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Friday, June 3, 2011

The Art of Kyudo, Ancient Japanese Archery

Kyudo is an ancient Japanese war-form of archery utilizing an asymmetrical bow, two arrows, and a unique hard-leather glove. Today the sport is less war-like and more zen-like, but is upheld as a tradition through Japanese culture festivals in Japan and the United States. It's also taught at some junior high schools in Japan so the younger generation may carry on the legacy. Here in the United States, many students begin in adulthood, as most younger people would take little interest and have limited patience for the zen qualities of the sport.

An ideal gym for this sport, called a kyudojo, might consist of a 3-wall room facing a 3-wall target bank separated by a long stretch of grass. It would be a tranquil place, meant not only for kyudo but for contemplation of self. The room and the target bank would be constructed of a lightly-colored, polished wood while the grass would be perfectly neat and green. Marcus Bossett doesn’t have an ideal kyudojo, though. His “dojo” is located at El Dorado Regional Park in Long Beach, California. It’s completely outdoors and is made up of a rectangle of faded green cement surrounded by messy green grass. The green and white brick target house is lined from floor to ceiling and left to right with phone books, a cost-wise replacement for the traditional foam mat backing. There is no 3-wall room for shooting, just a thick straw mat set on the green cement to stand on while shooting.

Marcus doesn’t mind using the park for shooting, though. It serves its purpose. According to a Sherdog.com article about Marcus, he first found his calling in the martial arts in 7th grade when he attended military school in Virginia. Since then he's trained in shorin ryu karate, shorin-ji ryu jujitsu, and kobudo. He even went on to become an Ultimate Fighting Championship original in the early 1990's, winning 1 of his 4 matches. He owned his own karate gym, but around 1999 the amount of students attending classes was dwindling. He then decided to try something new and came across kyudo. Today he’s a 5th Dan (the highest possible rank assigned by the All Nippon Kyudo Federation is 10th dan) kyudo instructor and uses El Dorado Park every Saturday to teach his 10 students from the University of Archery, which he is the owner of. Today I am the student, and he’s demonstrating for me what kyudo is all about.

The target Marcus will be using today is a practicing target called a kasumi-mato, or mist target. It is a perfect circle of about torso size beginning with a white center and black and white concentric circles going outward. Marcus sets his target in the target house at 27 centimeters above the ground and his shooting mat 28 meters back on the cement. According to Marcus, the target is placed this way because in war in ancient Japan the front lines of the enemy would have been 28 meters away and kneeling on the ground, meaning their breast would be 27 centimeters above the ground. Thus, this set-up is a throwback to the fact that kyudo was once a war style developed by Japanese warriors. Modern kyudo has been modified by Buddhist monks, though, so the target today symbolizes ego. The purpose of kyudo now is not to kill an enemy, but to find one’s true self by ridding the mind of fear, anger, and jealousy. Marcus describes the idea as “one arrow, one life." This means that he has one arrow to kill his one ego. Kyudo is meant to help one find truth of life, to develop goodness of soul, and to achieve beauty in art. The experience is entirely internal, and your one enemy is yourself, which is much more challenging than choking a guy out for Marcus. It is killing this ego that makes kyudo so attractive, and difficult. And despite the fact that Marcus is also trained in other grueling martial arts forms, kyudo has been the most challenging of all for him for this reason.

Next Marcus puts on his practice uniform. He layers on a white blouse, then ties a pair of loose black trousers around his waist, and finally dons a black kimono over both. He finishes the uniform with a black obi, the belt which ties the kimono into place. He puts on a pair of white split-toed socks and a pair of bamboo sandals. He takes out his bow and his glove, then his arrow case. The case is an arrow-length, leather-covered tube. Attached to Marcus’ arrow case is a bouquet of keychains, all of which he acquired through friendly exchange with fellow kyudo-men. He has two keychains which hold significant meaning, though. Both are 3-inch bow segments which reveal the layers of wood which make-up a bow, each given to him by a former sensei, or instructor. According to Marcus, when sensei’s break their bows, they cut them into pieces and give one to each of their students, telling them, “Now you have a piece of me.” Marcus pulls two arrows out of this keychain-decorated case then sets it back on the ground.

