All About Yabusame (Horseback Archery) Festival in Kamakura, Japan

In my opinion, Kamakura is the best day trip destination from Tokyo. Interesting cultures are concentrated there because Kamakura was the capital of Japan in the Middle Ages. No need to say how interesting Kamakura is when there is a traditional festival lasting from the Middle Ages; that’s Yabusame Festival.

Yabusame Shinji Festival at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine is definitely one of the most interesting, and exciting festivals in Japan.

In this article, I’ll write explanations about this festival, upload the photos, tell you travel tips from the viewpoint of a Tokyo local who experienced it, and write a travel guide to visit Kamakura. Enjoy it!




Fast Facts about Yabusame Festival

Being organized is the key of Tokyo Direct Guide. You can learn all from the 4 important facts that I summarized in the following.

1: Festival of Horseback Archery

Yabusame is an art of samurai warriors in Japan in old times. The archers ride a horse, and shoot the three targets while running. It is so exciting for visitors to see, and so difficult for the archers!

Yabusame, Horseback Archery in Japan
Yabusame, Horseback Archery in Japan

2: Lasting for 800 Years

This festival has been held since the ages Minamoto samurai clan (also, Genji) built Kamakura as the new capital. The Minamoto samurais built Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine and started to offer their arts as important rites. Today’s Yabusame Festival is JUST AS it was in the Middle Ages.

3: In REAL Samurai Costumes

The Archers are wearing the costumes just as REAL samurais wear. This festival has not changed since the Middle Ages.

4: On 16 September Every Year

Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine is the biggest shinto shrine in Kamakura, and they hold Reitaisai (means, “regular big festival”. The biggest festival of the shrine.) every September. Yabusame is the highlight of it and held on 16 September, the third and last day.

How Yabusame Festival Is Like

When you learned what Yabusame is, it’s time to see the festival itself!

First comes a parade of the archers and priests at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine. Everyone in the parade is wearing kimonos and armors of samurais. Just in case, I’d like to emphasize that this is not for entertainment nor tourism at all but for a REAL traditional festival. So exciting for visitors to see that kind of things!

Parade of Yabusame Archers, Shinto Priests and children
Parade of Yabusame Archers, Shinto Priests and children

Some local elementary and junior high school students participate this festival as the role of children. Before the archery starts, make sure that flash of your camera is turned OFF not to surprise the horses – Don’t worry, there are English announcements during the festival, so you won’t get into a trouble.

Samurais and children carrying the targets
Samurais and children carrying the targets

When all the rites and parade end, it is the big time for the archers. Yabusame starts!

3 archers go first. As I write later in this article, they are the best archers who have the roles of this festival. Be prepared!

The First Archer
The First Archer
The Second Archer
The Second Archer

There are 3 targets in the run and visitors are watching between two of them. We can learn how hard they practiced yabusame for this festival – They prepare the arrow on the horse at FULL SPEED, shoot the target without any moment to stop to check it out, take out the next arrow on the horseback at full speed, shoot the next target, and repeat this once more! That’s just amazing, isn’t it?

The Third Archer
The Third Archer

When the three archers finish their Yabusame, they proudly go back. Let’s give them big applause!

Archers Who Successfully Worked!
Archers Who Successfully Worked!

The main is these three, but it is too early to go home. More than ten archers come next. When you are used to seeing Yabusame, you can afford to see the details. For example, focus on the moment when the target is shot by the archer.

The Moment the Archer Shot the 1st Target!
The Moment the Archer Shot the 1st Target!

Look! The wooden target in the right is SMASHED into pieces! The arrow is not made of metal – this is a festival, not a battle in the Middle Ages – but we can see how powerful it is.

Next 6 Archers
Next 6 Archers – Big Hands for them!

I hope you can feel how fast they run in my photos. Horses are so serious, too.

Shot the 2nd Target!
Shot the 2nd Target!
Shot and run - No moment to stop
Shot and run – No moment to stop

When all the archers finish shooting, there is a parade again.

An Archer and a Horse
An Archer and a Horse
An Archer and a Horse
An Archer and a Horse

Can you feel how interesting and exciting Yabusame Festival is? I was really happy to see it, and I believe you will, too!

6 Tips by a Tokyo Local

I’d like to list up the tips for excitement and convenience for you here. If you are visiting the festival, I hope they are helpful for you!

