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What is Kyudo? Everything you need to know

While not as popular as it used to be, archery is still a standard method of both hunting and contests of skill. Most bows and archers alike have changed to adapt to the times. One form of archery that’s stayed true to its form is Kyudo. 

Kyudo translates to “The Way of the Bow” and is a Japanese form of archery. Kyudo involves meditation, up until the release of the arrow. Originally used for hunting, war, and contests, now Kyudo is for sport and mastering a craft. 

Kyudo is rich in history and technique. It’s an ancient method of archery dating back to feudal Japan. There is a lot to learn about Kyudo, especially for a beginner. Read on for everything you need to know to get started in this ancient technique gone modern sport. 

How Is Kyudo Different than Western Archery?

From war to sport, archery has been around for hundreds of years. Even though the uses are relatively the same, the techniques are vastly different. The western style is more stationary, lining up archers in positions to release volleys of arrows. 

The Eastern and Western styles’ primary difference is that the Eastern style is exceptionally mobile. Most of their style revolves around riding and shooting from horseback. 

Both styles were effective in their own ways, but the Eastern style had to resort to much lighter and slimmer bows due to riding horseback. The reduced weight allowed them to be incredibly accurate, even on a bumpy ride. Let’s take a look at some of the other ways that these bows are different. 

The Bow

The Kyudo style revolves around just one main type of bow, the Japanese Longbow called a Yumi. The Western-style has a few types of bows for different archers—the most important of them being the short bow and the longbow. 

Both of these bows have a higher draw strength, around 60 and 160 pounds, respectively. This is because they’re stable when they shoot and don’t move, so they can take their time. The Yumi, however, was one piece of lightweight equipment in an arsenal. From armor to blades to the bow, samurai traveled lightweight due to their traveling distances. 

Why Are Kyudo Bows Asymmetrical?

There are many different theories on why the Japanese Longboa is asymmetrical. The most prominent one comes from how the samurai used the bows. They would traditionally shoot from horseback, and the shorter bottom allowed clearance over the horse’s back. 

When they weren’t shooting from horseback, they would shoot while kneeling. The asymmetrical nature of the bow allowed for this as well. There are plenty of other possible reasons for this, though, here are the most popular ones:

  • For use on horses or kneeling
  • The structure of the bamboo
  • Powerful draw strength
  • Lower grip for proper wrist form

Along with this asymmetrical shape, the Yumi also has an interesting structure. 

The Structure of the Bamboo

Traditionally Kyudo bows are made from bamboo and laminated wood. Because of how bamboo grows, the top of a single piece is much weaker and more flexible than the bottom piece. 

Because of this, it’s said the grip for the bow is placed ⅓ of the way up the bow. This is because the bottom of the bamboo is stronger and stiffer, leading it to be more stable and secure to grip. Over time the bow can snap and break with enough use. 

Powerful Draw Force

Having an asymmetrical design also could have been a method of increasing draw strength. Having one end of the bow, specifically the top, be more flexible means that an archer could draw it back further. It’s not uncommon for Yumi’s to be drawn back to the ear and beyond. 

You can learn more in-depth details on the specific draw strength and tension on Yumi’s further on in the article and how they compare to Western-style bows. 

Lower Grip for Proper Grip Form

With the stress that can be put on your wrist while holding a heavyweight bow, it can be easy to hurt yourself. The lower angle of the grip allows for a more natural forming of the wrist. This means it’s more comfortable to hold the bow for longer periods of time without risk. 

Other bows require you to put your wrist at an unnatural angle. This means that it can get injuries and strains over time. We can’t say for sure which of these reasons are the right answer, but they all likely had a hand to play in creating the Yumi and its asymmetrical design. 

Why Do Kyudo Archers Put the Arrows on the Far Side of the Bow?

Most archers nock their arrows on the opposite side of their hand. If you are a right-hand-dominant shooter, you usually set the arrow on the bow’s left side. This is because of the position of our arms on our bodies. 

Because our arms extend from the shoulder, if the bow is held in the center of the body, then the arrow would always shoot to slightly one side. Placing the arrow on the opposite or far side of the dominant arm makes a slight adjustment to correct this. This allows the arrow to shoot more accurately.

The Japanese Kyudo method is no different in this practice. If anything, proper arrow placement is even more important to an ancient Japanese warrior than anyone else. Shooting a bow from horseback provides little room for error or correction.

