The Japanese martial art Kyūdō is, like many other Japanese cultural representations, peculiar in a few ways.

Unlike the Olympic sport Target Archery in which contestants compete solely for accuracy, Kyūdō also values the sophistication the contestants exert through every motion (and even the sound their bowstrings make!), and its meditative nature sets it apart from many other sports.

Let me give you a quick walkthrough of the bizarre yet satisfying world of Kyūdō and then introduce a couple of places you can casually experience it in and around the Tokyo area, in case you get interested during your next trip to Japan.

 

The asymmetrical Long Bow

What’s fascinating first and foremost about Kyūdō is that its bows are huge and simple, but asymmetrical.

Why’s it so big?

The standard Japanese Long Bow is 2.21 meters high and therefore towers above the archer. Since the bow had been made the same way since prehistoric times, the exact reason it ended up being this big is unknown. Modern specialists list these reasons as possible explanations:

  • Because the Long Bow was (and still is) made out of bamboo, wood and leather, and therefore bending the bow too far would cause it to break easily. By lengthening the bow, distribution of tension was attained and made it more durable.
  • Bows have been used in sacred Shinto rituals since forever, and bigger bows were totally more awe-inspiring.

It is said that there were even bigger bows that were over 3 meters high, and various other kinds of bows of varying sizes. However the Japanese Long Bow we see today was the favorite form for most samurais and so natural selection passed it down to modern-day Japan.

Why’s it not symmetrical?

Another mystery is in its asymmetry. The grip is not located near the center of the bow but rather at 1/3 of the height from the bottom. Again there isn’t a definitive explanation to the reason why, but here are some educated guesses historians have made:

  • During battle, samurais would shoot arrows from horseback and soldiers would be kneeling down to shoot, and to avoid the bow from touching the horse or the ground, they ended up holding it at a point lower than the middle.
  • Because bows were carved out of a single wood and the elasticity tends to be higher towards the bottom, gripping at a point lower than the middle balanced things out better.

Kyūdō 弓道 originates in Kyūjutsu 弓術

Up until the mid 19th century, Japan was governed by the samurai class, and the bow and arrow was a standard subject to learn among them, like how math is to us. Even peasants were quite familiar with the martial art and the bow and arrow was often used as a form of entertainment (like a shooting gallery with gambling).

Kyūjutstu 弓術 was the name given to these activities then and the primary focus was to learn techniques to manipulate the bow and arrow. 弓 stands for “bow” and 術 stands for “techniques.”

However after that samurai government was overthrown and Western firearm technology had become so commonplace by then, there was really no more practical benefit to mastering the martial art.

In the late 19th century, Japan started mobilizing as an effort to prevent getting colonized by Western countries. As Japanese martial arts in general helped improved mental strength, they were revitalized and people were encouraged to learn them.

It was at this time that Kyūjutstu 弓術 came to be called Kyūdō 弓道, like how at the same time Jujutsu 柔術 and Kenjutsu 剣術 became Judo 柔道 and Kendo 剣道 respectively.

Kyūdō is a reflection of your mental development

There are three virtues (collectively called 真善美 Shin-zen-bi) to be pursued in Kyūdō , and interestingly enough, “accuracy” is not one of them. Accuracy is merely a natural result of perfecting these three virtues:

1. Form 真

Kyūdō is choreographed into 8 essential moves that start from positioning yourself and end with how you see off your arrow. Kyūdō archers quietly practice every day to perfect their motions, as it is understood that if you perform all the moves correctly, you hit the target.

If you miss, that is virtually the target giving you feedback that one or more of your moves were blemished. You can imagine how Kyūdō will lead to learning how to really discipline your body.

2. Composure 善

Whenever you are restless, hasty, scared, worried, nervous or upset, you cannot perform at your best nor will you be nice or polite to people around you. Kyūdō trains you to attain peace of mind by letting you focus on facing off a target, and no one else.

Placing yourself in a world without competition or hatred leads to developing composure, and therefore also peace in interacting with others.

3. Elegance 美

When you have perfected your form and composure, your arrow shots naturally become as elegant as elegant can be.

You can see in these videos how excellence in form and composure is displayed in the elegance of the whole process of shooting an arrow.

Because it’s not a competition between persons but a dialogue between the archer and the target, the archer always takes full credit of success, and failure. The target quietly shows you your progress in developing as a human being upon each shot.

Its meditative nature is often compared to Zen.

Experience Kyūdō casually at a Hankyū Dōjō

So not only can Kyūdō be an extraordinary practice that would bring out the best of you, hearing the sound of your arrow hit the target is just plainly awesome.

However there is a steep learning curve to learning Kyūdō full-on. It is said that it would take half a year to a year to be competent with the Long Bow, given that you practice every day.

There’s a high likelihood that your first experience trying out Kyūdō will not be a satisfying one, ending up not being able to hit the target even once.

So the winning solution is to go to a Hankyū Dōjō. Hankyū translates to “Half Bow” and it is far easier to control.

Yumiya-san (Hankyū Dōjō in central Tokyo)

There is in fact one in the central area of Tokyo called Yumiya-san where you can just casually drop by and shoot a round of arrows without even having to make a reservation.

Yumiya-san Dojomaster holding a Hankyu

The Dōjō masters (a very pleasant married couple) speak English and will walk you through the how-tos nicely and efficiently.

This is the only Dōjō in Japan that lets children as young as 4 years old try out Kyūdō.

My 5 year old son was able to hit the target (of course with the help of the kind Dōjō master).

5 year old looking all proud after hitting the target

ゆみやさん Yumiya-san

Location: 2-23-4 Hongo, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo

Access by train: Take the Tokyo Metro Marunouchi Line to Hongou Sanchome Station
Hours: 1:00PM – 4:30PM on weekends and holidays
Fee: 2,000 yen / person, 16 arrows + guidance (a 15 minute experience)
Age restriction: 4 years old and up
Equipment: Fee includes rental of bow and arrows. Feel free to come in cosplay gear (No room available to get changed)
Homepage (English): Yumiya-san

*Information above confirmed as of July 2020

As a side note, the Mrs. Dojomaster is also a skilled illustrator who uses targets as canvases to create decorative arrow targets called 絵的 Emato.

Her repertoire of Emato subjects includes anime and video game characters, as Yumiya-san is not located far from THE Japanimation central, Akihabara.