A block from my hotel in Kyoto was the Sanjusangen Buddhist Temple, a 400-foot-long wooden structure that houses 1000, 25-armed, life-sized wooden statues of the deity Kannon, along with statues of 28 other gods.

But it is the amazing athletic achievements of archers here that continues to awe me. You won’t believe what I am going to describe. In 1606 a Samurai gave a demonstration of his Kyudo (archery) prowess by shooting 100 arrows in rapid succession the entire length of the Temple. He hit the target 51 times. This started the annual Toshiya festival and competition, which turned into an event of archery marathons held for 255 years. The main contests were:

The Hyakui: Most target hits with 100 arrows.

The Seni: Most target hits with 1000 arrows. The 11 year old boy who won the 1827 competition hit the target 995 times (only this one was at 200 feet).

The Hiyakazu: The number of target hits in 12 hours. In 1774, 13-year-old Masaaki Noro fired 11,715 arrows with almost all of them hitting the target. That’s an average of 16 arrows a minute for 12 hours with no break.

The Oyakazu: The number of target hits in 24 hours. The 1686 winner, Wasa Daihachiro, hit the target with 8,133 of 13,053 arrows he shot. He averaged 544 arrows an hour, or 9 arrows a minute, and became the record holder.

So think about this—shooting over 500 arrows an hour for 24 hours. You can see in the woodblock print above that the archer is seated and a second person is feeding him the arrows. People at the temple told me that when the target was full of arrows, someone would replace it with a new one (and hopefully not get hit by an arrow arriving every 4 to 6 seconds). There had to be bathroom breaks? Food and water? I was told that the targets were lit by torches at night. Can you even picture how this could be done? I really can’t imagine it.

You can read more details about Toshiya here.

A modern version of Toshiya has been held annually since the marathons ended and is for about 2000 20-year old boys and girls (Japanese coming of age) who shoot just two arrows at 200 feet and are eliminated as soon as they miss the one-meter target. You can see how colorfully the girls dress, how large the bows are and the technique of starting to aim and release above the head.

modern Toshiya

modern Toshiya