If you are looking for a fitness activity that combines the tranquillity of Japanese archery and the thrill of blood-curdling ninja — along with the fun of playing darts — then fukiya (blowpipe darts) is maybe for you.

For many people, fukiya conjures up the essence of ninja and samurai drama, which often features an assassin who blows an arrow coated with deadly poison into the neck of his target. But according to Takeshi Takahashi, today’s fukiya enthusiasts couldn’t be further from such murderous types.

In fact, Takahashi, a director of the Tokyo-based NPO Japan Sports Fukiya Association, says that propelling darts by wind-power through a pipe is now particularly popular among the elderly — thanks to the acknowledged benefits of abdominal breathing.

Unlike other fukiya organizations in Japan, Takahashi’s group — whose membership has steadily grown to 12,000 since its establishment 10 years ago — regards fukiya more as a health- enhancement activity than a game. By acquiring the right style, players learn to breathe deeply from the stomach — a principal feature of yoga as well. In this way they become more relaxed, their stresses drift away, their stiff shoulders ease and a whole other range of ailments are addressed, he says.

So how to play? First, you bow to the target — to calm down and “show appreciation to others for being able to play fukiya,” Takahashi says. Then you turn your body slightly to your right, 45 degrees from the direction of the target, before raising the pipe — which is made of glass fiber — above your head while breathing through your nose. Then you lower the pipe while exhaling slowly through your mouth.

Next, you move your eyes to the target, aim the pipe, breathe in, hold your breath for a moment — and puff! — blow through the pipe.

The gaming aspect of fukiya is actually quite simple. You win 7 points if you hit the bull’s eye; the surrounding red ring earns 5 points; and the white line on the outer circumference of the circle pulls a mere 3 points.

Although in national championships players can earn various dan grades — just like in other Japanese martial arts — the challenge for players of all grades is to not express their excitement or disappointment. After each dart has been blown, it is etiquette to remain collected and move your arm slowly down to the right without displaying any emotion.

To this correspondent, the slow, quiet routine — from all that bowing, to loading the dart, to aiming/blowing and calming down — seemed rather cultish. But according to Takahashi, such stuff is key to improving your health, and even top players must stick to the rules.

“I bet Westerners would be put off by the formality of the sport,” he said. “But if we abolished these rules, we would lose our raison d’etre.”

With many players, darts can easily take on a speed of 130 or 140 kph, but even feeble-bodied people can keep playing the sport until their very last days, Takahashi said.

“Even if your blowing weakens with age, you can still get your dart to hit the target,” he said. “And the curves of such arrows are just as nice as the fast, straight blows . . . One reason so many people in their 60s and 70s are into this sport is that their darts reflect the long and hard-to-maneuver paths they have taken in their lives.

“We often say with a laugh that you can play fukiya right until the very last moment of your life, because all you need to do is breathe.”

For more about fukiya, visit www.fukiya.net/index.php

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