Samurai. Horses. Feats of martial prowess. Sounds like a good time to me.

Especially if it involves period dress, you can bet I want to be there. I don’t often see processions in Kamakura style outfits, so that made me very excited!

This is Yabusame, a horseback archery started first for keeping warriors sharp in times of non-war, and continued in many spots throughout Japan today for the entertainment of the gods. However, Tsuwano is home to one of the oldest Yabusame ranges still in use, making it one of the more impressive places to see this event as well. (I’ve also seen Yabusame at a neighborhood shrine festival and it was… not as riveting, to say the least). You can read more about its history and practice in these articles:

“Tsuwano Yabusame Festival” by Jake Davies
“Witnessing the ancient yabusame ceremony in Tsuwano, Japan” by Clyde Holt

I’ll write more about my experience!

It was the second week of April, so many of the cherry blossoms had already fallen, but many were still scattering–enough that I found a few in my bag and in my hair. The weather was between warm and cool throughout the day, and it was a good day to stand outside for an outdoor event. Unlike other Shinto rituals I’ve stood outside and waited for, this one started right around the time it was promised (once at 11am, and again later at 2pm).

It started with a procession of the horses, warriors, and various footmen and attendants. They walked one way down the track, and then back up the other way.



These outfits are called “Suikan” and I love them.


There was a bit of a crowd, but it was easier to see the whole thing than I expected it would be. It’s a very long track, which provided the crowd lots of space to disperse, and there is a slight slope along which people in the back stand to get a few over people’s heads. There are three targets down the track to stand near and watch, so as far as crowded Shinto rituals are concerned, this one provided a number of good vantage points.

With no time wasted, they began having archers-both men and women–ride their horses down the track every few minutes. That means, with my cheap old point-and-shoot camera, I had plenty of chances to snap pictures. Which is good, because many times I didn’t get a photo until the horse was already long gone.



By each target, there was a group of people dressed like this. If they hit the target, the guy with the stick would raise it in the air.


The arrows had big, blunt tips that made big thumping sounds when they hit the targets, and quite often when they were hit, the boards–at about the height of a warrior’s face–would break. The boards, including the ones that were not hit, were collected after each run and later sold, I believe, with the ones that were hit being an especially nice good luck charm. By that time, the boards were already covered in calligraphy.

Thankfully, people like my friend Melissa had much better technological skills. This is a slow-motion video she took of an archer breaking a target (thanks for letting me post it, Melissa!):

Overall, the event took about 45 minutes, which left us both satisfied and with plenty of energy and time left to see the town. I’ve been wanting to see this event ever since I came to the San’in region, and it was a well-spent 45 minutes.

You see the occasional bash to the eye or slight bump to the head in regular practice, but that was my first time being hit squarely on the top of the head with a back-swinging naginata. I’m okay–lesson learned, humility attained!

To wrap this little series up, yes, I did pass my test for 2-kyuu, but was told a lot to improve on. It’s still too early to tell if the 1-kyuu test will be available later this year or not, but regardless, I hope to improve on the basics more this year as well.

This is just based off my observation, but even though vocal power seemed to be encouraged in all of the martial arts I’ve tried or seen, none of them can top the yelling that goes on in kendo. All the most vocal power to them.

Naginata kyuu tests, at least here in my block, take place about once a year following a local competition (think belt test, only you don’t get a new colored belt to wear). They test you on a certain set of exercises depending on which level you’re testing for, with the strictness of the judges of course increases with each higher level you aim for. They often include engi, a set of attacks and blocks done in a pair. When making a strike, whether in routine group practice, sets in pairs, or in sparring, you always call out the name of your attack so that judges know that you made the strike with intent rather than fluke.

Dan levels count upward, but kyuu levels beneath them start at 5 and then work their way up to 1. Adults start testing at 3, so I attained 3-kyuu after almost a year of practice. This was drawn during preparation for my 2-kyuu test last September.

