Every year in Kyoto, come the second week of January, the streets are flooded with young men and women lugging around exceptionally tall bamboo bows and feathered arrows. It’s the day after Coming of Age Day and 20 year olds from all across Japan are on their way to Tōshiya, the 400-year-old archery competition at the Sanjūsangen-dō Temple.
When we were in Kyoto for our annual winter trip, the event took us completely off guard but we were glad to be at the right place at the right time to witness such a deep-rooted tradition. We initially intended to go to the temple to say a few prayers for the New Year amongst the 1001 life size brass statues of Bodhisattva Kannons. The statues are made of Japanese cypress with real gold leaf. Each one has different facial features and it is said that you will find the face of someone you love in at least one of them. Luck was on our side – we saw lots of familiar faces and lots of skilled archers in one go.
The Tōshiya competition brings together Kyūdō archery enthusiasts to commemorate the story of a samurai, Asaoka Heibei, who in 1606 was so skilled in archery he managed to shoot a bow and arrow the length of the temple 100 times in rapid succession and hit the target 51 times. Quite a feat considering the Sanjūsangen-dō temple is the longest wooden building in Japan.
Although the official contestants are all 20 years of age, there are older archers who do demonstrations throughout the day. It’s pretty amazing to watch the older generation go at it – so poised and skilled. We managed to get a short clip of the action. Take a look and if this amazing Japanese martial art of archery is of interest, book your next trip to Japan for the second Sunday of January!
Photography: Armando Rafael