Dear Alice,

On a springtime visit to Japan, I saw something at Toshogu Shrine in Nikko that really got me wondering. There was a festival going on, and a handsome archer made his appearance on horseback. He was decked out in traditional archer clothing but on his head was what I can only describe as a shiny red cowboy hat! In shape, it was just like what you’d see at a rodeo, with a brim in the front and back and the side edges curled up. It seemed to be made of woven straw and lacquered. Something tells me it’s not supposed to be a cowboy hat. But if it isn’t, what the heck is it?

Diane O., Redmond, Wash., USA

You obviously have a knack of being in the right place at the right time. What you saw at Toshogu Shrine was the yabusame ceremony, a ritual performed there only twice a year, once in the spring and once in the fall. You also timed your question perfectly: The next yabusame will be performed at Toshogu Shrine on May 17. The yabusame is a colorful and exciting ceremony in which archers mounted on running horses shoot arrows at targets, hoping to please the gods with their skill and power of concentration.

Before we all call in sick and head for Nikko, let me answer your question about the hat. It’s called a kishagasa and it is made of woven bamboo and then lacquered. It’s the very latest in yabusame headgear, although the term “latest” might be a tad misleading since this hat is an innovation introduced around 1726 by the eighth Tokugawa shogun, Yoshimune.

I was very fortunate to be granted an interview with Kiyotada Ogasawara, the 31st patriarch of the Ogasawara School of Equine Archery and a direct descendent of Nagakiyo Ogasawara, the master archer who tutored the great Kamakura-era general and shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147-1199). There are only two schools of Japanese equestrian archery that perform the yabusame ceremony, the Ogasawara School and the Takeda School.

“The important thing to understand is that yabusame is a ceremony [gishiki],” Ogasawara stressed. “It is not a sport and it is not a martial art, although the training we do in order to perform the yabusame is spiritual and mental as well as physical.”

To prevent commercialism of what is essentially a religious rite, the Ogasawara School prohibits its adherents from teaching the ceremony as a business venture but volunteers conduct training at various points around the country. In the greater Tokyo area, there are practices on weekends at Omiya Hachimangu Shrine in Setagaya Ward and Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine in Kamakura. This is not an activity for those expecting instant gratification: Participating in an actual yabusame ceremony requires a minimum of five years of training, and many of the best archers have been at it for 30 years or more.

Depending on where they are performing the ritual, archers dress in ceremonial garb representing one of three different periods in the history of mounted archery. Kyoto is the only place where archers wear clothing like that used during the Heian Period (794-1191). At the ceremonies at Toshogu Shrine in Nikko, three archers come out in Kamakura-era clothing, followed by nine archers in the simplified garb developed during the Edo Period, which includes the red hat that caught your fancy.

“The kishagasa was an improvement over earlier headgear because it was designed to cut the wind when riding on horseback,” Ogasawara explained. “That’s the reason Western cowboy hats have a similar design. The kishagasa was also an improvement because the curled side brim doesn’t get in the way when the archer draws the bow.”

Traditionally, women were barred from performing the yabusame, but in 1963 female archers participated in a yabusame demonstration for the first time. Since then, interest among women has been growing, particularly in recent years. Ogasawara, who teaches traditional archery at universities, has seen a jump in the number of women enrolling in his classes. “They’ve seen female characters in manga who use a bow and arrow and they think archery is cool.”

But females are at a disadvantage in yabusame. Archers store their arrows in the obi [sash] wrapped around their hips, but on women, the obi rides up making it difficult to draw the arrows smoothly. Nevertheless, the Ogasawara School now accepts women.

“It’s difficult enough to attract people who are willing to undergo the long years of training necessary to perform the yabusame,” Ogasawara acknowledged. “So if someone really wants to learn, we want to accommodate them.”

Interested, Diane?

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