With our weekend cut short to accommodate Hiroki’s lessons, we decided to take an extended lunchbreak today to wonder down to the lakeside and see some of the Samurai Archery festival. Hayato came with us and filled us in on various bits of local custom. Apparently this festival is very local to Kawaguchiko and is 900 years old. It is now supported by the local Arts and Culture Foundation.
I have to take back my words about shrines not being places of ritual after witnessing this event. Ritual seems to be embedded into the very fabric of life here which is probably why it was so difficult to identify initially. First the archers processed into the prominent local Shinto shrine with the priests and important local community members (a bit like the deacons, parish council members etc in a Catholic church context) where they received a formal blessing. The horses wait patiently in the forest around the shrine adorned with ancient saddles and tunic clad handlers like a fairytale. Around the shrine in a true festival fashion, booths sell local eats and treats including fresh fish on sticks around a little coal oven, candy floss and sweet cakes.
Down at the arena set up for the event by the lake, a large marquee serves delicious hot pork misu soup free to visitors. One could also get a cup of hot sake. My favourite were the cream buns (a kind of cream filled drop scone). The octopus cakes were also delicious (not octopus shaped, actually filled with octopus cooked in a kind of pancake batter).
During the Shinto blessing at the temple, a group of young girls performed a geisha dance in kimonos with bells and fans on the arena stage. Each movement was slow and gracefully executed to the haunting moan of a flute. An icy wind picked up and we were all getting very cold but then the archers appeared, processing on horseback with the priests in attendance down the street and through the arena. The course was about 200 to 300 meters in length and roughly straight. Two targets were situated along the gallop and an elevated platform enabled scorekeepers a clear view. Everyone involved in the event was in a specific attire. It felt a bit like a re-enactment of the English joust.
The skill of the archers was really startling. They had to steer their horse onto the course with one hand while the other clasped a bow the length of their bodies and an arrow. They would come thundering into the course, stood in their stirrups and delivered an arrow at the first target, then they reached for a second arrow and delivered it at the second target before having to slow the horse. Quite a few riders got a bulls-eye and when they made the target smaller for the second round, bulls-eye again.
The costumes were also beautiful: patterned prints on the tunics, feathers in their curved helmets and deer hide over their legs. It was simply spectacular.