Here is a Traditional Japanese military archery demonstration showing their technique:

How Many Pounds is a Kyudo Bow?

A typical Kyudo bow is usually between 20 and 40-pound draw weight. For those who don’t know how to use it, the bow can feel weak. In the hands of a skilled Kyudo practitioner, though, 40 pounds is plenty.

Like it was mentioned earlier, the bow was light due to its practical uses in combat. Both on horseback and running on foot, this bow proved to be useful. It was meant to be mobile, and the low draw strength meant it was easy to ride or run while pulling back. 

How Far Can A Kyudo Arrows Shoot?

How far a Kyudo bow can shoot is dependent on the draw strength and the arrow used. The average Yumi can shoot somewhere between 150 and 200 meters or 490 to 650 feet. 

Lighter arrows will land you closer to the 100-meter range. The heaviest of arrows will land you closer to 200. So it’s all about what kind of arrow you use, as well as your experience with the bow itself. 

Is There a Kyudo Glove

A traditional glove used for Japanese Archery is called a Yugake. It’s traditionally worn on the right hand when shooting a bow. There is a three, four, and five-finger variant. The three-finger version is usually best for beginners. 

You should be careful not to get your glove wet, be it with water or body oil/sweat. Wearing an under glove underneath the Kyudo glove is expected to prevent the glove from getting moist. After use, you should lay out your Yugake to let it dry out. If the seam starts to tear, it can be repaired, but if the thumb piece rips, it’s as good as ruined.

How to Tie a Kyudo Glove

Here are the steps of how to tie your Kyudo glove (Yugake):

  1. Put on the glove, with the wide leather flap open to the left of the glove.
  2. Cover your wrist with the flap and attach it to the glove. 
  3. Wrap the wrist strap band around the entire wrist
  4. Tuck the band into itself two times, pulling snuggly but not too tight. Your glove is ready now. 

Take care not to tie your glove too tight. This can cause two different problems. Cutting circulation to your wrists is a bad idea, potentially resulting in poor form and injury when shooting. Tying your glove too tight can also damage the glove, potentially ripping the seams.

What Kind of Arrows Does Kyudo Use?

Traditional Kyudo arrows are called Ya and consist of three individual parts. These are as follows:

  • The Shaft of the arrow, known as No, and is made of bamboo.
  • The Fletchling of the arrow, known as Hane, and made of hawk feathers.
  • The Arrowtip would vary based on the intended use.
    • The Ne, a practice tip made of iron
    • The Togira-ya, a thin pointed tip
    • The Karimata, a Dual pointed tip
    • The Watakushi, a barbed tip

Along with many more variants made for war and use against enemies., all of these different arrow tips are usually made of steel. The bigger tips add more weight and are a factor in how far the arrow can travel. 

Modern Ya are much more straightforward, with only a few arrowhead variations. This is because most Kyudo is done simply for sport and target practice. Often, they don’t even have a tip, but instead just a pointed end to the shaft. The shaft itself, if not made of bamboo, is made of carbon fiber.

How long the Ya used with a Yumi depends on the user. Usually, the length of your arrow is the length of one arm, from shoulder to fingertip, with an extra four to eight centimeters added. The purpose behind this is to allow the archer to draw and nock the arrow in a single smooth motion. 

The Eight Stages of Shooting

There is a set and standard method of Yumi shooting ordained in the Kyudo Manual. This is known as Hassetsu and details the necessary steps to shoot. The Steps for Hassetsu are as follows:

  1. The archer acquires their footing. Their non-dominant side should face the target, and the space in between their feet should be the same as one of their Ya. This is known as Ashubumi.
  2. The archer acquires their balance. They stiffen their back straight, leading to a straight line from their shoulders to their feet. This is called Dozukiri.
  3. The archer readies their hands on the bow. This involves placing the non-dominant hand in the proper position for the arrow, as well as turning the head to find the target. This is known as Yugamae.
  4. The archer raises the bow above their head. This is the first step of the drawing process and is known as Uchiokoshi. This is when the arrow is nocked into the bowstring.
  5. The archer starts to lower the bow, moving their hands in the opposite direction. They pull back on the bowstring while pushing the bow itself forward. This is called Hikiwake
  6. The archer completes the drawing of the string, reaching full extension. This is called Kai.
  7. The archer releases the arrow, shooting the target and allowing his dominant hand to extend beyond his body. This is known as Hanare.
  8. In the final step, the archer keeps his position until the Ya reaches its target. Once the arrow lodges itself, the archer may make the decision to prepare for another shot or lower the bow to judge their previous shot. This is called Zanshin

Much of these eight stages have remained unchanged in modern times. Keeping the tradition of Kyudo is part of why it remains a popular sport in Japan. You should know that step two is more crucial than most people realize. Stiffening the back is vital in making sure that the bowstring does not strike the face when releasing the arrow. 

