Being back on the west coast of North America again brings me that much closer to one of my favourite places in the world, Japan. I had the chance to take part in the 4th Annual Asia Oceania Kyudo Seminar recently. This trip fulfilled one of my dreams to have the opportunity to practice and shoot in a proper dojo in Japan. The photo above is at Meiji Jingu in Tokyo. This is the main center for kyudo in Japan if I understand correctly. It’s on the grounds of one of a very large temple in central Tokyo- just by Harijuku station.
I’ve been studying for a little over five years now. Still very much the beginner by kyudo standards. I think we are very lucky to have access to such wonderful teachers in the west but it’s still a very niche practice for sure. It’s a very introspective pursuit. There is of course the normal desire to hit the target but it goes much deeper into the area of meditation. Form, calmness, and beauty is paramount. Hitting the target follows naturally if all is in order. To go and see how it’s done in Japan is a real educational experience and quite a treat. Such wonderful teachers, other practitioners, and facilities really make it something special. I’ve culled through my collection of photos and cherry picked the ones I like best. Hope you will enjoy as well.
This is in the main kyudojo in Nagoya Japan. Wonderful to get a chance to see friends from all over the world converging here for several days of study and exams.
This is during our seminar. It’s a very hands on thing as you can see. Teachers come to each person while they shoot and make adjustments to your form while in the process of shooting. Sometimes one is in front of you and one behind, both pulling at you to adjust all the while you’re trying to shoot! It’s something that takes a bit of getting used to for sure. Luckily I was exposed to this from the very start (thanks Rick!) so it’s really not to uncomfortable now. Learning to relax and allow your body to be moved around by others is key.
This is down at the other end of the range. The angled wall is damp sand mixed with clay. It makes a very nice sound when the arrows land and the sound when you hit the target is like striking a drum. As you can see we’re just getting used to shooting here at this point and not hitting much yet. This will change thankfully.
Even though you’re tired at the end of the day it’s difficult to walk away and pack up your things. Last man standing here.
Many of the teachers are masters or “hanshi”. Many starting when they are very young practice all their lives. Some for many generations in their familiy. This is Honda sensei with Osawa sensei behind him. Both of these men are wonderful teachers and shoot beautifully. They were smiling and laughing much of the time while still being very focused and intent on helping us along.
We had a banquet the last evening of the seminar before our exams the next day. This is a photo of all the teachers and people who helped run the seminar for us.
Next day it was all business. These are the sensei who were our judges. I passed my exam by the way!
I got to do a little sight seeing in Nagoya as well. Here’s the castle there. Beautiful structure with a nice museum inside.
This is the view from inside at the top. Looking out over Nagoya.
I had just finished a difficult project at work. This is what it felt like…
A little side track in Kyoto. This was the view out of my room.
On my way to dinner in the evening I ran across this shop. Wish I could have gone back when they were open.
Just wandering. Love seeing little restaurants and spots like this. Such a lovely setting. I really need to go back and just spend a few days wandering the streets.
Heading back up to Tokyo. Mt. Fuji out the window.
Stopped off in Hakone on the way back up. This is the view out the window of the hotel room.
A wonderful stream just outside. The sound of water lulls you to sleep at night.
Making it back to Tokyo it’s time for more kyudo of course. I met up with my friends Harima-san and his wife Rumiko-san. They were so kind and generous to me. I got to visit several wonderful dojos and some amazing kyudo shops. Places I never would have found or been granted access to were opened to me. I can never thank them enough for showing me around and sharing all this with me.
Meiji-jingu kyudojo. I’ve seen this place so many times in documentaries and youtube vids. To be able to practice here was really amazing.
The shrine and the judges seats. Maybe someday I can come here for my exams.
The makiwara room. A few arrows to warm up before going downstairs. Monica from Sweden to the right of me!
Ran into Manfred from Germany while there too!
This is the kyudojo where Harima-san and Rumiko-san practice on an almost daily basis. I had trouble getting on the trains early in the morning with my bow and bag so I was late in arriving. Very sorry Harima-san!! He was patiently waiting for me and we hurried inside to change and prepare. It was a beautiful space. This is like a community center here in the west. Large central arena for all sorts of things. They just happen to have a very nice archery range as well.