He ties the glove onto his right hand, holds the two arrows in the same hand, and his bow in his left hand. All of this equipment has a color theme: purple. His arrow case is purple, his arrows have purple bands, and his glove has a purple strap. If Marcus’ bow could have color, it would be purple for sure. Color theme is an entirely personal choice, and some like Michael Wert, an instructor in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, choose to have no theme at all. But Marcus chose purple after his first trip to Japan in 2000. He attended a kyudo seminar in Miyakonajo, Japan, where lectures, training, and testing were to take place. When he entered the gym, a 40-foot banner with the word “KYUDO” hung on the wall with white lettering on a purple background. From that instant Marcus chose purple as his color, and from then on has bought everything accordingly.

Marcus then moves to the outer edge of the cement to perform a sharei. Sharei is the performance all kyudo-men must learn in order to rank up, and it involves a great deal of bowing and gestures which offer respect to the judges and spectators of the test. Any incorrect movement during the sharei is a penalty for the performer, and they risk failing their test. If a kyudo-man does fail, he must wait another year before he can test again. Hence, learning the sharei completely and perfectly is a big deal. As Marcus waits to step into the mock kyudojo, he prepares his mind for shooting. The mental state often associated with kyudo and other martial arts is called mushin. According to Marcus, this means he must have a “mind like water”. According to another kyudo instructor who declined to be named, it simply means that the mind is centered over the core. The mind does not wander from this position, does not plan any moves or distract itself; the mind simply sees what is really happening and learns to discover the world as it is. Once Marcus has a “mind like water," he begins.

He steps onto the cement of the kyudojo facing toward the target bank, then turns to his right and bows towards where the judges would sit in an actual test. He then turns back toward the target bank and shuffles in his sandals over the short distance to the straw mat. He turns once again, bows, and then turns back to the mat. Each step, turn, and bow is executed slowly, with precision and calm. He concentrates on each movement as it comes, with mind over core, being sure never to miss a step. As Marcus moves, he becomes a gentle stream moving along its bed, matching his water-like mind.

He removes his sandals by stepping backwards out of them, then steps onto the mat and kneels facing the imaginary judges. The kneeling position is called kiza. The position requires that you kneel on the ground, resting your bottom on the heels of your feet, and is the most difficult part of kyudo for Marcus. This is because after some time the position causes your calves, then quads, then hamstrings to burn. When you are testing, you must remain absolutely still as moving to relieve the burn would disqualify you from the test, hence the challenge of sitting this way. Once knelt, Marcus bows once more then one-handedly removes the left sleeve of his kimono. This allows for easy shooting later on by preventing the sleeve from dangling in the way of the bow.

Up until this point, all turns and bows have been part of sharei, the etiquette which one must perform out of respect for spectators before shooting. The next steps comprise a process called hassetsu, the actual steps of shooting. Marcus rises from the mat and stands with feet apart facing the “judges." He adjusts his footing to line up with the target 28 meters away and then straightens his back. Holding the bow in his left hand, he hooks one arrow onto the bowstring with his right hand and turns his head toward the target, keeping his arms at waist level. Marcus’ arrows, called ya, are made of carbon, the current trend in arrows. Ya consist of a point, a shaft, bindings, and fletching. The fletching are three evenly spread lines of feather, running the direction of the bow. The feathers on Marcus’ arrows are dark brown with white half-ovals and very course: eagle feathers. He bought the arrows in Japan, where it is legal to raise eagles and pluck their feathers, so the fact that they are eagle feathers comes as nothing to him.

He then raises both arms above his head to ready the bow for shooting. The bows used for kyudo, called yumi, bear only minimal resemblance to a standard archery bow. Whereas standard bows have the handle placed in the middle of the bow, yumi have their handle placed lower so that the bottom end of the bow is only a third of the length and the upper end of the bow is the rest. Marcus’ bow was custom-made for him by a man named Don Symanski and is a giant 7 feet 3 inches in height. The bow has four sides: an inward-facing side made from lightly colored bamboo which faced east when growing; an outward-facing side made from darker colored bamboo which faced west when growing; an inside core; and a laminate coating. It also has a taut string, called the tsuru. The average yumi might have a strength of 18-20 kilograms for a man, but Marcus has a bow with strength 26 kilograms, a result of his strength acquired as a martial artist and Ultimate Fighter.

