The second Sunday in January is a big deal in Kyoto, Japan. Not only does the New Year begin, it is ushered in with an amazing archery competition held at a Buddhist Temple. The archers number in the thousands; the majority of them are 20-year-old men and women wearing kimonos, a symbol of having just reached adulthood.
This was the extent of my knowledge about the event when I left my apartment that day. In the prior week, I had seen a poster in the subway for an archery contest and decided to go. What I found when I got to Sanjusangen-do Temple was a kaleidoscope of colorful garments, mobs of camera-toting archery enthusiasts, and street vendors who filled the grounds with the sounds and smells of their sizzling fare.
The contest, historically known as Toh-Shiya or Passing Arrow, began over 400 years ago with samurai demonstrating their archery or kyudo prowess on the temple grounds. Since Sanjusangen-do is the longest wooden structure in Japan at 120 meters end to end, it is a good place for such an event.
Since that time, the event has been renamed the Oh-mato Taikai, or Festival of the Great Target. In place of samurai marksmen, young men and women followed by older advanced archers later in the day, take aim with two arrows each at targets now 60 meters away.
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Before finding a spot to watch the contest, I dropped my shoes in a little bag and walked in my socks through Sanjusangen-do’s interior. Inside I found 1,000 life-sized statues of the Thousand-Armed Kannon, also known as the Goddess of Mercy to many English speakers. They had been carved of wood, covered in gold leaf, and arranged in 10 rows of 50 columns. In the center, towering above the temple’s chanting monks, was an enormous statue of the goddess sitting in a lotus flower.
However, what intrigued me the most were the 28 guardian deities who stood in front of the Kannon. Unlike the other statues covered in gold leaf, they were hewn of some dark stone with eyes that shined almost lifelike in the shadowy hall. They seemed to watch the visitors as we shuffled down the line, reading their names and history, which extends back to the Indian Vedas. Turning the final corner of the hall, I exited the strikingly silent temple, slipped on my shoes, and reacquainted my eyes to the light and my ears to the noise.
Finally making it through the throng, I stood under a small maple tree to watch the contest. Archers in groups of six lined up, their white socks and sandals pointing down range. A calm would descend over their faces that seemed to quiet the crowd as well. A deep breath. Slowly the bows would be drawn. The anticipation among viewers was palpable as each archer felt for the perfect moment.
Heads turned in unison to follow the arrows. Seldom did one fall short of its mark, though even more seldom was a bull’s-eye hit. When finally one was struck, a resounding “oooooo” arose. Again, the rising anticipation was as a blanket over the crowed as the archer loaded the next arrow, took aim, focused, and let fly a second bull’s-eye. “OOOOOOOOooooo,” was uttered by all who had witnessed.
When I headed home hours later, hundreds of archers were still in line to shoot. From the time I left my apartment until I returned for dinner, archers could be spotted all over the city in their decorative kimonos or shouldering their nearly 6-foot-tall yumi bows.
As far as coming of age goes, this was an amazing display of skill, focus, and dedication. Lying in bed that night, I thought about my own culture and how so often coming of age entails getting wasted at the bar. Not always, but many, many people find for themselves that activity or event they feel represents the change. It is interesting to think how the process of seeking our own rites of passage changes the whole effect and experience.
This is the second article in my ongoing Japan travel column. Each week I will be sharing my experiences in – and facts about – Japan, so if culture, history, and food interest you as much as it does me, check back each week for more. Also see me Instagram ogopogofosho.
By Anthony Vitale