My experience of Kyudo in Japan

Part one - what got me going

Part two - practicing kyudo.

Part three - some problems I have had (still have!)

Part four - rules we have in the dojo, and things we do

Part five - equipment

Books I recommend

These book help, but nothing replaces a good teacher

Morisawa, J. S. 1984. The Secret of the Target. Routledge, New York and London.
This is the better book because it explains things in great detail. I like this book very much.

Kyudo Manual. (1992?) Volume 1. Principles of Shooting (revised edition). All Nippon Kyudo Federation.
This book explains much more about etiquette and less about actually shooting the arrow, despite its title. It is available directly from ANKF for 3,000 yen. You can write or fax and they will send the book and an invoice. Volumes 2 and 3 are not translated.
All Nippon Kyudo Federation
1-1-1 Jinnan, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, Japan
Tel: +81-3-3481-2387
Fax: +81-3-3481-2398

Part one - what got me going

I first started to learn kyudo in 1988 when friends at work (University of Tsukuba) invited me to join their club. The club - called the Sakura Kyudo Kai - was held at the university kyudo dojo, quite close to my department. The members consisted of all kinds of people, not necessarily connected to the university. Any new member was welcome.

I was lucky that the university had a rather salubrious 12 target dojo, with a small three target dojo at the side for special purposes, including the Sakura club. I became good friends with the professor of kyudo, Mori-sensei, and he allowed me to come and practice any time, so I often came lunchtimes.

Sakura club met on Saturday afternoons, and I spent many good times with these very friendly people. Soon after I started to practice with wooden stick and rubber band, the university arranged a special 5 weekend course, that I joined. This set me on the road to understanding a little about kyudo, but it was very difficult because my knowledge of Japanese was very poor at the time. Nevertheless, it was relatively simple to copy the teachers, although I did miss some important points that I found out later, such as the way to position the right thumb inside the glove. For the course all equipment was provided. If you come to Japan without equipment and want to join a club, it is more than likely they will have some spare equipment you can borrow at first, especially as new equipment is rather expensive (more about that later).

By the end of the five weekend course, most of the course members were able to use a bow and shoot at the target (mato). However, looking back at it now I realise that this was far too early. The teachers thought that to stimulate interest in the sport they must try to give new people the chance to shoot at the target. It is only later that keen kyudoka (players of kyudo) realise that they must spend much more time at the makiwara (the straw bundle used for practice without the mato).

I often watched the university club practice. These students had started kyudo in high school, and most of them were very good. Despite their very superior skills, I realised later that their attitude towards kyudo was immature. They were often castigated by the senior professor for unseemly conduct - for example by cheering when someone did exceptionally well at hitting the target. I guess that as you are reading this then you may realise that hitting the target is not the primary purpose of kyudo. Because of high level competitions between young people in kyudo, it is seen more of a competitive sport by young eyes, rather than as a kind of philosophy.

But I enjoyed watching the skills of the students, and it was music to me when the two who would collect the arrows would sing "atariiiiiiiii" when an arrow hit the target. It is a beautiful sound that I will never forget.

At Tsukuba I learnt the Heki (or Hegi) style, which is apparently the style more used by warriors. I practiced regularly for about two years before taking my sho-Dan (first Dan) exam. Because of my poor Japanese skills at that time, I was not required to take the written exam (which is pretty simple at that level anyway).

The first several levels of Dan in kyudo are apparently not particularly difficult to attain. After passing one level there is a minimum period required before attempting the next level. To get 4th Dan and over becomes suddenly rather difficult and some people make many attempts even to get 4th Dan. The Dan levels go up to ten, but I think there is probably only one or two people in Japan at ten. A 6th Dan is usually a very competent kyudo archer, and is probably already a sensei (both my current teachers are 6 Dan).

In early 1990 I went to the USA, and although I took a new glass fibre bow and my arrows and all other necessities, the chance for me to practice turned out to be zero. After the USA I returned to Australia, but still no chance to find a kyudo dojo or sensei, and it was only after I returned to Japan in 1993 that I had the chance to practice again.