After raising his bow above his head, Marcus pulls the tsuru half-way. His glove is crucial at this point, for it has a design which allows easy grasping of the bowstring. The glove is called a yugake, and is composed of a white cotton sleeve which goes on before a stiff leather glove. The glove itself has only four fingers, leaving the pinky exposed. Between the thumb and forefinger is a divot, marked by a thin, blue, embroidered line. This divot is where Marcus holds the tsuru when he pulls it back, allowing ultimate control over the string.

Marcus then brings the bow down to chin-level, at the same time pulling the tsuru to a full draw. He pauses. Then lets go. Thwap! The sound created when the string snaps from his yugake, sending the arrow flying at the target, is abrupt and startling. The sound is called tsurune. It is the first of two sounds. It is meant to carry all of the energy of the shooter forward with the arrow. The tsurune is followed by a second sound. Tunk. The sound is of the arrow piercing the target, and it’s called sae. This second sound, though it comes only a second later, is relieving for the observer after the jolting first sound. The tsurune and the sae together are symbolic; they form a yin and yang, the beginning and the end. A successful shot allows both sounds to be heard by observers. A failed shot will have a dull sound or have no sound at all. This is where kyudo diverts from standard archery: in regular archery the point is accuracy, to hit the target; in kyudo, the point is the tsurune and the sae, completeness. This means that not every shot in kyudo hits the target in the target bank. In fact, some kyudo-men may never hit the target in their career. But if they are skilled enough to produce the tsurune and sae, then they are successful, and hitting the target will come with it. Marcus is a perfect example of this, as he is a skilled instructor, yet his arrow has missed the target.

Marcus repeats this process of hassetsu to shoot his second arrow, also missing the target but yielding the yin and yang of sounds. Hassetsu is complete and Marcus finishes his sharei with slow, smooth movements. He kneels on the mat facing the “judges," puts back on his sleeve with one hand, and then bows. He rises from the mat, places his sandals back on his feet by stepping into them, and then turns back towards the judges. He bows again, turns toward the cement, and walks to the edge. He gives a final bow toward the judges, then steps off the cement.

The entire process is completely silent aside from the thwap and tunk of the bow and arrows. The only sounds to be heard are the cars passing by outside the park and the local birds chirping as they flit from tree to tree to find twigs for nests or bugs to eat. When Marcus is done, one has the sensation of returning to Earth, and a sudden awareness comes over them that they have been standing completely still without blinking for the last 6 minutes. Marcus lets go of his water-like mind when he leaves the cement, lets go of his sharei airs. He turns to me and smiles, “Well, what did you think?”

Reporting Notes
2 hour interview with Marcus Bossett
2 hour observation with Marcus Bossett
Email correspondence with Marcus Bossett
Email correspondence with Kyudo instructor (declined to be named)
Email correspondence with Michael Wert
Kyudo equipment and technique website (http://www.kyudo.com/kyudo.html)
Gazettes.com article on Marcus (http://www.gazettes.com/lifestyle/article_e42d867e-baf7-11df-9c7e-001cc4c002e0.html)
Sherdog.com profile of Marcus (http://www.sherdog.com/news/articles/1/Marcus-Bossett-Where-is-He-Now-27584)
Youtube video of sharei, part 1 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qqGekD9zQZc)
Youtube video of sharei, part 2 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f44akdSb4Tk&feature=related)
Kyudo by Hideharu Onuma (http://books.google.com/books?id=u2DKesPhsxgC&printsec=frontcover&dq=Kyudo&hl=en&ei=2o7cTezeIIfeiALV9MQK&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CDEQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false)
Don Symanski yumi (http://www.zenkyudo.org/Yumi.html)
Access World News- The Japan Times: "Archers Learn to Read the Nuances of the Wind" by Everett Kennedy Brown, 4 January 2002
Access World News- The Japan Times: "Kyudo - Hitting the Target" by Amy Chavez, 5 March 2011

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