Full 28 meters for 5 mato. Very nice space.
The route down the side for going to collect arrows.
Inagawa-san gave me a nice tour and took me upstairs to the roof to look around. They have solar panels above the range. This shot is looking down to range below.
This is their makiwara tucked away off to the side. I have never seen one that is not round. Interesting. Notice also the scales mounted on the wall to the left. For measuring the draw weight of the bows if I’m not mistaken.
There was a nice observation area off to the side. Good spot to watch from.
Everyone with the nice big smiles.
These guys were so good! Hitting, hitting, hitting. The sound of the arrows striking the target was constant. If you practice all the time as they do no doubt you will improve as well. Rumiko-san is preparing for the exam for godan soon if I understood correctly. Good luck to you!
They cycled through the shooting so quickly! As soon as I exited I came back around to grab more arrows to go right back in.
I forgot and left my lens cap tucked in my shirt in some of these. You can just make it out. Should photoshop it out, funny.
Harima-san on the left and Inagawa-san on the right.
After shooting we went for lunch. A small little place just a short distance away. Food was so tasty! They do this once a week I’m told. Nice social group. All chattering and laughing. Good food, good friends, it’s the same all over the world.
I feel so lucky to have been included in this. They were all so kind to me. I hope I can go back again and visit them someday.
This place looks like something out of a 1980s scifi movie doesn’t it? Amazing facility!
One of the downstairs shajos. Beautiful dark wood floors. Love the aesthetics.
The makiwara room. Notice the strategic placement of the mirror on the right. Very handy for checking form.
Those floors, really good feel to them. Notice the light spots from the wear of so many people standing to shoot.
The reason we came was upstairs. This is the enteki range, 60 meters distance. This was so much fun. Felt like the clout shoots with the English longbow over in Scotland. It was surprisingly easy to adjust. Target feels big! Perception-wise it’s scaled to appear the same size as the target at 28 meters. My first arrow to get the range was a bit off but then the second arrow was on target. I will have to try this at the western archery range here in Vancouver.
Back behind the line is a nice tatami floor with tables. Sliding doors open to let a breeze through.
I was shooting with my 18kg bow here. Didn’t have to adjust much for the range. Lighter arrows, stronger bow. Pretty flat trajectory. Just a little higher, maybe half a hand or so. I have some video of our shooting as well. Need to get that up on vimeo to share as well.
These are the arrows we were using. 6mm diameter shaft. Very light and delicate. They flew beautifully. Harima-san gave me 2 to bring back. They are rather expensive. I will try to replicate them I think.
The fletchings are very delicate and slim. About half the height of the fletchings on a normal arrow. They are taken from the under side of the feather. It’s thinner and more delicate than the top portion of the feather that’s normally used.
Walking out to collect arrows. You can see downstairs to the other shajo for the 28m distance.
Out at the targets.
This is looking back towards the shooting line.
Ok, still with me? Sorry for so many, I did pare it down. Saving some of the best stuff to the end. This is one of the largest kyudo shops in Tokyo. Koyama. I spent a little money here to be sure. Everything you could ever want they have. Sadly they don’t ship to the west. Have to go there in person next time your in Japan!
I learned a ton here. Asked so many questions and Harima-san was so patient in answering all of them. This is where I got the kimono in that facebook photo. Also managed some arrows and loads of other little things. My suitcase barely cleared weight at the airport home.
Look at those display cases above!
A little bit of art to the side. Notice the photo of Awa sensei.
A special treat for us here. We were allowed in the back to see the rear shop. He’s heating and shaping a bow here.
Look at all those bows. Just look at them. Look… at… them…
And lastly but certainly not least is the fish market. I made it to Tsukiji on the first morning after arriving. Kind of a ritual as the jetlag has you up early. Nice way to say hello to Japan early in the morning.
Well that’s it for now. Just looking at these photos I want to go back. Such a nice time. So good to come back some place that feels a bit different and yet very familiar. Seeing friends from all over heals the soul. Maybe next year I can make it to the seminar once again. Thanks for having a look. If you have questions on any of this stuff please let me know and I can provide more details.
