MEN ON HORSEBACK

Draw the bow, ride and speak the truth

by Sara Harris

You could argue that in this age, we look to movies to preserve our traditions. But it begs the chicken and egg question: Where does the filmmaker go to authenticate the details?

When Akira Kurosawa, famous as a perfectionist down to the last historical detail, was ready to film “The Seven Samurai,” he found the then-head of the Takeda school of horseback archery, one of two remaining centuries-old schools, to give his actors lessons in the ancient martial art of kyuba.

The school, based in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, and its art have thus gained a certain immortality on film. Yet today, the 35th-generation master of the school, Ietaka Kaneko, 78, who took over as head from his father in 1980, continues on many fronts to promote interest in equestrian martial arts and to sustain the tradition by cultivating riders with the skills to practice it.

Kaneko, a veterinarian by profession, is chairman of the 300-some-member Japan Equestrian Archery Association and teaches the tradition, the most well-known form of which is yabusame, to a small band — less than 50 people nationwide.

It is no coincidence that they are all located in the Kanto region. The reasons stretch back over 800 years. Equestrian archery is said to have a history of some 1,400 years, but Kamakura has been at the heart of the tradition since Minamoto Yoritomo set up the Kamakura bakufu in 1192. Kanto historically had an edge over Kansai warriors and it is even said that the 1185 Genji defeat of the Taira was due to the clan’s many superior archers. Minamoto made a point of establishing a place in Kamakura where warriors could train in the art of bajutsu, as the martial equestrian skills are called.

By the end of the Muromachi Period, such skills were losing their practicability, swept aside by changes in military technology, and by the Edo Period, samurai families continued bajutsu training only as an art. For hundreds of years, the Takeda tradition was carried on as a hidden art, sustained with the support of the Hosakawa family, until the Meiji Era. Kaneko’s father moved the school to Kamakura.

But it has survived over the centuries. Today, a group of 10 to 12 modern-day samurai leave behind their workaday world in computer entertainment or television programming once a week and gather at 9 a.m. on a Sunday at the Miura International Riding Club on the outskirts of Yokosuka City. The Takeda Ichimon, as the group is known, has met for the last 22 years.

Kaneko and his students devote an entire day to training. After warming up the horses in the ring, the group moves to a nearby plot, where a straight course stretches out beside a farmer’s field. On one recent Sunday, harvested daikon lay drying in a row, and later came in handy for target practice.

Susumu Miyagawa, who joined a little over a month ago, was inspired to take up the practice after a trip to the United States. He was impressed by the pride people there took in their culture, something he felt was missing in his own life, and came back resolved to follow the lure of tradition. Having studied archery before, he was drawn this time by yabusame.

“I knew I had to explore Japanese culture more,” Miyagawa reflected. “I wanted to have one thing I could take pride in.”

To understand and learn to ride in this tradition, you must erase any thought of refined dressage or dancing Lippizaners. Forget Westerns, leather saddles and spurs. For yabusame and the other bajutsu variants, everything from the horses to the gear to a rider’s posture is different. For some, experience in Western styles of riding provides a leg up; for others, it can be the steepest hurdle.

Riders mount from the right and, on the approach to a target, ride without actually sitting in the saddle. The ideal is to rise up only so far as to allow a single sheet of paper between the rider and the saddle. Thus the rider can keep the upper half of the body steady and have greater control when aiming and shooting at the target.

In the end, of course, everyone’s attention is on the target. The Takeda school, however, prides itself most on its horsemanship. The Takeda family from which the school takes its name was, along with the founders of the Ogasawara school, officially retained to train warriors. Kaneko explains the difference between the schools by saying that followers of the Ogasawara school are archers first and riders second. Under his instruction, however, “if your riding isn’t good enough, I won’t let you shoot.”

Each rider gets several turns at hitting the target, or, in earlier stages of training, galloping by with outstretched arms or while simply holding a bow.

In the afternoon, they continue with archery practice and Kaneko’s lectures about history and etiquette. For all the inescapable weight of the tradition — from practice uniforms to the horses’ gear to the bows and arrows themselves — without training in conduct, he says, yabusame is “just another sport.”

Kaneko refers to his students as volunteers, because of the uncompensated time they put into practice and exhibitions. But it is a term that applies just as well, if not better, to the master himself, who accepts no fees for the lessons.

Some come for the horses, some for the archery and some, like Shigeru Ariwaka, are followers of martial arts in general. Bajutsu is one of the 18 traditional arts every warrior was expected to know. Although the 10-year veteran has no praise for the riding skills of actors in Japan’s swashbuckling period dramas on TV, he credits the shows themselves with inspiring in Japanese a certain nostalgic patriotism.

“People get excited watching period dramas, with their sword fighting and all,” he said. He likened this “pioneer spirit” to the romance of American Westerns.

“The fact that these shows are popular shows that there is something in them for Japanese.”

Perhaps this is the spirit Takeda Ichimon hopes to evoke as they travel to demonstrate their skills. They have a busy domestic schedule with eight exhibitions a year.

The group will be giving a unique demonstration of kasagake, the workhorse cousin of yabusame, May 28 in Miura City on the western Miura Peninsula. Set in the sand with a view of Sagami Bay, the curved kasagake course challenges the riders not only with the usual shoulder-height “enemy” target, but with two ground-level targets as well, which mimic hunting for small animals. While yabusame, refined as a ritualistic performance, is still demonstrated at shrines in Kamakura, Tokyo and elsewhere around the region, kasagake remained a form of practical training.

The school has also started to expand abroad. In a conscious effort to raise interest at home, Kaneko has raised the school’s exposure overseas. Takeda school riders have exhibited their skill in between-race entertainment at the racetracks or at exhibitions of traditional sports in France, Germany, Brazil and, for the first time last year, Mongolia. Kaneko even established a branch of the school in Avignon, France in 1990.

Come to think of it, the Takeda school looks set to hold its own with the movies after all.