Samurai archers tug at the strings of Japan’s heart

Japan’s Dosun Festival archery contest is a pleasant Sunday outing for residents of the Miura peninsula. They load kids into strollers, pack bento lunches and make the long hike down a wooded trail to Araihama Beach to watch as athletes dressed as samurai ride armored horses at top speed along a black-sand beach to fire arrows at squares of brittle wood.

Held every spring in a coastal village south of Tokyo, the contest at first resembles a sort of Japanese Renaissance Faire, with archers wearing anachronistic hardware: 13th-century costumes of silk robes, animal-pelt skirts, cloth shoes and ribbon-tied hats. The arrows have wooden turnip-shaped heads instead of sharp points.

But mounted archery, or yabusame, isn’t just nostalgic re-enactment. The Japanese admire it as a living sport. One at a time, the riders charge their steeds down a lane marked in the sand and fire arrows at a series of wooden targets, which fly apart thrillingly when clobbered with a turnip head. A hit at last year’s festival earned two thumps on a ceremonial drum and a chirpy comment through a PA system by a woman in the judges’ tower.

"Actually, it’s simple," one spectator, a woman named Yoshie, told me. "Hit the wood."

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