Back while I was living in London I had the opportunity to visit and take a short class with Hector Cole. Hector is one of the most prominent blacksmiths in the UK specializing in creating archeologically correct pieces using tools and techniques that reach way back into history. He’s particularly well known for forging a wide variety of arrowheads. On this recent trip I’d gotten in contact with him to see if I could visit and pick up a few things to work with over the coming winter. I’ve been steadily moving in the direction of making my own arrows and most recently taking a crack at making my own longbow as well. Happily he remembered me and welcomed me on. I rode the train over first thing in the morning and met him at the station in Chippenham just a short ride from his shop. We took a little detour by his house as he had something he thought might be of interest- a recent acquisition he said. Waiting in the reception of his house he ducked upstairs and returned with a long white box. Opening it to reveal the contents there was a very old arrow. The point was rusted and corroded but still retained much of the detail. The shaft was intact and there were even parts of the fletchings remaining. This he explained was the oldest known arrow for the English longbow. He estimated it as being from around the year 1400! The next closest is the Westminster Abbey arrow that’s dated at around 1437 but this one is in much finer condition. It was found in the wall of an old barn he said. It will soon be loaned out to a museum collection for display. Perhaps the Wallace Collection. Details are still being sorted out on that front. Still it was amazing to see such a thing. Hope I will get a chance to see it displayed in a museum at some point.
Heading on over to the shop we had a nice cup of tea while I wandered around and re-aquainted myself with the place. Over in the corner he had leaning a selection of yew staves that hadn’t been there last time. “A few warbows in there I’m hoping” he said. After a bit I was itching to see what stock he had on hand. He pulled everything out and we worked our way through it all. I had wanted to get a nice cross section of things to work with. He helped me select a nice grouping of arrowheads. We tallied up and then I added just another piece or two spending almost as much as I’d brought. His work is beautiful but it’s also priced appropriately considering his skill and experience. I won’t be going off and shooting these all willy nilly to be sure.
Here are a couple of photos of what I picked up.
He had been working on making some heavy war bodkins and offered to demonstrate for me. I’d seen him make a needle point bodkin and a saxon point last time but this was the first time seeing a heavy war bodkin being made. It’s made from 1/2″ stock and ends up being a massive piece of steel. The shafts I use have been 11/32″ in diameter. I’ll be stepping up to 3/8″ for some of these fellows I purchased. The heavy war bodkin goes on a shaft 1/2″ in diameter. It’s as thick as your thumb and 30″ long. Intimidating to say the least.
He graciously allowed me to shoot some photos as he worked. There’s the idea that when you have a chance to observe to learn the last thing you should be doing is trying to snap photos. O’Brien sensei used to say that you should observe as if your life depended on it. Steal with your eyes. I ended up splitting time in observing and snapping a few photos. I only stole with my eyes a little bit. Here you go…
The amazing thing to me is that it happens so quickly. Less than 5 minutes. Each blow of the hammer is specific. None wasted. Many years of practice makes it all look so easy. I’ve tried and found that this is not the case. The arrowhead is quenched and tempered and then a brief visit at the grinder to clean and pollish. Done and dusted.
We ventured across the street to the local pub for lunch. A pint and a chicken and bacon sandwich. It was time for me to work my way back to London. Precious artifacts tucked away in my bag. Incredibly happy to have had this chance and very grateful for the time and patience Hector bestowed upon me. I hope I can return again at some point.
To see a bit more of his work, including a couple of youtube videos of the process, please go to Hector’s website here.
In the last post I showed a bit about the process of last weekend, building a British longbow. I’ve been moving in the direction of making all my own things. Arrows are something that can easily be done in a smaller space with fewer tools. I really enjoy the precise nature of the process.
Looking towards the arrows that were traditionally used with the British longbow, I have been making a lighter version for the bows that I have. I have also been taking inspiration from the arrows I use for Kyudo. They are very carefully detailed- a bit more than most western arrows. Notice the thread wrapping for instance in the later photos.