Naginata armor include shin guards, gloves, torso protection, and a mask/helmet. Before putting on the mask, you wear a tenugui to keep the hair and sweat out of your face. I am a master of putting on neither, but it seems it takes some practice.

In my naginata class, there are a handful of teachers (many of whom are very close to me in age), a few middle school students, the occasional high schooler, a handful of adults including myself, and a bunch of elementary school students. In the older grades kids who want to practice naginata would usually do so on a school team. As I am not enrolled in a middle school or high school, I go to the Shimane Prefectural Martial Arts hall, along with a lot of other kids and adults who are not part of school teams.

Teachers of all kinds–as well as other dedicated professionals–are addressed as “Sensei” either as is or with their name attached. I am occasionally called “Sensei” or “Buri-sensei” when I visit schools and community centers, but it feels weird. Furthermore, my visits are brief, and I am not a regular teacher–more like a sporadic guest lecturer. However, being so accustomed to multi-faceted CIR work, I sometimes forget that when most people see me as a part of daily life in Japan, they probably think, “ah, it’s an English teacher.”

However, being called “sensei” among a dojo with my fellow naginata classmates and a handful of people I call “sensei” feels especially weird. To be clear, I am not qualified to teach naginata! I don’t know that I’ll even reach the first dan rank (I’m still in the kyuu ranks right now), so being called “sensei” in the context of naginata isn’t even a far-off dream.

Every Naginata-sensei I’ve met is way too cool for me to be so presumptuous as to think I have even a fraction of their coolness!

Do not attempt the exercise shown here, either as it was poorly drawn or as it was executed. Martial artists of any discipline should try to keep their feet attached!

This is the most basic of repetitive exercises, usually done in a group while following the teacher. As the very long weapons are drawn up and down, left and right, and spun through the air, you need a lot of room to practice them. Footwork and basic strikes are also part of usual group practice at the start and end of a lesson.

One evening at naginata practice, we did an exercise in which one person would hold a shinai (a bamboo sword used for kendo) and the other would strike it with their naginata to work on their accuracy. This is also something you can practice with both people holding naginata, but since we have many short people with limited reach, the shorter shinai was a little easier. Some of the girls were giggling and imitating kendo strikes and intrigued by how flimsy the shinai seemed to be in comparison to our beloved naginata.

As a few of us learned later that night, the shinai is worthy of some respect for the damage it can do.

After our usual practice session, those of us with armor and time stayed later to get some sparring practice in with A-sensei, who happens to be Nihon-ichi (number one in Japan), now three years running! She is awesome. The fact that I get to practice with her is also pretty awesome, although I’m still a sparring beginner. Even the elementary school girls have to take it easy on me, but they are really hardcore and tough to begin with (and I can’t stress enough how cool they all are!).

As we were packing up our armor and only a few of us were left, A-sensei asked to borrow some shin guards–not for her, but for someone else suiting up in armor across the dojo. This man was usually around at that time practicing iaido, the art of drawing a katana and overall looking pretty cool and samurai-like, but apparently he was also a kendo practitioner. While I don’t know who prompted it, he was suiting up for a duel with A-sensei.

I’ve seen her duel at naginata matches, but not so much during our practices, during which she is providing instruction while sparring instead of going at it with her full strength. Furthermore, I had never seen a duel between a kendo-ka and a naginata-ka, only duels against the same weapon. The remaining students and teachers and I were of course very excited to watch this match.

Unfortunately, you’ll have to make do with my sloppier than usual sketches I made after returning home late that night, as I didn’t even have my phone on hand to snap pictures–not that they would have done justice to seeing it in person anyway! They were both attacking aggressively, using strikes that are only used by experienced practitioners for their increased chance of injury, such as throat strikes. While the rest of the iaido class and the judo class on the other side of the dojo of the Shimane Prefecture Martial Arts Hall calmly continued their classes as usual, we watched and listened as they traded shouts and strikes.