1: Save Your Place 1 Hour Before Yabusame Starts

Yabusame begins at 13:00. But it is too late to arrive there at 13:00 because most of the paths in the shrine are closed to prepare for Yabusame. If you are too late, you can’t even enter the areas to see the festival.

To avoid this, it is advised to save your place AT LEAST 1 hour before. For example, I am the one who did so. I was lucky enough to find a good place at noon, but I feel I should have been there earlier. I saw some visitors who didn’t manage to find a space and found the paths got blocked while strolling.

You don’t need to be there too early – For example, it is time-wasting in the interesting town if sitting there at 9:00.

2: Take a SHEET

I’m talking about a SHEET, not a seat. Yes, the festival starts at 13:00, but that’s for the archers. They have some rites to purify themselves at the main building, and this is what starts at 13:00. We visitors need to wait more than half an hour to see Yabusame.

The interesting stories about the festival (in English and Japanese) flow from the speakers, but they do not soften tiredness of your knees!

It is advised to take a SHEET to sit down on the ground.

Who regrets not doing so? Me.

3: Be Prepared for the First 3 Archers

As I mentioned, the most important archers are the first three. They have the roles of the famous samurais of Minamoto clan. It is quite natural that the best archers take these roles.

4: Camera Tips to Avoid Bad Photos

The horses run VERY FAST, so it is not very easy to take great photos although we are just in front of the course.

To avoid regrets, find the camera manual first. Even if you don’t think your camera is very professional, today’s cameras are amazingly good beyond the expectations of most travelers. Look for the ways to focus moving things. Concretely, your camera has “sports mode,” “bird mode” or something like that, doesn’t it? That will work well!

Importantly, “High Speed Photography” to shoot many photos in 1 second exists for this kind of situation.

Don’t forget turning off the flash – It’s for horses!

If you are a professional photographer, you just need to prepare your camera that suits Yabusame Festival.

5: When the Festival Ended

It’s too early to go back home. The archers are still in the shrine.

Just After Yabusame Festival
Just After Yabusame Festival

I saw some people taking photos with them. Although this is a serious festival, you might have some chances to do so.

Also, there are many things to see in Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine. (…I know this pronunciation is a nightmare for some of you. I wondered if there is some ways to make it easy in vain. )

6: Images of Minamoto Clan among Japanese People

Travel guidebooks do not talk about the REAL feelings of the locals. It is the specialty of Tokyo Direct Guide.

Think of historical characters in your country. Some have good reputations and others have bad images, don’t they? Heroes who changed the society to be better, savors of the country, wise and merciful kings, complicated philosophers, cunning warriors, corrupt politicians, cruel tyrants, eccentric artists… This happens in Japan, too.

How about Minamoto clan? Are they popular or not?

They definitely have good images! Japanese people think that the characters in Minamoto clan are beautiful and elegant! They are so popular that they often appear in samurai movies and soap operas. It is not rare that Minamoto samurais are played by “handsome” actors who have many teenage fans.

The rival of Minamoto clan (also called, Genji) was Taira clan (also, Heike). These two samurai clans are at the center of Japanese medieval times. Not only in politics, they appear in classic literature on Japanese textbooks at school. Japanese people will never say that Taira clan has good images – They are often considered to be “fat pig” characters who are totally arrogant. On the contrary, Minamoto clan has even brilliant legends.

Minamoto clan is cool. As a result, Yabusame Festival in Kamakura sounds very cool to Japanese locals.

To Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine, Kamakura
Gate to Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine, Kamakura

In Conclusion

I really want to say that Yabusame Festival is nothing but AMAZING. There are few things that are as epic as this. I have reported many interesting festivals in Tokyo and other places in Japan on this blog, and this is definitely one of the bests for me.

If you got interested in Yabusame Festival reading this article, or have been thinking of visiting it, you’ll be the next to witness it!

Kamakura Travel Guide

How to Get to Kamakura
From Tokyo Station: Catch a JR Yokosuka Line train. It is a 60 minutes ride.
From Shinagawa Station: Catch a JR Yokosuka Line train. It is a 50 minutes ride.
From Shinjuku: Catch a JR Shonan Shinjuku Line train. It is a 53 minutes ride.

See The Easiest JR Train Map of Tokyo by Tokyo Direct Guide

How to Get to Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine

Go out of East Exit of Kamakura Station. It is a 10 minutes walk.

Official Website in English: http://www.tsurugaoka-hachimangu.jp/

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