The art of Japanese archery

You may never have considered trying traditional Japanese archery – kyudo – but it offers a profound form of exercise that combines physical activity with mental clarity.

In 1948, a slim paperback book, “Zen in the Art of Archery,” by German philosophy professor Eugen Herrigel introduced Westerners, especially Americans, to Zen Buddhism. This is not a meditation book; it is a book on Japanese archery.

Herrigel had taught in Japan, where he became interested in Zen. She was advised to approach learning Zen through one of the Zen arts, such as calligraphy, archery, flower arranging, or the tea ceremony. Herrigel chose archery and recounted his struggle to do it the Zen way, letting go of his rationalistic habits and learning to trust the intuitive and mystical way of the bow.

Mindfulness is highly sought after. But anyone who has tried meditation knows that clearing your mind can be difficult; this is partly why Herrigel was advised to choose a physical art in which the Zen practice is embodied. Traditional Japanese archery is highly formalized, and even the slightest movement has been prescribed and refined with the utmost grace and efficiency. You cannot practice kyudo without paying attention to your body and your breathing.

A martial art

Close your eyes for a moment. Think of the sound an arrow makes when it is released from a bow. In your mind, you probably hear a “thwoosh”, a cross between a “whoosh” and a “thwang”. But that’s not the sound you’ll hear when you shoot an arrow the Japanese way.

Traditional Japanese archery uses very large bamboo bows. When you release an arrow, which your sensei won’t let you do until you’ve done dozens of hours of preparation, you hear a high-pitched whistle. When your arrow hits the target, it makes a popping noise, like windblown bamboo chimes.

My husband, 53, has had a passion for archery since he got his first toy bow when he was 7 years old. Since high school he has wanted to learn kyudo, but has never lived near one of the few places in the United States where it is practiced, until now. He recently found a kyudo center and a sensei to teach him.

“I love how I feel like I’m getting into archery in a deeper way,” he told me. “Kyudo is not about hitting the target. The goal is within yourself.

Kyudo is done in a special building with an open wall to an outdoor target range. Archers stand perpendicular to the target with their legs wide apart. They stand inside and shoot through the open wall to the outside target. Each movement is formalized in a graceful ritual, from the first step in the piece through the posture and the drawing of the bow. Even where the archer looks and the moment of breathing are formalized. It is very different from western archery; it is a moving meditation.

The bamboo arch is approximately seven and a half feet long and is asymmetrical. It is too long to hold in the middle, as in western archery, so the kyudo archer must learn to hold it a third of its height from the bottom. The bow takes the form of a sail above the archer when drawn. The arrows are big too – over a meter long – and the string has to be pulled further back than in archery Westerners are used to, far behind the archer’s head.

Mind-body workout

“Kyudo”, in Japanese, means the tao (path) of the bow. Japanese archery has developed over millennia from its origins in hunting and warfare to the highly technical form perfected by the samurai. As firearms overtook the importance of archery in warfare in the 1500s, the samurai preserved traditional archery by turning it into a form of self-cultivation.

The serene nature of this archery practice may not seem like a drill at first glance. But half an hour of this doesn’t just benefit your mind; it also gives you a full body workout. Kyudo engages nearly every upper body muscle, as well as your calves, glutes, and core.

Arcs are drawn to one side. Since the movement is asymmetrical, you might assume that your muscles would grow unevenly. Yet the left and right sides of the body are fully engaged, and your chest and stomach muscles are worked as well as your back muscles.

There is an isometric component to archery – a static contraction of the muscle with no visible movement in the joint. You have active recoil from the bow and need to hold it at full draw. Isometric exercise has been shown to be very beneficial. According to Dr. Edward R. Laskowski, isometric exercise can help patients with arthritis and can also help lower blood pressure.

Are you interested in archery?

There are only a few dozen kyudo centers outside of Japan, but archery is a sport you can practice almost anywhere.

Some municipalities impose limits on archery, but in many places you can practice in your backyard. If you are interested in archery, you open a wide range of other activities: you can try bow hunting, bow fishing, 3D shooting (a course in the woods with a series life-size foam animals to shoot, complete with a golf-like scorecard), or even an archery tag or dodgeball-type game using foam-tipped arrows.

You don’t need a giant kyudo bow or an expensive mechanical compound bow like hunters use to enjoy archery. Before buying your own bow, consider taking an archery lesson at a local stand or recreation center that can provide the required equipment.

If you are into the sport, the equipment you need (a bow, arrows, archery glove, quiver, target and safety net) can be purchased at an archery store. ‘arc, where you can try out different makes and models. Basic equipment can be quite inexpensive and can also be used for even less.

Japanese traditional archers prepare their bows. (J Galione/Getty)

If you want to practice at home, but don’t have space in your yard or a suitable safety net, just use foam tipped arrows, which are widely available for live role play. For safety reasons, blunt arrows are a good choice for beginners and young children.

If you want to study kyudo, you can find a sensei by contacting American Kyudo Renmei, a non-profit organization whose mission is to promote Japanese archery in the Americas. States where kyudo is practiced include California, Georgia, Indiana, Minnesota, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and Washington.

Different forms of archery

Western archery: “Mediterranean archery” – the type of archery that most people in the West are familiar with – is what the children of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts learn, and this style of archery is part of modern Olympic games since 1900. Important during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), it was practiced with English longbows. After the Middle Ages, this form of archery was barely practiced for 400 years, and came back into vogue again in the 19th century as a leisure pastime. In western archery, you stand perpendicular to the target, use three fingers to draw the bow, and only pull the string backwards, with your right hand, just in front of your face.

Vintage color engraving of an archer, France, 13th century.
While the English longbow was the most successful military weapon of the Middle Ages, this 13th century French archer was also a force to be reckoned with. (duncan1890/Getty)

Korean archery: Korean archery is the basis of Korean cultural identity and is still highly revered today, as the practice of archery has helped Koreans maintain their independence for centuries. In Korean archery, you use a very short, very curved bow that is shot with a special thumb ring, and you shoot at targets 140 meters (about 150 yards) away, about twice the distance from targets in the Olympics.

Traditional Chinese Archery: Although the art of traditional Chinese archery was nearly lost during the Cultural Revolution, traditional Chinese archery is making a comeback in China and abroad. This form of archery uses a medium length, three-ply, curved bow made of wood, water buffalo horn and sinew. Archers use the “inchworm technique”, in which the elbow of the shooting arm is pulled upwards like a caterpillar. China has embraced many forms of archery over its long history, and its importance is reflected in the fact that today more than 100 million people call themselves Zhang – “Archer” in Chinese. .

painting of Zhang the Immortal
Archery plays an important role in the Chinese tale of how Zhang the Immortal shot the celestial dog that prevented women from having sons when its star was in the sky. (Public domain)

Tatar and Mongolian archery: The Tatars and Mongols excelled in archery on horseback, shooting at their enemies while galloping on the short ponies of the Asian steppes. They used very short, winding three-layered arches. Mounted archery, Genghis Khan’s weapon of conquest across vast swaths of Asia, allowed his men to be quick and mobile as they fought their enemies.

Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is an award-winning journalist and frequent contributor to The Epoch Times. Learn more and sign up to receive her weekly emails at

This article originally appeared in Radiant Life magazine.

Earnest A. Martinez