I am now a member of a club that has a tiny dojo (three target) within the local city hall facilities. It is a miserable dojo in the sense that it is an unaesthetic concrete side addition to the local swimming pool, but the people are very friendly and kind, and so it is easy to forget about the uninspiring surroundings. Better still, within two years a completely new dojo and other sports facilities will be built nearby. The new dojo will have 15 target space, making it one of the largest in the area. I was at first disappointed that it will be underground (it seems unnatural) but with the limited amount of space in Tokyo it seems it is the only answer. At least we won't freeze in the winter (I got two bouts of 'flu this year because I got too cold at playing kyudo on cold winter's evenings) and we can be cool in the summer and won't have to fight off the mosquitoes!!

Because of my long time away from kyudo, I had to virtually start again. I was more than happy when a 5 weekend course for local residents came up similar to the one that got me started n 1988. At Mitaka they use the normal style of setting the bow, which I found at first to be rather difficult after the Heki draw used in Tsukuba, but now I rather prefer.

At this course it was quite surprising that not only was I the only foreigner, but I was also the only male! After a short time another male foreigner joined us (he is Spanish) but no Japanese males. The teachers were mostly males in their 50's, and very kind, patient and skilled. One teacher is in his 80's, and although his physical strength is ebbing as well as his steadiness, he is an inspiration for all of us. The main teacher can speak a little English but quite good Spanish, but as my Japanese is now much improved, I had little problem in understanding most of the explanations.

The whole point of these short courses is just to give people a small flavour of the art of kyudo. People who want to go further then join the club and practice regularly. From the course there are now 8 regular kyudoka. Six of these will take the sho-Dan exam soon. They still have very rough edges in their skills, but as the teacher says, you don't sharpen a knife using the finest stone first.

Part two - practicing kyudo.

Actually doing kyudo is difficult and requires a lot of patience and even a little courage. New people to kyudo always practice the style of setting the bow with just their arms or with a small stick and large elastic band. It is not possible to shoot using the bow for quite some time until the whole procedure for holding and setting the bow, and then shooting the arrow, is roughly learnt. This is because if you try to shoot an arrow and you don't really know how, you could badly injure yourself and possible others near you. There are also safety measures and procedures that must be strictly adhered to to avoid accidents. As most kyudoka are older teenagers or adults, these safety items present no problems in procedure.

Once the basics of setting the arrow are learnt, it comes to refining and improving the very coarse edges. This is what takes time - many years in fact - and a lot of practice. The only way to shot an arrow beautifully and to the target is by a huge amount of practice. But, just as it is impossible to play difficult Chopin on the piano when you are a beginner, it is also impossible to be able to shoot the arrow with the pure refinement of an expert until many years of practice have passed.

Obviously different people have different levels of learning, and some people can proceed more quickly. But senior kyudoka say that those who learn fast at the beginning learn more slowly later. What they are saying is that you must take time and be patient and build up a strong base for later refinement. I think of this as a kind of pyramid, where the finer skills sit atop the very broad and firm base.

So my advice is don't rush it, you may get frustrated if you do, and you can be assured that if your further skills are to be refined they rest better on a solid foundation. It is hard to give a good example, except perhaps an analogous one. You can't shoot a true arrow if your whole body is not pushed firmly onto the floor. If you try to shoot with light feet, then you will wobble all over the place. In other words, at the beginning of the setting sequence, you must set your feet apart and push the weight of your body onto them to give your self a strong and firm foundation for shooting. The whole of kyudo is like this.

Part three - some problems I have had (still have!)

Holding the bow - "te-no-uchi" (lit.: home of the hand). This is probably the most difficult part of kyudo. It is the one part that takes many years to really perfect. You can only learn it from a teacher, it is rather impossible to learn it from a book. The most difficult part after getting the actual pressure point correct is the exact amount of holding required to allow the bow to spin in the hand so that the string of the bow lightly touches the back of the arm after shooting. Perhaps here is the most frustrating part of kyudo - when I correcting things to do with holding the bow, new problems come into being!! For example, I finally managed to stop choking the bow too much and it was spinning nicely, but I then introduced a bad wobble in the top of the bow. Concentrating so much on getting the te-no-uchi right had made me forget many other parts of the release, and I was not expanding my chest enough, and also dragging down my right elbow.

