The Sport Authority of Thailand (SAT) likes to brag that Thailand is “the best sport destination” in Asia. To be fair, they’re quite right. Thailand has hosted the Asian Games four times (more than any other Asian country participating in this event) and the Southeast Asian Games six times (again, more than any other SEA country). Bangkok was also the location where the first Asian Indoor Games (2005) and the first Asian Martial Arts Games (2009) took place. With such a good track record, the SAT’s claim is not farfetched at all and Thailand is indeed a place where you can practice a score of both well-known and quite obscure sports.
Among the least known sporting activities that you can indulge yourself in is kyudo, the Japanese form of archery. Kyudo is also known as the “way of the bow,” which is in fact the word’s literal translation from Japanese. Although Thai archers who travel abroad have been exposed to kyudo, until recently there was no official group in Thailand that pursued this modern Japanese martial art.
To fill in this gap, Korsakul Punyavardhana, a 30-year-old Thai engineer, founded Siam Kyudo Society in 2010 with the purpose of opening a communication channel for all the kyudoka (practitioners of kyudo) from Thailand. Thus, a Facebook group was formed and, until now, almost forty archers have joined it.
The history of kyudo goes back to the early history of Japan with its traditional influences from mainland China. With time, as archery became compulsory for the samurai, the Japanese warrior class, several schools of kyudo appeared. Among these was yabusame, or mounted archery, which is still a popular demonstration activity at major festivals throughout Japan. To help train the mind, the body and the spirit, kyudo is also practiced in Japanese school from a young age.
Korsakul has been practicing kyudo since around the middle of 2008 and his passion for this discipline started when he “saw on the Internet a picture of a person in kyudo uniform drawing a very long bow.” What he saw was a man dressed in the traditional Japanese garments used in several martial arts. Standing with his back straight and bow arm extended at full draw, the kyudoka was wearing a white shirt (gi), black skirt-like pants (hakama), a cotton belt (obi), socks (geta), and shoes (tabi). The bow in the archer’s hand was the distinct Japanese asymmetrical longbow, with the bottom shorter than the top.
This initial image lead the founder of Siam Kyudo Society to Horseshoe Point in Pattaya where he met Mr. Masatake Yamaguchi, a Japanese gentleman, who accepted him as his kyudo student. “I am considering myself as a very lucky person,” confessed Korsakul, “because it was Mr. Masatake who helped me walk the way of the bow.”
Although Korsakul is still a beginner, with a rank below the black belt, he lives and trains in the spirit of a real kyudoka. “It is a discipline for anyone who would like to train his or her inner self,” he added. But apart from his Japanese master, Korsakul is also being helped with his kyudo training by Paolo Moscatelli, another dedicated kyudoka who has been living in Thailand since 2010.
Paolo is 49-year-old Italian-American visual effects supervisor who has been practicing the art of kyudo since 2007. After pursuing yoga, Paolo discovered kyudo (again through the Internet) and was immediately fascinated by its meditative aspects. In a few year’s time and several international kyudo seminars, he passed the Sho-Dan and Ni-Dan rank examinations (first and second degree black belt) with the Nanka Kyudo Kai group in Los Angeles where he had trained under the supervision of Sensei Rick Beal. Paolo considers that “every age or gender can practice kyudo as it’s a martial art that combines zen philosophy, spirituality, and shooting techniques with the pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty.”
The equipment in kyudo is very expensive, with prices ranging from a few hundred to thousands of dollars. Apart from the already mentioned uniform, you will need to purchase a bow (yumi), which can be made of either bamboo or laminated wood. You also need arrows (ya) with bird feathers, a bowstring (tsuru), a deerskin glove on the right hand (yugake), an underglove (shitagake) made of cotton – needed as protection from sweat –, a chest guard for women (muneate), and a paper and wood target (mato).
Speaking of the differences between kyudo and archery, Korsakul is of the opinion that “both kyudo and modern archery can train your concentration. However, kyudo is much closer to mediation. It focuses on one’s inner self in a more spiritual way.” Paolo’s opinion is similar: “There are many differences as kyudo is not just a competitive sport but also a form of zen practice. Apart from that, there are also some technical components that makes kyudo unique, such as the bow size and the off centre handle, the shooting form, and the meaning and relativity of hitting the target.”
For many, especially non-Asians (even those who already practice kyudo), the Japanese way of the bow remains a form of martial art difficult to master. From the lack of proper guidance to the difficulty in understanding your own role as an archer, kyudo has almost reached mythical and mystical interpretations. To counter this, a good source of information is Dan and Jackie De Prospero’s books Kyudo: The Essence and Practice of Japanese Archery and Illuminated Spirit: Conversations with a Kyudo Master. Both books were written together with their master, Master Hideharu Onuma.
The members of Siam Kyudo Society train at Horseshoe Point in Pattaya where they have secured a small training area (dojo). In Bangkok, they used to shoot at the archery field belonging to Kasetsart University Archery Club, but after their facilities were temporary damaged by last year’s floods, they have moved to Hua Mark Archery Field, the official training centre for the Thai national archery team, where they meet for Sunday shooting practice. To find out more details regarding their schedule, look them up on Facebook and join their group.
Watch Paolo Moscatelli and Korsakul Punyavardhana during their kyudo practice in Bangkok:
Initially published in “Bangkok Trader” (Vol. 6, No. 6, May 2012)