Kyudo is another sport I encountered during my recent visit to Japan. It was very slow, deliberate and even a meditation, as time slows down for the archer and the observer.

You can test your own patience level by watching the video above. It takes five minutes from the time the archers come on stage before the first one even begins to shoot an arrow. This will illustrate immediately–or maybe I should say eventually–how the experience felt when I watched it. If you know you are too impatient to wait so long, there is a shorter video second from the bottom.

Spiritual Japanese archer with 6.5 foot bow

Spiritual Japanese archer with 6.5 foot bow

During my visit last week, perhaps six archers were on an identical indoor “stage” as in the videos firing outdoors into rain-protected targets. After launching just two arrows, each archer slowly left the wooden dojo floor in a specific, ritualized manner. In fact every movement and gesture on the stage is choreographed minutely: moving on and off the floor, notching the arrow, drawing the bow, releasing the arrow. Hitting the target isn’t even the primary goal, although if the archer carries out the movements perfectly and has the correct spiritual development, the arrow will pierce the 14-inch-diameter target, which is 92 feet away.

the draw is high, above the head

the draw is high, above the head

There are many steps to learning this ancient sport, and beginners must pass a number of tests, before they are even allowed to move to the dojo stage and, I assume, wear the traditional clothes. The techniques of the eight stages of shooting are meticulously prescribed here , and it is nothing like Western-hemisphere archery and Robin Hood-movie shooting. Although I had seen still photos for years, and noted the extremely large bow, above-the-head draw, and that the arrow was released from the bottom third of the bow, rather than in its center, I had no idea how slowly and deliberately the whole motion was.

A German who didn’t speak much Japanese, Eugen Herrigel, studied Kyudo and wrote a book (1948) I read in college, Zen and the Art of Archery, that changed my life forever. It was a huge influence in bringing Zen philosophy to the west, even though some of the translations may have been misunderstood or inaccurate.

The bottom video is of a Japanese Hawaiian who couldn’t hit the target until he spoke in a dream to his samurai ancestors who told him to shoot with his eyes closed. It worked, and he and the target became one…