Every January in Kyoto since back to the 12th century there has been a Kyudo competition – “Toh shi ya” held in the grounds of Sanjusangendo temple, one of Kyoto’s famous tourist spots.
Back in the day the competition was a pretty extreme event with a range of different categories. One thing that has stayed the same is the length of the course. Each archer who is competing in the contest shoots their arrows the length of Sanjusangendo hall, about 120 metres. In the past the competition would range from the most hits on target when firing 100 or 1000 arrows, known as the Hyakui and Seni competitions respectively, with the most famous victor of the 1000 arrow competition amazingly being a young boy of 11 who managed to score 995 out of 1000!
As well as the competitions based on the number of hits per 100 or 1000 shots there were events that were huge tests of endurance over 12 or even 24 hours. In these competitions the winner was the one who scored the most hits on target over the time period. The number of arrows fired off by some of the competitors is truly staggering. Probably the most famous story is of an archer who, in the 12-hour contest is said to have fired 11,715 arrows which would mean he managed to fire around 16 arrows every minute for the whole 12 hours!
Although nowadays the competition is still a huge event, especially for 20-year-olds as it is held each year on Japan’s coming of age day. There are usually around 2000 competitors each year now so, of course, there’s no longer anybody shooting for 24 hours at a time. Now the competition is held in rounds. Archers take their turns in groups and have 2 minutes to take 2 shots. It’s a great chance to see a traditional martial art being performed.
While the competition is on there is no entrance fee to Sanjusangendo temple itself either so it’s a great chance to see the 1000s of bronze statues inside the main hall and receive a blessing from one of the monks as he uses a willow branch to splash drops of sacred oil onto you. It’s a perfect way to see one of Kyoto’s best temples and traditional martial arts all in one go!
Sanjusangendo is easiest reached from Shichijo station on the Keihan line. Just walk along Shichijo street, away from the river for 5 minutes and you’ll see it on your right.