Shortly after I moved back to Japan last spring, my husband and I attended the annual exhibition of yabusame at Sumida Park in Tokyo’s Asakusa district. Yabusame is usually translated into English as ‘horseback archery’, although a more accurate (and poetic) rendition of the Chinese characters would be ‘flowing arrow horse’.
Following a solemn parade of men and women in elegant costumes – the archers riding on horseback while attendants carry their enormous bows and samurai warriors march alongside them – the competition begins. One after another over the course of an hour, riders in traditional garb gallop down a 250-metre course with breathless spectators on one side and three wooden targets evenly spaced on the other side. Standing up in the hooked metal stirrups, the archer pulls taut the string on a giant bow and looses the arrow with a fierce yell as the horse races past. If it is hit in just the right spot, the wooden target splinters impressively and a spray of confetti bursts out to the shouts of the admiring crowd.
This is my first time watching a yabusame competition, and I am in awe of the archers’ skill; their battle cries make me shiver. I have my camera poised to take pictures, eager to capture the excitement of the experience. My first shot is magnificent: the rider caught in profile, arms extended, the target shattered into three pieces, the arrow still sailing beyond it. After that, I can’t seem to bring anything into view: frame after frame there are only a horse’s flared nostrils, a tail retreating out of the picture, a limp arrow falling to the ground. I hand the camera to my husband in disgust.
Before each rider launches down the course, there is a brief announcement over the loudspeaker: the archer’s name, hometown, and other details are shared with the spectators. Afterwards, we are told how many targets were hit, although my husband and I have usually already gathered this information from the cheers and moans that ripple through the crowd as the horse and rider thunder past.
Towards the end of the program, a young rider makes his appearance among the veterans. Only in his second year of university, he is still a novice trainee with one of the two venerable, family-run yabusame schools in Japan. He gallops past us, his shout as fierce as that of the other archers, but his bow remains drawn, the arrow still notched, as he speeds past.
Later, my husband tells me that the loudspeaker blared out the young man’s failure: three misses, not a single arrow shot from his bow. But the announcer also emphasized his success: he managed to ride down the course at top speed, standing up in the stirrups with no hands on the reins, the bow pulled taut and fierce in his arms.
I’ve only been back in Japan for three weeks at this point, when I sit in the park marvelling at the yabusame, and already I feel the weight of my mistakes like a mountain of fallen arrows at my feet: the awkwardness of conversations where I say all the wrong things, incorrect amounts of cash handed over at tills, doors where I forget to duck. I wish for a voice over a loudspeaker that would follow me around, speaking from a kinder and truer place than I can muster up for myself these days: “Look at how she did her best. Look at what she did right, however small and inconsequential that might be.”
I admire this young man for launching himself down the gauntlet of failure, for knowing his limits, for learning a new skill by taking each day the next step he was able to take, and then the next. There are days when it is enough to gallop past the targets, standing up in the stirrups, bow drawn, arrow unloosed. And there must even be days when it is enough that you are able to get on the horse at all, or that you are willing to approach the horse with an apple on your outstretched palm.
And there are days when it is enough that you lay your head on your pillow and dream: of the horse, of the rippling muscles, of the flowing mane, of the hooves churning up dust, of the aching stretch of the bow, of the arrows flying true, arrow after arrow into the sweet, colourful confetti of your dreams.
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My questions for you: What if you could find that strong, gentle and supportive voice within you? What would it sound like? What would it be saying to you today? What in your life could you let be ‘enough’ for right now?