Thus kyudo is great for letting you forget about other things in life, because you have to think nothing but what all the parts of your body are doing, there is little time left to worry about the daily problems of life. It is thus a very nice kind of meditation, leaving all your daily woes behind while you practice. The other thing I like about it is that here are a completely different set of people from all walks of life brought together by a common interest.

For some reason I have never like to hold the second arrow while shooting the first, and during practice I usually leave it on the floor. Recently I realise that I should really try to do the right thing and so I practiced with the arrow. Having the arrow gripped in my two smallest fingers made me forget about some other things to do with the hand in the glove, and instead of pointing my thumb out I forget about it and curved my thumb inwards. Disaster. I couldn't shoot the arrow because my thumb wouldn't let it go. I practiced on the makiwara and missed it altogether, hitting the wall. The arrow bounced backwards and just missed my teacher's wife! It was a little dangerous. All because of one "minor" thing. Thus, there is nothing minor in any position or action of any body part. It must all come together to act as a whole to make the release of the arrow a beautiful movement.

Part four - rules we have in the dojo, and things we do

There are some basic rules, but otherwise life is fairly relaxed. People are not deadly serious all the time, though they are often very earnest. It is quite OK during ordinary practice sessions to talk quietly, often laugh about things, while others are shooting. Some older people smoke (but the teacher doesn't like it I think). I took my two small children once and they made quite a lot of noise, plus all the cooing of the ladies over two cute blonde kids, it was not a very serious evening! Worse, when someone was shooting and missed the target, my five-year old boy said rather loudly "shippai" (failed) which from an adult would be disastrously rude, but from a small boy brought much amusement (and a little embarrassment for his father).
In the winter we have hot carpets to sit on between practice shooting, and also small electric fires. But it is still usually rather cold. We should really practice without any mind to the weather, as good proponents of "budo", but in reality people are not as tough as the soldiers of old and prefer some small comfort. In winter people usually wear extra warm clothing under the kyudogi. I wear a vest, a thermal vest, and a long sleeve T-shirt under my dogi, and long warm undertrousers (we call them Long John's in the UK) under the hakama. But still my feet usually freeze. In the summer it is the reverse, very humid and hot. The only thing to do is to bear it and hope a mosquito doesn't land on your nose while shooting.
The sensei often brings some omiyage (souvenir, always an edible kind) because he travels a lot in Japan for his business. So we sometimes take a break and eat them with ocha (green tea). Last year we had a bonnenkai (end of year party) and we all got rather inebriated. Afterwards the teacher took me off to karaoke with his wife!

Some regulations are as follows:
When the first to be ready for shooting (we have three targets) then always go in the front. This is because in normal form the more senior kyudoka go behind the junior. Thus if you directly go to the back it implies that you are better than anyone else and is VERY shitsurei (rude). Of course I made this mistake and it was only thought of amusingly because they knew I didn't know the regulation. But if anyone did it knowing the regulation the teacher would be very angry methinks. If the teacher goes first and you can't therefore go in front of him (or her) then it is quite OK to go behind with a small bow and a quiet "shitsurei".
Always wear dogi and hakama (kyudogi) when practicing (this is of course relaxed for new people, and there are times when it is difficult to wear kyudogi if just coming from work, so the rule is a general one).
Always practice with two arrows and use the proper style of approach to the shooting line. This means grasping the bow and arrows properly, kneeling, bowing, etc. In other words, even when in ordinary practice, maintain good form as part of the philosophy of kyudo.

There are other simple regulations, but I can't remember them just now. I'll get back to them later.

An unwritten regulation is that the person at the front of the group (of three in our case) usually retrieves the arrows, even if it is the sensei.

Of course safety is very important. No-one should ever pull the bow with an arrow unless they are facing the mato or makiwara. When someone retrieves the arrows they always put out a red flag. There is a reinforced glass window by the mato so that the retriever can check if any one is about to shoot. This is important as it is not always possible to count the arrows at the mato if a beginner has shot one into the grassy area. As a reminder of how deadly even these practice arrows are, the glass window is full of "bullet holes" made by arrows from the hands of beginnners! At Tsukuba people would clap their hands loudly as a reminder to others before entering the target area. Also people at the shooting end often call "onegai-shimasu!" (lit.: please do it) to let the arrow collector know that he can enter the area.

