Yesterday I accompanied a friend to watch a kyudo class. I wasn’t interested in taking up kyudo myself, pulling a bow with a shoulder injury is never a good idea, but my friend was curious and I agreed to be with her to watch a training session.
Kyudo means, “the way of the bow.” The first thing that I noticed from the class was the size of the bow. It is long. Very long. Over 2 metres long. An unstrung bow is typically 2.2 to 2.3 metres, the transport logistics of it must only be rivaled by a double-bass. In fact the Japanese bow is the longest in the world. While this means it takes longer to load and draw than, say, an English longbow, it also means that when it does fire the arrow can penetrate in to the target to a greater depth.
As the bow is shot from kneeling and standing, this might appear to present logistical challenges. How does the end of the bow not hit the floor? The bow is not held in the middle, but further down the shaft. The chunky bit below the grip is considered masculine. The curving part above the grip is considered feminine.
The second thing I noticed from the class was the air of serenity. All dojos should have an atmosphere of concentration, but there is also an air of expectation. The later was curiously absent, replaced by an almost meditative quality. The aim of kyudo is not, surprisingly, to hit your target. It is a way of mentally and physically training yourself, and to achieve a good shooting style, becoming one with the bow.
The way of shooting is very stylised and, when done with a group of people, very ritualistic. I’m not going to try to describe it, but the first 70 seconds of this video clip will give you an idea.
For the very keen who wish to see the entire set, try this, which shows the procession into the area, the setting up of the bow, the shooting, and then the exit.
Kyudo has a very small following in the UK, only 90 people are registered with the association. This brings about challenges in itself. Without enough students, then insufficient people will gain enough experience to teach the art in turn. There were four people in the class I attended, one person had driven 90 minutes in order to attend. I think all martial artists would agree that once the urge grips you then driving long distances is seen as a minor matter.
Speaking of art, the kyudo sensei was keen to stress that this was not a martial art. I mostly agree with him. After all, it’s not about hitting a target, it’s about developing the controlled mind-set and body posture that allow you to eventually hit the target. Yet I would argue that as martial artists we should be aiming to achieve those very same principles of developing the mind and body. Some martial arts do this more than others, but it’s part of what distinguishes us from people who just like to punch other people.
And the best bit about the kyudo class? They took a tea break half way through! Being English through and through I was delighted by this aspect, such a civilised way to pause in your training. I might ask my jitsu sensei if we can do the same. I can imagine what his response will be.