There are different schools of practice when it comes to Kyudo. These eight stages can change, depending on the school. But usually, the overall knowledge and ideas of the methods remain the same.

Here is a video showing some of the world’s best Kyudo archers in the 2018 All Japan Invitational College Championship:

Where Can I Learn Kyudo?

The best place to learn Kyudo’s styles, both modern and especially traditional methods, would be Japan. But most of the world can’t whisk themselves away to Japan just to practice archery. 

Regarding where you can learn Kyudo, it’s very specific to the region where you happen to live. There are plenty of archery ranges in America, and even some gun ranges offer archery lessons. While Kyudo is commonly known enough to be discussed in archery ranges, it’s not common enough to be taught in most ranges.

Whether or not you can find ranges that offer Kyudo lessons is entirely up to the luck of the draw. For instance, if you live in New York City, there’s a reputable Kyudo Dokokai within the city. If you live in Hartford, Connecticut, then the city’s only range doesn’t teach Kyudo. It specializes in western style and hunting archery. 

How To Learn Kyudo on My Own

So you’re super interested in learning Kyudo, but don’t know where to start. You might be asking, “How do I learn Kyudo on my own?”

If you can’t find a range that teaches Kyudo, then don’t worry. You aren’t totally out of options. There are plenty of online methods to become educated in Kyudo styles through online classes. These are usually less expensive and less time consuming than in-person lessons.

The main issue with online classes is that there’s less direction you can receive in your lessons. If you have questions or aren’t sure of the technique, it can be harder for you to find answers instead of just asking your teacher in person. 

Doing online classes does come with a margin of freedom, however. You can take your classes whenever you want, on your own time. Regarding the pros and cons of learning Kyudo online, it’s undoubtedly better to learn in a proper range. A positive physical environment can help you understand any skill. If this isn’t a possibility, then online classes will manage fine for you. 

Getting Your Own Kyudo Equipment

So you found a place to learn Kyudo, but now you’re asking, “Where can I buy a Kyudo bow?”

Probably the best way to find good quality Kyudo equipment is the join a Kyudo club near you and trade or buy gear from other Kyudo enthusiasts. Other Kyudo archers will also know the best places to find good quality gear.

If you don’t have a Kyudo club near you, you can find some starter gear online. Some good places to start you search are:

  • Sambu Kyuguten – this company is a full service Kyudo equipment supplier based in Sammu City, Japan and they will ship anywhere in the World. Check out their website here.
  • 3Rivers Archery – 3Rivers is well known in the Traditional Archery world so it no surprise that they would also have Kyudo gear. They have a Kyudo bow available on their website right here.

Getting your own Kyudo Bow, as well as a Kyudo Glove and Kyudo Arrows, means you’ll have the ability to practice at home. Before you do any shooting, you need to make sure you’re doing so in a safe, legal environment. It isn’t legal everywhere to shoot in your backyard, so research the laws of your area. 

After you’re sure practicing is both legal and safe, you can look at the market. Here’s a list of some equipment that you can use to practice at home:

  • The Kyudo Bow (Yumi)
  • Spare bowstrings
  • A Kyudo glove (Yugake)
  • Three to Five Kyudo Arrows (Ya)
  • A target
  • A rack for your Yumi
  • A Quiver

A good, reasonably priced Yumi can cost between 100 and 300 American dollars. Ya price can vary based on composition, length, tip, etc. These can usually cost around 10 dollars per arrow. 

A well made Yugake can run at around 50 to 100 dollars. They’re usually made of genuine leather or deerskin, so they can be a bit more expensive than most people expect. But just like with the Yumi and Ya, spending more money to get good quality means it can survive better in the long run. 

Learning An Ancient Tradition

Kyudo is an ancient form of archery, first mastered by samurai for war and then used for sport and mastery. Perfecting your technique on a Yumi can be difficult, but with the proper lessons and experience, it can be an incredibly enjoyable hobby.