Budo/Martial Arts · Kyudo

Reflections on Kyoto

Shooting Area in Miyako Messe

Last week was my first time going to the yearly tournament in Kyoto. I went for one night and two full days and it was well worth the valuable time and heaps of money spent. For those that have been, then you probably know how I feel, and for those who haven’t, I urge you to try and make it over once to compete and watch at least once before parting from this Earth.

I’ve watched so many videos of famous teachers in Japan, and it was crazy to just see them all walking around in real person and even being able to stop and talk to them. I’ve been to some other big tournaments like Nishi-Nihon and the national tournament in Miyakonojo, Miyazaki, but they mostly draw archers from around the Kyushu area with only a handful of other dedicated archers from around the country. At Kyoto though, it was my first time seeing archers from all over Japan, and even other countries, and see what different flavors come from different regions. It was also cool to shoot in Japan’s ancient capital, a place with such a long history as the center of the country physically, culturally, and politically.

The kyudo festivities in Kyoto during Golden Week last for four days (I think?), 2 for competitions and 2 for tests, and I stayed for just the competitions. On the first day I took the first train from Oita to Kyoto, and rushed to drop my stuff off at the hotel and then to the event center just in time to miss the yawatashi (ceremonial shooting done before an event)! Oh well. After that the hanshi (top level “master”) teachers had their tournament it was time for the renshi (“instructor” designated) teachers. After all the festivities finished I had an hour to kill visiting the Heian-jingu Shrine located just next door, and then there was a voluntary short enkai (banquet party) where a lot of the people participating in the tournament got together for light food and drinks at the event center. This is something you sign up beforehand when you initially register for the tournament, and man was this well worth the 2000 yen (about US $20). There were tables set up for you to sit where you like, and then they send 2 or 3 hanshi level teachers to each table to talk and drink with. I got to meet new people, including some of the highest level archers in the world, and get way more food and drink than 2000 yen is worth. More than anything else though, I was able to meet up with some of my old teachers from Toyama where I first started kyudo. I’m not sure how, if at all, this event was advertised to international archers when registering from abroad, but I highly recommend figuring out how to join in the future and take advantage of all the great opportunities it presents to meet the people who are participating in this huge tournament … while drinking lots of beer!

The next day I participated in the yudansha (4th and 5th dan level) competition and tried to watch the kyoshi (“teacher” designated) competition as much as possible that was going on at the same time. After all that I caught a 6:30pm train back to Oita, but if I get to go again I’ll probably leave an extra hour and leave around 7:30 just to make sure I get to see all the festivities and not have to rush to the station.

As for my shooting, I did way better than I ever expected. You first shoot two arrows in the zassha sitting form, and if you hit them both you move on to the next round. From then on you shoot one arrow at a time at a regular sized target. If you hit, you continue, if you miss, you’re done. I hit twice and then they change the target to the ko-mato (small target aka “hassun-mato”) where I hit once, but missed on the second. At that point I was somewhere between 6th and 12th place. If only I would’ve hit one more target I could’ve made it in the top 5!!!! Hahaha … but that’s one thing you can guarantee everyone’s thinking at the end of of a tournament, “If only I hit just one more!”

On the one hand, I feel like I did really well for myself, but on the other hand I don’t think I could expect to go farther than I did with my current shooting. Of the six arrows I shot, I feel like 2 were really good, 2 were really really crappy (one missed, and the other I think I was super lucky to hit), and then the other two were somewhere in the middle. But then again, I have no idea how they really looked … so who knows.

Internally, the problem was that I lost against myself.

I guess that’s all kyudo ever is though, winning or losing against yourself.

It’s a simple phrase, but what does that mean?

To me, it means doing what you set out to do from the start.

For example, I had three personal goals for this tournament:

1.) Protect my dozukuri (form of the torso) and don’t stop nobiai (expansion) by sinking my shoulders and raising my elbows as high as possible in uchiokoshi and daisan. Essentially, shooting with only uchiokoshi, hikiwake, and zanshin … don’t think about kai or hanare to keep myself from stopping mid-shooting or “fabricating” my release.

2.) Always be conscious of my breath, always present in the center of my body, expanding within myself, and holding my full draw for 10 seconds while every so slowly letting the air drip out from my nose and belly.

3.) Don’t care about hitting the target, what others think, or anything except what I was trying to focus on and doing the best I can.

