Friday, September 10, 2010
The Way of the Bow
In the Spring, my family and I unexpectedly happened upon the Yabusame Archery demonstration (archery competition on horseback) in Kamakura. It was fascinating to watch, the skill, the tradition, the costumes. All of it screamed ancient Japan to me. I shared with some of my students that I had enjoyed watching this event and that my family had tried their hand from time to time with basic backyard archery. Watanabe-san shared that her husband had been taking lessons and studying this traditional Japanese archery technique at Engaku-ji in Kita-Kamakura. "Really?" I said, "Can we come watch some time?"
We moved on with our English conversation lesson, weeks and months passed by and I let it go. Maybe my request was too forward, too you know ... American. But Watanabe-san is a gracious Japanese lady and too my delight on the last lesson in July before summer break she came in with several dates and asked if our family would be available to meet her at the train station in Kita-Kamakura to go see her husband and his fellow archery students practice. I was thrilled! A window into this quiet, meditative art form of Kyudo.
A little research into the art of Kyudo and I found that it is considered a meditative form of martial arts and is said that it's essence is to be the pursuit of truth, goodness and beauty. Attitude, movement and technique come together to form a perfect state of harmony – where truth exists. A kyuko archer maintains his or her composure and grace even in times of stress or conflict – goodness comes from this, always displaying qualities of courtesy, compassion, morality and non-aggression. Beauty enhances life and stimulates the spirit, it is found in the refined etiquette that surrounds the kyudo ceremony.
No thoughts, No Illusions
In Kyudo, the when the archer gives oneself completely to the shooting, then it is said they have reached the spiritual goal through the perfection of the shooting and the spirit - there are no thoughts, no illusions.
It was a sweltering August morning when we arrived at the Engaku-ji Temple in Kita-Kamakura. This is a Zen temple, one of the larger temples in the area, with beautiful grounds and a huge bell, cast in 1301 (no, that's not a typo), that is a Japanese National Treasure (at the top of 140 steps ... which Watanabe-san managed to knock out easily while I tried hard not to sound like I was about to go into cardiac arrest as I tried to keep up with her).
Watanabe-san guided us to a small area off to the side of the main temple grounds where there was a lovely traditional Japanese building and a small garden area. Those of you who have been reading my posts over the last year have heard me mention before how welcoming the Japanese are, when you're their guest you are treated like royalty. I should not have been surprised but I wasn't expecting anything ... just that we would have the opportunity to see someone shoot these very long and elegant bows and be on our way. I should have known better. We are greeted by a Japanese lady in traditional Kyudo attire, after introductions and bowing we are guided to an area that has clearly been prepared for us. Two benches are covered in royalty red cloth, incense has been lit around the area to keep away the mosquitoes, and no sooner are we seated than we are presented with iced tea with sugar pats. Unlike the sweet tea I grew up with in the south (so sweet it makes your fillings hurt as one of my friends used to say), tea here in Japan is offered unsweetened with beautiful little sugar "cubes" that have been molded into a shape (see photo). I have to instruct my family that you place the sugar pat on your tongue and sip the tea, not plop the sugar pat into the cup and swirl it around until it's dissolved!
With refreshments served, we settle in to watch the members practice. I learn from Watanabe-san that her husband has been studying Kyudo for 10 years and this is the first time she has seen him practice. I sit there for a moment and ponder this revelation and realize this was no simple request from me months ago ... I cringe and hope we have not caused undue disruption as honored guests, but so grateful to have another opportunity to learn about another part of Japanese culture.
Thoughts that stuck me that morning ... it was blazing hot and humid even in the shade, the cicadas are humming their incessantly loud song, butterfly's are floating and darting through the thick summer air, the aroma of incense lingers, a slight breeze stirs the leaves and even though we are only steps away from the JR tracks that run from Yokosuka to Tokyo we are in another world. Time has slowed, daily worries are gone. The kyudo students move with grace, every step, every moment seems to be measured, thoughtful.
Hassetsu - Eight stages of shooting
It was evident to me that as we started to watch there is a very clear set of rules, stages I was to learn later, that the archer must work their way through before ever releasing the arrow. There were three different positions and if you notice in one of the photos, you'll see three tiny flower bud vases at the edge of the building, this is the sort of "x marks the spot" from where the archer lines themselves up. This is as much mental as physical - the archer takes the time to examine, meditate, examine some more - very Eastern mentality. There is nothing hurried about this martial art. Our family all sort of chuckled later to think about how Westerners would just grab the bow and arrow, get yourself comfortable and "fire at will."
There's so much I hope our kids took away from this experience - faster is not better would be one thing that comes to mind. Opening your mind to learn about other cultures makes you a better and richer person would be another. Etiquette, while we may not always be the best practitioner's of this at home as we slog through our busy family life, does matter (yes mom, you did read that here! Those white-gloved manners lessons in our living room from years ago do still come into play).
I left Engaku-ji a little bit different, part of my Western mentality so ingrained in me chipped away and reshaped with Eastern. No thoughts, no illusions ... I love this, it may just have to become my new mantra. I am so thankful to Watanabe-san and her husband for arranging this very special morning for me and my family. It has been added to our family highlights of living in Japan and will be a memory we will treasure. Till next time, sayonara.
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