Here are four arrows I completed to take over with me to Vancouver Island. A bit backwards in that most of the time you have the bow and match the arrows to that bow. I had a mental picture of what I was hoping to make though and these arrows would match that rather nicely. They are 30″ long and spined for a bow about 55-60lbs. They are heavier than the arrows I had made in England but with the heavier bow I hope to be able to shoot them well.
At this point I’ve just affixed the fletchings to the shafts. These were hand cut with an x-acto blade. I am going the route of taping the feathers down with some broad masking tape. I have a guide that I’ve printed out that I lay on top and cut through. This allows me to keep things nice and consistent. It’s slow going but I have plans to make a special cutter to allow me to make them more quickly. All in good time.
The next steps are to wrap the ends of the fletchings, front and back. Traditionally silk thread is used. Took a bit of searching to source this. Luckily down on Granville Island I found a shop that carries some beautiful stuff. This thread is raw and undyed. Will have to learn how to dye the fibers next. Anyone have a good resource for this? The wrapping with the thread serves more than one purpose. First of course it firmly secures the ends of the fletchings onto the arrow. It also serves to smooth the transition from the shaft to the feather. Without this the forward tip of the feather might catch on the archers hand as it passes. It’s easy enough to cut the top of your hand as the fletchings race past. I often wear a special glove for this. Without the thread you would stand a very good chance of doing this in a much worse way. Ouch!
After the wrapping I lay down a nice little accent of the gold stripe. Next it’s all sealed with white glue thinned with a bit of water. Two coats of this are allowed to dry thoroughly. Finally two coats of urethane seal everything for good and offer a nice shiny smooth finish. I have tons more to lean about all of this. I hope I can continue making more refined and higher quality arrows. A bit of reading, a bit of building, and a bit of shooting. Experience is always the best teacher.
It all began with a heavy section of Yew wood. This is the wood that traditionally was used to make a longbow of this type. Over 500 years ago this weapon was the deciding factor in many conflicts. In England any male over the age of 12 was required by law to spend time practicing shooting each Sunday. This to build a deep reserve of well practiced archers. The stave (what they call a timber that is to become a bow) I was to work with was harvested over a year ago, split, and seasoned right here in British Columbia. I chose it from more than a dozen other pieces leaned up against an old wooden trailer. I had signed up for a bow making class months ago with Jamie MacDonald at Ravenbeak Natureworks. http://www.ravenbeak.com He’s been making longbows for quite some time now receiving glowing reviews for his work. He also offers 3 day seminars in bow making. I’ve been itching to take a crack at making my own “bent stick” for some time now. I’ve been learning to make my own arrows over the last few months. Now was the perfect time to make my own bow to match.
Here are a few photos and a bit of a description. You can click on each photo for a larger image.
I used a draw knife and various other tools to strip the bark from the stave. I did cheat a bit by using a grinder fitted with a wire brush. It removed the bark much more quickly than me hacking away at things by hand. This is the first stage of removing material to find the bow inside the stave. 75″, just over 6 feet long. Big, heavy, wood.
The next step was to inspect the grain and features of the stave to plan the best usage of the wood. All trees will have curves and twists and knots. There’s no such thing as a perfectly straight piece of wood. Part of the charm of making a bow like this comes from all these features that make each bow unique.
After laying out the basic shape we start removing wood. Lots of wood. We were keeping things to hand tools as much as possible. Of course you could take to a band saw and rip right through much of this but the learning process is well served by moving slowly and getting to know the piece you are working with.
As a bit of a confession, I’m not well practiced in all of this sort of stuff. Sure I took shop class in school, and we always had a nice workbench in the garage and such but as you all know I sit in front of a computer most days. I think I do pretty well with tools for a casual craftsman but many of the other people along for this weekend were much more skilled than me in this area. A few shop teachers, professional carpenters and such. I learned so much from all of these people, not to mention Jamie, and am really grateful for all their patience in sharing tools and explaining things to me.
Jamie jumped in from time to time and moved me along in large leaps and bounds. Very happy to stand back and watch and let my hands and shoulders rest while he showed off the bow sculpting super powers.
After several hours of swinging away with the hand ax I don’t know if I’d call it bow shaped just yet but you do start to get a nice look at that gorgeous wood grain.
