A consistent theme for my photography in Japan revolves around Yabusame and I try to photograph every time I get an opportunity. Yesterday was the first time for me to see Yabusame at Samukawa Jinja – the shrine most famous for offering safety/protection to young children and these days “drivers”. Located just over an hour from Tokyo, the shrine is a nice retreat away from the hustle and bustle of modern Tokyo. The Samukawa shrine has a long tradition of Yabusame which was in jeapordy when local residents ran into financial difficulties and could not afford horses. In 1966, the shrine turned to the Takeda Ryu for the support of this grand tradition and has continued since.
In many ways, this Yabusame event was a little different from the other events I had seen at Kamakura and Meiji Jingu. To begin with, the riders were all men. Even today, some temples and shrines do not allow women to participate in religious events, and Samukawa Jinja still adheres very closely to the original religious principles from many centuries ago. The absence of the women was in addition to the many new riders whom I had not seen before, and who I was told were participating and carrying on the tradition on behalf of the shrine. This mixture of new and old highlights the fascination and appeal which Yabusame continues to draw upon.
The winner yesterday was actually one of the older riders and someone who was attracted to Yabusame at the age of 42. Makoto-san or “Mac” as he likes to be called, is 54 today and has a wonderful command of the English language which he learned after spending some time abroad. Fascinated by the sport, he pursued it with the same spirit the sport is famous for and now is one of the top riders. It took him three years to be able to ride the horse properly, and almost ten to be able to hit the target. Mac also explained that there are two parts to the event, one which is religious and one which is more of a sport. The head gear for the religious part is adorned with the image of the devil while the sporting event is carried with more simple head gear as can be seen in the pictures.
Each Yabusame event is a challenge to photograph. Not only are the riders increasing their skill and speed, but also the ever changing light escaping through the tree tops is difficult to master. Along with the fact that I learn something new every time about Japanese culture, perhaps that is one of the fascination which continues to draw me to the events. As I learn more and more about the riders and their personalities, I feel that my attraction and fascination continues to grow.