Words by Catherine Geaney
Photos by Catherine Geaney and Hannah Rose
“You’ll want to tie your hair back,” said my first kyudo instructor in Japanese, gesturing so that we understood. She was shorter than both Hannah and myself, yet instantly looked upon us with a maternal “I’ll look after ya” air about her. She was clearly amazed at our very presence in the kyudo dojo, eyeing us the whole time with a cute quizzical smile.
“Kyudo is different from Western archery, you see,” she said gesturing. “You pull the bow string behind your ear. If your hair is out, the bow is likely to take a chunk with it.” Wide eyed to make her point, we all burst into nervous laughter at the translation.
That whole interaction during my first encounter with kyudo in Japan told me a lot about the art itself. Kyudo (the way of the bow) is traditional Japanese archery, using a long bow, around 1.5-2 meters in length, made from bamboo (expensive) or fiberglass (cheap…er). Students of kyudo practise in an open dojo shooting a target at 28 meters distance. The focus is form and aesthetic, not hitting the target. You must use the correct procedure to shoot accurately and safely, and most importantly the bow is fast and strong.
Before leaving Ireland in 2011, I researched the funky culture Japan had to offer because I really wanted to take up a traditional hobby of some kind. Japanese martial arts like karate, judo and kendo are all opponent based and that didn’t really suit me. The stress of not understanding Japanese coupled with someone wanting to hit me gave me hives at the thought. I thought about tea ceremony, but seiza and the austerity of it scared me away quick. There was ikebana, but with my lack of green-fingers I had little confidence I would do better with dead flowers. Taiko is the coolest and was definitely on my list, but Japanese archery videos on youtube were what caught my attention. Now that’s cool! Check out the medieval sniper wannabe in the corner!
From the first time I read about it, I liked the key concepts of kyudo, namely the fact that it is a zen-based art form and your opponent is yourself. Unfortunately, it’s practised mainly by high school kids and I was headed for elementary and junior high. I didn’t think I would be able to find a kyudo dojo, so I put it out of mind. Once I got to Japan I was way too busy with school to commit to anything. Then by chance I mentioned it to Hannah, another Kure JET who also wanted to try it. After asking our supervisor for information, within the week we were sitting in the cold November air while five kyudo practitioners gave us a demonstration of the art.
It was beautiful from start to finish and I knew it was exactly what I wanted from a hobby. After the demonstration, we were invited to give it a go. We were full of nerves and smiles while the teachers guided us through and helped pull the 8kg bow back so we could shoot our arrows clumsily into the grass about 2 meters in front of us. It was an instant hit (ha ha) for both of us.
On Thursdays after school Hannah and I cycle up to the dojo, drink coffee, eat omiyage sweets from all over Japan, and chat with the teachers. Kyudo is a great opportunity for us to practice and learn Japanese, since the entire lesson is conducted mainly in Japanese, except for the odd “up up, down down, right right!” Every teacher is as patient with the language barrier as they are with our instruction in kyudo. They always give us free things from kyudo shiai (competitions) like uchiwa (Japanese fan), phone straps, bags, and they always show an interest in cultural exchange. Everyone is ready to help, give advice, and get to know us.
Slowly we gained confidence. Through practice we got better, with our teachers always reminding us to take our time and just try and see. At no point did I feel pressured into buying the gear. The teachers were always understanding if we missed class for any reason. A mild ribbing about being lazy was about the worst of it. They wanted us to be there and wanted us to feel like we could come along as we felt like it.
When they saw how serious we were, they helped us with equipment. First the yotsugake, the glove, chest guard for the ladies and finally we purchased our full hakama this spring. We wear hakama for every class now, even in the dead heat of summer. Sweaty is not a strong enough of word. Putting on the hakama is still a learning process with plenty of fumbling to a chorus of giggling from our teachers in the changing rooms. Now we’re part of the team.
“Through kyudo one can learn to live beyond hope and fear, how to be.’ Chogyam Trungpa.
In kyudo, you don’t hope to hit the target or fear missing it. Through meditation you reach a state where there is no target to hit. The goal is not necessarily to hit the target but to preform your movements correctly and with skill. Hitting the target comes with this repetition and attention.
I tie my hair back for every class, especially since I’ve experienced a 9kg bow string hit my ear as it snaps forward. OUCH! I became deaf in my right ear for 20 minutes. My instructors were giddy with laughter and made mock calls into my ear, but also checked for cuts to make sure I was okay.