Last year a small boy somehow wandered into a kyudo dojo and was tragically killed by an arrow. So you must never under-estimate the great danger.

Part five - equipment

There is a great range of price and quality of bows and arrows. It all depends on how far you have got and how much you are able to use club equipment. If you are committed to making a go of it, then you should at least buy the basic kyudogi. This consists of the hakama (it looks like a kind of skirt, but for men at least it has sort of 'legs'), a small obi or belt called the haramaki, and the dogi, a white shirt. You will also need the toed cloth socks, called tabi, which are sold in centimetre length, as are all shoes in Japan. I have seen a maximum size of 29cm, which is about size 10 in the UK or European size 45. If you have larger feet you may need to go to a Sumo supplier! There are diagrams in the Morisawa book on how to put the things on, but your teacher or fellow kyudoka will help. In Japan these items are not so expensive if you are on a Japanese salary, but may seem expensive elsewhere. Anyway, I think perhaps close to 150-200 US dollars for the lot. It is certainly possible to buy quite fancy kyudogi, especially that for use on formal occasions. The hakama is worn slightly differently by women, around the waist rather than settled on the hips.

The next important buy would be the glove (yugake) which is at least 130-150 dollars. A good one can cost over a thousand dollars. They are usually made of deer leather, and the hard bit where the bow string is nocked is made of wood and covered in deer leather. The firm part that runs along the wrist should never be bent and you should make sure that it is never bent accidentally. Look after the glove as it is an expensive item. There are usually three or four finger gloves. Usually higher ranking kyudoka use four finger gloves, but I don't think there is any regulation about that. Always wear clean shitagake (a cotton inner glove) with your yugake. You should always sit when putting on your glove, and never wear your glove if you go and retrieve arrows.

Bows (yumi) come in various kilogram weights according to your strength and size. You must discuss with the bow supplier (who is often a maker of bamboo bows) the strength required and your arm length (or actually your yazuka, which is the measurement from your Adam's apple to the tips of your left hand fingers, plus another handwidth). If you are a very tall or short person you should mention your height. Male beginners start with a bow weight of 13 or 14 kg, females slightly less, and may graduate to a heavier bow later. The best way to determine the kg weight required is to test yourself by pulling two bows together until you reach your limit of strength, and your bow weight is half the combination of those two bows. As you may need a heavier bow later with increasing strength and under-arm muscle, then it is better to use club bows for at least the first few months if you can.
The cheapest glass fibre bow is about 350 dollars. But I recently got a beautiful bamboo bow for only 500 dollars (ouch!). Very good bows will run to 2,000 or 3,000 dollars. Don't forget that all bows, especially bamboo bows, will lose one or two kg after a few months use as you 'wear them in'. I strongly advise getting a glass fibre bow at first, even though their physical weight is a little more than bamboo bows. This is because they need only a very little looking after. Bamboo bows must be very carefully looked after and can bend in peculiar ways if you are not shooting properly - eg you can straighten a section of the bow if you are pushing too much down instead of straight with your te-no-uchi.

Arrows come in various grades of duraluminium, prices depend a lot on the feathers, but about 15 to 30 dollars each. A set of good bamboo arrows cost more than an expensive bow, mostly because of the rarity of appropriate feathers. Feathers are traditionally taken from eagles, but of course that is almost impossible now unless some antique feathers can be found. Some feathers still come from China. The best feathers are from the tail of an eagle or large hawk, but nowadays people use turkey or even swan. Unfortunately the bird must be killed for the feathers, so swan feathers can never be supplied from the UK where the swan is protected (it is a "royal bird"). The feathers should come from a meat-eating bird, so I guess vulture would be OK. I once suggested to my sensei if crow feathers would be good, he said they would be good but black is the symbol of death and cannot be used for arrows. A top quality set of four bamboo arrows will cost (hold your breath) 10,000 dollars (no I didn't slip with the noughts). Thus, even though I have a nice bamboo bow, I still use duraluminium arrows.
Arrows will last a long time as long as you don't hit a piece of concrete! Most kyudo suppliers can straighten a slightly bent arrow, usually without charge. They can also transfer expensive feathers to another arrow if you bend it in half. However, it is pretty difficult to bend an arrow badly.