We kept going and by the end of the day we’d made a good mountain of wood chips and moved things along quite nicely. My piece had a bit of a bend in it right around the handle. This section was arranged over a pot of boiling water and covered for about 30 minutes to steam and heat the wood. It was quickly blocked up, clamped, and allowed to cool. This straightened it beautifully and cleared the way for continued work.
There were two classes of yew wood available. Some of the pieces were old growth. These pieces had rich dark colour heartwood with relatively thin sapwood. Mine was from a second growth tree. Younger and faster growing, the grain isn’t quite as tight and the colour isn’t as dark. No big deal for me as this is my first attempt at making a bow. Notice the lighter wood on the upper part in the image below. This is the sapwood. It’s generally thicker on second growth trees as you see here. We actually thinned it out some to get closer to an optimal ratio of heartwood to sapwood. The sapwood ends up being the back of the bow or facing away from the archer. This is the softer springy part that stretches. It’s much more delicate and can be nicked or damaged rather easily. This is normally where a bow will fail if it’s going to I’m told. The belly of the bow or the part that is facing you the archer is the heartwood. This part takes the compression of the bending bow. We’ve removed well over half the bulk of the timber here. Dare I say this is starting to look like a bow?
All the work up to now has been just trying to reduce mass so we can get to the point where the wood can bend. We’re getting there now and soon it will be time to look and see the shape of things. Before this though the tips of the bow must be reinforced. The bow string wraps around the ends and if it’s not protected it can cut through the wood. We use some bits of horn for this. The tips were ground flat on a belt sander and the horn pieces were flattened and shaped as well. A good coating of super glue and they were assembled and put under pressure with a bit of rubber stripping.
After the glue set I ground these down on the belt sander and shaped them to allow for taking the bowstring. Lastly I used a carbide saw blade and small round rasp to shape the slots where the bowstring would settle.
Next was the moment I was nervously awaiting. Time to see how she bends.
This device is called a “tiller”. A long string is fitted on the bow. A scale on ropes running through pulleys allows you to stand back and pull to see the bow bends. I was going for a bow between 55-60lbs draw weight. The scale lets you know the magic point where you’re pulling that much weight. First just a few inches of draw and you hit the mark. Over and over you pull to exercise the wood and see how she bends. She’s a little stiff on the left. Lots of work to be done still. Remove more material in every smaller steps.
Keep on going. The tips are too thick, more passes with the spoke shaver or the rasp. Check it on the tiller. Remove more in this area, now more over here. Oh, stay away from this section it’s good. Check it on the tiller again. 63lbs at 28″. Very quickly it seems I snuck up on the point where everything was looking good. Take off a bit more here and a little there. A cabinet scraper takes off paper thin curls of wood. It’s getting very smooth and the wood smells heavenly. Now a good pass over the whole thing with the sander. 100 grit, then 180, then 240. Now all the little nicks and blemishes are gone. The wood is silky smooth absolutely alive in my hands and resonates as you work with it. I now understand how katana makers used to think a blade had something of a soul. A little bit of me has passed into the wood I think and I’m certainly covered head to toe in a little bit of the wood.
Go shoot it Jamie tells me. See how it feels. I grab several of the new arrows I recently made and head around back. Nock the arrow and open it up using the muscles in my shoulders and back. Heavy but really good. The string bites into my fingers and I let it roll off sending the arrow deep into the mound of earth. It’s perfect. No I don’t need to lighten it any. I love it just as it is. My first bow is almost finished. A few coats of tung oil go on. The wood takes it and the grain shows itself fully for the first time. Amazing. I still have several more coats to apply over the next few days. I look forward to going out to the range this weekend. Lots to learn still. Lots to learn.
Here are a couple of me shooting the new “bent stick”. Not quite taking it to full draw. I think I will take my time in working her up to it. Not to mention I need to build a bit more strength to shoot well. 75″ long and 63lbs draw weight. Not a small bow.
I can more fully appreciate the skill and efforts required to make such a thing. Incredible respect for our ancestors who did this work ages ago. I now have my own fully custom, hand made British longbow. Thank you so much to Jamie and all the people at Ravenbeak for letting me take part in such an incredible experience. Yes, very happy indeed.