Little Adventures in Tokyo

Tokyo Life Trends & Culture - December 11th, 1987

by Rick Kennedy

A rare glimpse of the elegant sport called kyudo

Kyudo is Japanese archery, a martial art born of war which has evolved into a graceful, contemplative ritual. Its intricate technique is enor­mously demanding: I know a man who has spent six years studying kyudo, practicing al­most every day, who is quick to say he has only scratched the surface; I have a strong impression that this is not just pro forma Japanese modesty.

Kyudo is a good deal less in the public eye than the more flamboyantly aggressive mar­tial arts like judo or kendo or karate (which is not native to these shores anyway) partly, one supposes, because it has absolutely no practical applica­tion—you are unlikely to have an arrow and a long Japanese bow handy when you next en­counter a mugger—but also because the sport can only be viewed at a kyudo dojo (prac­tice hall), of which there are only about 100 in all of To­kyo, most of them hidden away down back alleys.

Nor are kyudo dojo places for the casual gawker. Usually, to be formally introduced to a dojo you must convince someone who is already asso­ciated with it that you are seriously interested in learning the sport, and this might well involve getting yourself fitted out with a complete practice uniform at a cost of about ¥15,000 just to demonstrate your sincerity. Only after you have managed to establish your good faith do you stand a chance of being introduced to the dojo’s teacher or sensei.

Then, if the sensei agrees to take you on, you can plan on spending several months practicing the basic sequence of forms with a faintly ridicu­lous training  aid called the gomuyumi (the “rubber bow,” a section of bamboo with a long rubber band attached to one end), bolstered only by occasional advice from any member of the dojo who deigns to interest themselves in the faltering progress of a rank beginner, before—at long last—comes the grand day when the sensei hands you a real bow. From this point you still have a long way to go before you can expect to be allowed to stand on the firing line and shoot at an actual target.

So you can see that to be admitted to a kyudo dojo to witness a practice session is an extraordinary privilege. For­tunately, one particular dojo in Tokyo is genuinely accom­modating to people who would like to witness a practice session with a view to deciding whether or not to take up the sport. The dojo of Toshima Ward is now the oldest in Tokyo, all of the city’s dojo having been destroyed during the war and the sport banned by the Occupation authorities.

The dojo’s teacher is Onuma-sensei. Seventy-seven years old but with the body of a man 25 years younger, he’s been practicing kyudo for 70 years and is one of the sport’s acknowledged masters. (It was Onuma-sensei who got the ban on kyudo lifted after the war, two years before it was lifted from the other Japanese martial arts, by con­vincing the authorities that kyudo was in a special category.) Onuma-sensei’s dojo is not as elaborate as other dojo with communities more flush than Toshima-ku behind it, but because of Onuma-sensei, a 15th-generation practitioner of the art, this dojo occupies a central position in the sport. Kyudo devotees come from all over the world to practice here.

Several days before you plan to visit the dojo, you should call Onuma-sensei’s archery-equipment shop in Otsuka before 6 p.m. at 986-9751 to assure him of your interest and to find out when the practice sessions will be held. There is practice almost every day, Saturdays being generally the best attended. It goes without saying that if you go, you should have more than a passing curiosity about the sport. You should not drop in unannounced in the middle of a practice session, which can run to three hours, nor should you plan to leave be­fore it is over. And during the practice you should be as unobstrusive as possible so as not to disturb the concentration of the archers.

But the experience may change your life. You may find that after you have witnessed kyudo up close that you would like to reserve a space in your own cluttered life for this elegant sport, which pro­mises to teach more than just how to shoot a length of feathered bamboo through a circle of paper.

So, having gotten Onuma-sensei’s assent, take the Yamanote Line to Otsuka (“Big Moon”) and leave the station by the exit to the right as the train comes from Ikebukuro— the Minami Exit. The Toden trolley line, the city’s last municipal trolley, clangs by in front of the station on its way to Waseda University at the end of the line, a little adven­ture for another day, perhaps. Follow the trolley tracks up the slope to the right. You are in a typical Tokyo neighbor­hood of bicycles, little bars teetering on the edge of re­spectability and pachinko par­lors on opposite sides of the road trying to drown each other out with blaring martial music and a patter of frantic announcements.

On the other side of the trolley tracks as you make your way up the hill are a couple of cheap restaurants specializing in chuka ryori, the Japanese version of every-day Chinese cooking. A bowl of ramen noodles for ¥400 at one of them will keep hunger in its place as you watch the prac­tice.

