Before coming to Japan, I think my brother wanted to try his hand at Japanese archery (弓道) more than anything else; so that he could see just how it compares to his regular archery back in the UK.

I had searched on the internet and found 園山大弓場 (pronounced 'enzandaikyuujou') in Kyoto, next to the Yasaka Shrine in Gion, where one can go and just fire off a few arrows without going through all of the training required when one usually undertakes Japanese archery.

Upon arriving, we were confused to find that it looked just like a regular house. After getting closer we noticed that Monday was their day off; they were closed! Needless to say, my brother was crestfallen; he'd been looking forward to it for the entire trip. So we stood outside and pondered what we should do for a 'plan b'.

After a minute or so a woman in her 60s opened the door, and we apologised and explained that we'd come to shoot a few arrows. I'm not sure why, other than pure kindness, but she then invited us in to 'just look around'. No sooner were we inside than she laid a bow down and got some arrows out, explaining that she works the range with her son, who speaks English, and he takes Mondays off.

She spoke in a thick Kyoto dialect; so much so that I couldn't really understand a lot of what she said.

As you can see from the photos, there is a long bench seat inside, on which we were told to sit facing sideways (at 90˚ to the target) with our right leg curled up underneath us, and our left leg on the floor. The lady explained that arrows are shot in the posture of 'sitting on a horse' - a technique that dates back to bygone days when people shot their arrows from horseback. Once seated, we held our bow and faced left down the 14-metre range (which sloped slightly downwards, under the house) toward the targets.

The bows were very simple, consisting of just a single length of wood and a cord permanently attached to one end. In preparing them for our use she pulled the cord, bent the wood, and attached the cord to the opposite end of the bow, thus creating the bowed shape. She asked us to try out a couple of different strengths of bow, so that we could work out which suited us best. I think it was at that moment that we realised just how much effort and thought is involved in ensuring good technique and posture for Japanese archery. We were told to:
  1. Hold the bow with our left hand and bend the wrist;
  2. Place the arrow on top of finger and thumb of the left hand;
  3. Pinch the arrow onto the cord using two fingers and thumb of the right hand;
  4. Pull our right hand back all the way past our right ear;
  5. Move the bow up or down to line up with the target;
  6. Release and not move our arm or body afterwards;
  7. Watch... as our arrow skewed off and hit the wrong target (in my case at least).

Whilst we fired off our 10 arrows, one at a time (and mostly laughed at the results), the lady explained to us that the place has been there over 150 years, since 1843 (the Edo period). She has apparently been running it herself for the last 30 years. She also pointed out the lists of peoples' names covering most of the wall space. They are the names of those who have managed to shoot three arrows (from ten provided) into the centre of the target; older names carved into wood, more recent names written on pieces of paper.

With all arrows shot, we inspected the targets. As I feared, I had fared the worst, managing only to hit a target that was not my own. My brother had fared better, managing to get one arrow in his target. Overall it was an amazing experience, and well worth the 800 yen (£5) each that it had cost.