As for goal number one, I tried my best and did about as much as I could, which is why I did better than I expected. But my form started to get chiseled away by my lack of attention to goal number 3, caring about hitting the target. I told myself with every shot, “Don’t care about hitting, just do your best”, but it’s something that happens much deeper in your sub-conscious. No matter what you tell yourself, if you don’t believe it, your body, and spirit even, will react differently, and end up sacrificing form for the sake of just “hitting the target”. One of the keys to controlling this is with the breath, my goal number two, but this is something that crumbled away under the pressure of wanting to hit the target, and actually, is something I haven’t been able to do anyway (expand my breath and body for 10 seconds in the full draw). I’ve been working on this in practice, but honestly haven’t been able to do it successfully yet, and so my full draw was probably more like 5 seconds, and my breathing was hampered by my failure to protect it throughout the form of raising and drawing the bow, probably from being so nervous.

What’s the key idea here?

Normal practice.

A part of my failure was trying to do what I haven’t been able to do in my normal practice. It’s noble to challenge yourself to do better than you ever have before when the stakes are high at big tournaments, but in reality, doing so will actually just keep you shooting at your normal level, which is your current best, and enough. This is the importance of heijoushin, what I’ll go ahead and call, “the normal mind.” We use our “normal mind” to shoot our normal form, which is simply what it is, and that is Truth. This is our best form. We don’t go into a tournament thinking, “Well, I always practice not hitting the target, but today I’m going to focus on just hitting the target,” or the opposite, “Well, I always just think about hitting the target, but today I’m not going to focus on it at all and just do my best.” We shoot how we practice. Practice makes perfect.

Well … not quite …

Perfect practice makes perfect.

The secret to kyudo is found in our own modest practice. That is the base of everything, and without it, there is absolutely nothing. Tournaments and tests are arenas to test what we’ve practiced, and express our art with others. But again, our level of kyudo is dependent upon our regular practice. This means doing our best to achieve consistent and quality practice. It’s not just about the amount of arrows we shoot (ya-kazu), but focusing all of ourselves, and realizing all of our personal goals in every … single … arrow. Every … single … breath.

Every single thought.

Every single step.

Seriously.

Our personal practice is where all the change and evolution happens. This is where alchemy and magic happens. Here in our regular practice, by ourselves, with our training partners, or under the guidance of teachers, this is where our shooting is forged. We shoot with all of the focus of our mind, and with all of the heart we can give, binding the two sides of technique and spirit together like a rope wound together of smaller strings.

Kyudo is a balance of skill and spirit, but you know what? It’s true what they say … spirit trumps skill. The level to which our spirit can expand depends upon the level of which our skill allows it to unlock and release … but all of this is nothing, a giant waste of time, without the purity and effort of our spirit.

This is easy to see in Kyoto with the large amount of archers in different levels shooting in the sitting form under the watching eyes of all around.

Those who focus on only hitting the target at the risk of compromising their form, or base their whole shooting on just one little trick to hit the target, will either fail from the beginning, or hit a lot, find their limit, and falter at the end. (Like me!) Watching those who made it to the very end of the tournaments in Kyoto are those who have excellent technique, and the discipline to protect it under any circumstance.

It was fascinating to watch the different levels of yudansha, renshi, and kyoshi. With each level you can see a different level of progress, and that cultivation of balance between technique and spirit.

It’s not about a single trick, or the strength of your bow, or whether you’re big or small or a man or a woman. It was awesome to see an equal division of champions between men and women. Men won the renshi and hanshi (I think there were only two women and something like 20 men in the hanshi section) sections while women won the yudansha and kyoshi, even though there are far fewer women in number and most often lighter bows are used. I watched all of the winners of the relative tournaments, and I’ll tell you what, they weren’t lucky, but damn good at kyudo.

Well, I guess that’s about all there is to say here.

Go to Kyoto if you have the chance for some great kyudo fun, as well as tons of other cool stuff, too. In the event center (Miyako Messe), I think there was also a huge iaido competition, art exhibitions, and a book fair, while also being right next door to the famous Heian Jingu Shrine, and really close to the Higashiyama area which is full of famous temples in Kyoto.

Kyudo is not just about hitting the target. If that’s the case, then you’re wasting a whole lot of time, money, and effort. You’d be better off shooting a rifle, bb gun, throwing rocks, or maybe just pushing buttons.

Kyudo is an expression of life.

I really don’t know what else to call it.

Onward and upward.

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