan for many years, decided to learn Kyudo and its spiritual underpinning, Zen, as a clue to understanding the Japanese mind. At this time, Japan was on a cusp of great change and Herrigal had much difficulty in persuading a master to accept him. One finally did. His name was Sensei Awa. It took Herrigal a year before he was allowed to put an arrow in the bow. Herrigal was starting to understand that Kyudo was not just about Kyudo…

In the draughty Seiro-Ji temple in Hikone, an hour or so from Kyoto, Somyo-San, a burly but ever-smiling Zen priest from the Soto school walks barefoot, trying to explain the Japanese concept of Zen.

Passing a raked sand garden and a newly refurbished meditation hall, his task is of course impossible. Zen is infuriatingly unexplainable. Not a religion per se, rather it is a state of mind: simply the ‘everyday mind’ as proclaimed by Basho (d. 788). It is no more than ‘sleeping when tired, eating when hungry’. As soon as one reflects or tries to intellectualise, the fleeting insight has vanished - our conscious mind gets in the way. Activities like meditation (Zazen - literally, sitting meditation), allow the mind to return to its original quiet, harmonious state. The monks here sit for up to six hours a day. The rest of the time is taken with ‘sammu’ or work - cleaning and cooking and so on - all the time with the ‘Zen mind’. One simply has to do Zen to attempt to understand it.

The warrior class in Japan readily adopted Zen, with its indifference to life and death, taking the cherry blossom, the frail and short-lived flower, as its emblem. For them, the realisation of emptiness (‘mu’) and non-attachment to material goals perfectly suited a life of constant danger and killing.

Indeed, Zen is the common root to so much that is Japanese - Noh Theatre, the Tea Ceremony, calligraphy and flower arranging amongst others. In Kyudo, Zen (goodness) forms a trinity with the ideas of truth (shin) and beauty (bi). Herrigal understood that Kyudo was a particular path on the road of Zen and was no less than a form of ‘Ritsuzen’ (standing Zen).

After six years of study, Herrigal left Japan and the face of his adopted country changed forever.

After the War Kyudo, like many of the martial arts, became a ‘sport’ and part of the national curriculum in schools. In this way, Kyudo adapted and survived the onslaught of modernity that has affected much of the surface of Japan. Within itself however, much beauty and wisdom remains.

The guardians of this tradition are the Senseis.

In a particularly Japanese way, they reinforce the rituals of Kyudo and demand blind obedience to their commands. There is a prescribed way to enter the practice hall, a precise way to walk, and a precise way to breathe. All of these things are important not just in themselves but because, with constant repetition, of what they allow the mind to do.

The shooting has finished and white slippered feet make patterns on the polished wood floor as they exit. A teenage boy who has just started Kyudo comes back to sweep the boards.

“My body is wearing out,” says Sensei Ito with seeming indifference. “So my work now is to help others and teach ‘wa’ (harmony) through Kyudo”. “You know, Kyudo is tough, you have to fight with yourself… and find truth and virtue”.

Oueda agrees.

“Kyudo makes me very happy - I pull the string very smoothly and my energy gathers… Kyudo is like a drop of rain falling from a leaf… it builds and builds (like the drawing of the bow) and then ‘plop’. The moment is the same and I feel happy about that”.

© Stuart Freedman