Going up the hill you will also pass the shop of Yamaguchi, dealer in fine swords, whose dignified window dis­play gives a clue to the vener­ated position of the martial arts in this country.

Peeking over the top of the hill you will see Ikebukuro’s Sunshine Building, at 60 stories the tallest building in Japan, and at the top of the hill you will run into Kasuga Dori, a major street (it has a name, after all). Look to the left and you will see the large yellow sign, surmounted by a round target, of Onuma-sensei’s shop, Asahi Kyugu or Asahi Arch­ery Equipment.

Even if you have called him previously, you may want to present yourself to Onuma-sensei at the shop before going on to the dojo. Certainly a look at the shop’s array of kyudo equipment will be in­structive: the deerskin gloves with bone-enforced thumb guard which, when you reach a certain rank, can be emblazoned with the family crest, the finely crafted bamboo ar­rows feathered with the tail plumage of a hawk or an eagle, and the laminated bam­boo bows with a pull of up to 25 kilos or even more—to be held fully drawn without strain until the moment of release— which can cost up to ¥20,000.

The shop also carries west­ern archery equipment, which with its mass of pulleys, bal­ances and aiming devices is in sharp contrast to the mechani­cally very simple Japanese equipment. The shop sells for ¥500 a little book called “Japanese Archery, The Eight Rules,” written by Onuma-sensei when he was Professor of Archery at the Gakushuin (Peers) University. The book, a nice keepsake, gives a hint of the complexity of the sport in its illustrations naming the 27 basic parts of the bow and the 11 basic parts of the arrow.

Having paid your respects to Onuma-sensei, make your way back down Kasuga Dori to the right past the Shell station and turn left at the Nissan dealer at the corner. Go to the end of the road to the baseball field and turn right and enter the building. (If you get lost, ask for Toshima Sogo Taiku-kan.) You will see the entrance to the dojo on the right, with boxes for everyone’s shoes. Enter, bow and greet every­one with a cheery “Konnichiwa!

Practice begins with every­one (including you) lining up in ranks on the dojo’s polished hardwood floor and, at a signal, bowing to the diety of the dojo.   Onuma-sensei  will then say “Seiza!” and everyone will sit in silence with their legs tucked under them on the floor for a few minutes (it will seem longer) in order to become calm. The only sound of plop, plop from the adjacent tennis court.

Then the archers’ names will be inscribed on the black­board, bows unwrapped, bow strings strung and waxed and the first five archers will slip across the floor to their posi­tions on the firing line. You will be offered a place in a little tatami area called the kamiza reserved for teachers and honored guests. From here you will be able to observe everything, to look right into the eyes of the archers, but you will not be able to observe the row of five paper targets 28 meters away across the greensward. But it is not neces­sary for you to observe the targets; what will engage you is the stately ritual of firing performed so slowly it seer underwater. Performed con­fidently and in a relaxed man­ner, it is beautiful to watch, a dream-like dance.

After a while you will begin to spot the talent: those archers who take their position solidly (“like a tree,” Onuma-sensei will insist), whose left hand locks the bow into posi­tion seemingly without effort, whose progression through the eight distinct forms is one fluid movement, to the point where the bow is fully drawn, the arrow tight against the cheek, wait-wait-wait, then the snap of release.

It is very apparent who is in control and who is still awash. Those in control show no emotion, even after the release and the muscles in their neck are always relaxed, even when the bow is fully drawn.

No one talks. The only sound is the creak of deerskin gloves as the bows are drawn and the swoosh of the release. Occasionally the teacher will say something like, “Keep your body straight!” or “Hold it. Hold it. Hooold it!” or “Unmmma TSAK!” (to indi­cate the feeling one should get from a good release), and the student will murmur an acknowledgement. This is teaching by suggestion, by the merest touch to an elbow a little too far forward. The goal is grace under pressure— the bow is sometimes held fully drawn for ten seconds or more—and a quiet humility.

By the end of the practice session every student will have been to the firing line five times and shot ten arrows altogether, hardly rapid fist. The score is kept on the black­board, but there is absolutely no sense of competition. Indeed, kyudo people are apt to speak of someone who can consistently hit the target as though he were good at a trivial trick, like shuffling a deck of cards.

After practice, everyone gathers on tatami mats around a low table for tea and sweet cakes and it is then you realize that the participants in this intensively choreographed dis­cipline, who have seemed so passionately detached from the world while they were shooting, are, in fact, just ordinary people after all.