Budo/Martial Arts · Kyudo · Nobiai

The Longest Cave in Japan: Depths of Kyudo


Yesterday Satomi and I went to the Inazumi Cave, the longest in Japan. Located deep in the southern border of Oita Prefecture around the Bungo Ohno region. It was a long but worthy drive.


Caves are a strange thing to humans, I think. Submerged in a darkness and cold, caves are a kind of forbidden ground for humankind. It’s only with the help of modern technology that we can venture deep inside and reveal secrets unseen from our above-ground existence. Even so, the cave’s true depth is still unknown as divers go further into the darkness.


But I don’t know much about caves, and kyudo is the common topic around here, so I’ll stick with that.


There’s a large division in the martial arts between “internal” and “external” arts. Simply speaking, “external” arts are those that use physical speed and strength to strike an opponent. Karate and Tae Kwon Do are a couple that generally fit in this category. “Internal” are those that that utilize other forces inside the body like chi or ki. Tai Chi Chuan and Ba Gua Zhang are a couple that generally fit in this category.

But reading that now I think it sounds kind of stupid because it’s really just too big a generalization. Any worthy art is going to be a blending of what we would call “internal” and “external”.

What’s interesting though is trying to apply this distinction to kyudo.


A quick side note: I’ve actually never heard of this discussion including any weapon wielding arts.


Anyway, so if you look at kyudo, what would you define it as, “external” or “internal”?


If you just look at a person doing kyudo, it looks pretty simple. A person stands there, lifts the bow over their head, draws the bow, waits for a about 6 seconds, and then lets go. In such shapes, it looks like arm strength is all that’s necessary, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, you’re using the muscles in your back and your legs, drawing strength from your feet and the ground to shoot the arrow.

But it goes much deeper …


In kyudo we talk about the san-juu-juu-monji (三重十文字) which means three crosses. Our bodies consist of three very important crosses with respect to kyudo which are the vertical line of our spine and horizontal line of the bottom of our feet, the vertical line of our spine and the horizontal line of our waist, and the vertical line of our spine and the horizontal line of our shoulders. By maintaining the balance of these three crosses, we can better shoot an arrow.

These are just ideas, abstract invisible lines projected by the mind, but they are also real phenomenon existing within our bodies.


Concerning the cross of the spine and shoulders, another important concept in kyudo is nobiai (伸び合い). While in the full draw our shoulders draw further and further apart splitting from the chest and expanding in a follow-through beyond the physical shooting of the arrow. To the untrained eye, it looks like one is just standing there waiting in the draw with nothing happening, but in reality this is one of the gravest points of kyudo. All of this exists from within the body. By watching someone, we can see this in affect, but that’s only the tip of the glacier, or the surface of the cave pool. In reality, it’s depth is far greater than we can really see.


But that’s still very shallow.

In kyudo we start by imitating the outward form until we can basically put the steps together and shoot an arrow in the direction of a target. From there we imitate the outer form of our teachers to make the form balanced, soft, strong, beautiful.

We start this by watching and imitating, but that’s still just an image. We listen to people’s critique of our shooting, but that’s still just a sound. People can even touch us trying to mold us into correct form, but that’s still just a touch.

A good teacher will reveal all of the above, but also attempt to delve deeper into the student’s depths. One does this with images and metaphors. It’s like when we’re talking in kyudo, we’re using words like a normal conversation, but we’re really trying to explain these strange phenomenon within the bodies in a kind of secret language. My teacher will tell me to spread myself apart like I’m splitting from my chest. Or he will draw a horizontal line on my back and tell me just to think about the spreading of this line. In order to get me to relax my hands, he will tell me to focus on something else. Though there is no sound in kyudo, my teacher will demonstrate the force of spreading ourselves apart within the bow with sound affects revealing the proper feeling.


Advanced progress in kyudo runs deep within our bodies and minds. In this respect, we could definitely call it an “internal” art, while it is also completely “external”.


But that’s not it, “external”, “internal”, “physical”, “mental”, etc. We use our logical minds to dissect this single phenomenon of existence, but in reality that is a flawed abstract illusion. All of these separate parts are connected with invisible sinews, and with eyes open looking without, the inside of our bodies explore its own infinite darkness.


In front of everyone clad in kimono we use our greatest strength to shoot an arrow into the target, while also expressing the soft tissue of flowers, and extend throughout infinity to where no one sees.


We know nothing. Tiny little ants, we know so little. Standing above ground finding a way to live day-to-day, we also walk deep in the dark pools underground.

And that’s OK.


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