For all I could tell, it looked like A-sensei was winning, as she was getting more accurate strikes in without them getting blocked. However, something very unexpected happened:

The naginata she was using snapped in half!!

I don’t mean the part where the bamboo blade is attached to the (usually) oak portion, as that is meant to be easily replaced as it gets beaten up during fierce matches. I mean the oak itself! I didn’t see exactly how it happened, but it was a clean, diagonal break down the middle.

A-sensei, cool as ever, shrugged it off, saying that it looked like it was going to break soon anyway. I have no idea how much experience she might have with pushing weapons to their limits, but nonetheless my other teachers were very surprised to see it happen. She had a spare ready and the match continued, with another classy break later for the kendo-ka to readjust his mask. A-sensei’s performance implied she wasn’t shaken at all by the broken naginata, but it made the rest of us even more fired up.

Men! Kote! Sune! The strikes picked up speed, but A-sensei was making most of them!

Her opponent was not quite as fast, but still got a number of powerful strikes in. After the match, we saw that she didn’t escape a couple of light injuries.

At last, they stepped away from each other and bowed, indicating the formal end of the match. It was A-sensei’s win!!

As the kendo-ka removed his mask, he was sweaty and smiling, shaking his head and commenting on how hard it was to match her speed. She was smiling and sweaty as well, as they thanked each other for such an invigorating duel.

You could say that, although they were both very skilled, A-sensei turned out to be the better opponent. However, as my younger classmates were celebrating her victory, one of the teachers remarked, “Of course, the naginata has better reach, after all.” No need to pick on katana and shinai users, as both have their merits, but I do wish naginata could be even half as popular as kendo. With more practitioners, we’d see even more skilled naginata-ka like A-sensei. For now it’s just a pleasure to train with her, but seeing as the other competing adults I’ve seen in the region have trained just as much, I don’t think my odds would be very good in a real match quite yet!

I am currently on vacation and will return to reply to comments and provide new content later. Until then, please enjoy an excess of doodles and comics about my daily life in the San’in region. See you in mid January!

You must never doubt the consideration that goes into any given piece of cloth in Japan. Even if they aren’t as fancy as the furoshiki (which are coming back into fashion as eco-gift wrap instead of just an appropriate way of carrying clothes), the tenugui has uses not limited to the martial arts, and can come in any kind of print and pattern. There are proper methods of caring for them if you want them to stay usable for years and years to come, especially if you receive them as gifts (which, thus far, I always have).

Speaking of, this is one I received from one of my naginata instructors, printed in Izumo region style with an Izumo Taisha and Yamata-no-Orochi design.

tenugui

Let me start by saying naginata armor is a big investment, and nonetheless I had been thinking about buying my own anyway, though struggling over what to do with it when I eventually leave Matsue. However, the teachers at the Shimane Martial Arts Hall knew of my interest in eventually taking part in competitions and rounded together some used armor for me! At this point, I still lack a helmet/mask similar to the ones used in kendo, but I have a torso-guard, gloves suited for changing your grip on a long weapon, and shin gaurds for the ankle strikes.

So far I’ve only practiced in armor a few times, and have yet to spar. The main difference being that my partners–usually elementary school girls who are far more experienced than I am–hit my ankles directly instead of having me block them. I still need to gaurd my head, but since they all have helmets, I hit them directly when we practice. Of course, this has startled my friends who have come to watch my practices.

Ah, summer practices in the steaming hot dojo… well, it’s either that or the frozen dojo in winter. A warrior endures both stinky sweat and numb toes.

In case anyone is wondering, here is where I found the instructions. Thank you, Southern California Naginata Federation! I can now do it without looking at instructions.

Another idea I finally came up with to keep my pleats as neat as I can while they are hanging up to dry is to pin them in place at the bottom with clothespins. Hasn’t really helped the wrinkles, though… anybody have any hakama laundry tips to share?