Budo World

Archery contests at the Sanjūsangendō

Of all the martial arts in Japan, the earliest one to have gone towards “sportification” was kyūjutsu or archery. In the Edo period, it is said that feudal domain rivalries climaxed at the tōshiya tournaments held at the Sanjūsangendō Temple, or the Rengeōin “Hall of the Lotus King” ‒ the official name of the Sanjūsangendō located in Kyoto. Participants had to shoot their arrows under the overhang of the temple’s aisle, from one end to another. The aisle is about 120m long, and is built with 34 pillars ‒ thus 33 intervals ‒ and this is why the temple received the nickname of Sanjūsangendō (“Temple of the 33 Intervals”). The aisle width is approximately 2.2m, and its height around 5m. Because of the long 120m range and the low ceiling, the participants had to perform a low trajectory shot with a very strong bow in order to reach the target. Nowadays, it is said that only a few people can pull off such a feat.

The tournament was held for over 250 years, from 1601 to 1866. It was so popular that an equivalent tournament was also created in Tokyo. There were several different types of competitions but the highlight of the event was the “Zendō Ooyakazu”, where contestants had to hit the target as many times as possible in 24 hours. In 1686, Wasa Daihachirō won the trophy by shooting 13,053 arrows in 24 hours, of which 8,133 hit the target. A simple calculation shows that the release rate was about one arrow every 6.61 seconds; but the contestants were certainly taking breaks to rest or eat, so the interval between shots must have been shorter.

The way of shooting was also unique. The archer sat on a small bench in a low posture called hizagumi; this was devised to have more room so that the arrows did not hit the ceiling. The contestants competed for the honour of their domain, and thus went through intense training for the event. Moreover, people responsible for selecting the arrows, record keepers, referees, assistants, bow makers, lighting assistants etc., followed the archers to raise the reputation of the domain. This proved to be a huge expense. The winners of the contests became heroes and received social and economic rewards. Archery was no longer a martial art for combat, but had turned into a competitive sport.