Thursday, April 30, 2009

Yabusame - Japanese Mounted Archery Video

Yabusame is a Japanese Shinto ritual involving mounted archery. Archers ride at a full gallop and shoot at three targets set up at certain intervals. To hit all three, an archer is considered to be very skillful. The ritual's purpose is to bring prosperity and peace.

This video is a complilation of Yabusame events I have been to over the last two years. There are two different schools of Yabusame - Ogasawara Ryu who perform at Asakusa (here 2007&2008) and Takeda Ryu who perform at Meiji Shrine (2006), Miura (2007), and Kamakura (Spring 2007 & Fall 2008)

The song is called "
Gunslinger Man" and it fits with the old tradition of samurai on horseback using bows rather than spears and swords as they did in later times. The Yabusame costume looks rather cowboy-ish.

The music is by the Exotic Ones:

The Exotic Ones

This is a short clip of Yabusame being performed at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo

Yabusame - Japanese Archery on Horseback



A yabusame archer wearing formal hunting clothes from the 13th century

It has often been said: The sword is the soul of the samurai. Much has been written in Japan and around the world about the Japanese samurai sword and its nigh-mystical aspects.

The sword was an indispensable weapon of the samurai warrior, even when guns began to steadily come into use during the 16th century. A sword was a mark of samurais status and honor. They were heirlooms to be passed down generation after generation. Swords of exceptional make were often given as gifts of great honor.

Yabusame depicted on a folding screen

And yet in the early history of the samurai, it was the bow, not the sword, that was praised. Early samurai warriors referred to their profession as the Way of the Horse and Bow.

Stories about a heros prowess with the bow abound in the folklore and military legends of this time period. Enemies both mortal and monstrous were often dispatched with a well-aimed bow rather than with a sword.

History of the Bow and Mounted Archery

Japanese bows date back to prehistoric times. The long, unique asymmetrical bow style with the grip below the center emerged under the Yayoi culture (300 B.C. - 300 AD) Bows became the symbol of authority and power. The legendary first emperor of Japan, Jimmu, is always depicted carrying a bow.

The use of the bow had been on foot until around the 4th century when elite soldiers took to fighting on horseback with bows and swords. In the 10th century, samurai would have archery duels on horseback. They would ride at each other and try to fire at least three arrows. These duels did not necessarily have to end in death, as long as honor was satisfied.

Procession carrying yabusame targets

One of the most famous and celebrated incidents of Japanese mounted archery occurred during the Gempei War (1180-1185), an epic struggle for power between the Heike and Genji clans that was to have a major impact on Japanese culture, society, and politics.

At the Battle of Yashima, the Heike, having been defeated in battle, fled to Yashima and took to their boats. They were fiercely pursued by the Genji on horseback, but the Genji were halted by the sea.

An archer readies his arrow as he speeds by the target.

As the Heike waited for the winds to be right, they presented a fan hung from a mast as a target for any Genji archer to shoot at in a gesture of chivalrous rivarly between enemies.

One of the Genji samurai, Nasu Yoichi, accepted the challenge. He rode his horse into the sea and shot the fan cleanly through. Nasu won much fame and his feat is still celebrated to this day.

During the Kamakura Period (1192-1334), mounted archery was used as a military training exercise to keep samurai prepared for war. Those archers who did poorly might find themselves commanded to commit seppuku, or ritualistic suicide.

One cruel style of mounted archery was inuoumono shooting at dogs. Buddhists priests were able to prevail upon the samurai to have the arrows padded so that the dogs were only annoyed and bruised rather than killed. This sport is no longer practiced, to the relief of dog-lovers and dogs everywhere, no doubt.

Yabusame Ritual Mounted Archery

As part of a Shinto rite, Japans indigenous spiritual belief, mounted archers wearing traditional hunting clothing of the Kamakura Period charge down a single narrow track to shoot at three wooden targets arranged at certain intervals. This rite is called yabusame. It is believed that the sound of an arrow striking the wooden target transfers the courage of the archer to the audience.

A perfect hit!

Yabusame was designed as a way to please and entertain the myriad of gods that watch over Japan, thus encouraging their blessings for the prosperity of the land, the people, and the harvest.

A yabusame archer gallops down a 208-meter-long track at high speed. The archer mainly controls his horse with his knees, as he needs both hands to draw and shoot his bow.

As he approaches a target, he brings his bow up and draws the arrow past his ear before letting the arrow fly with a deep shout. The arrow is blunt and round-shaped in order to make a louder sound when it strikes the board.

An archer speeds past after a successful hit.

Experienced archers are allowed to used arrows with a V-shaped prong. If the board is struck, it will splinter with a confetti-like material and fall to the ground. To hit all three targets is considered an admirable accomplishment.

Yabusame is characterized as a ritual rather than a sport because of its solemn style and religious aspects, and is often performed for special ceremonies or official events, such as entertaining foreign dignitaries and heads of state. Yabusame demonstrations have been given for the formal visits of US Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. A yabusame demonstration was given in the United Kingdom for Prince Charles, who reportedly was fascinated and pleased with the performance.

To be selected as a yabusame archer is a great honor. In the past, they were chosen from only the best warriors. The archer who performs the best is awarded a white cloth, signifying divine favor.

Famous Schools of Archery and the Impact of Zen

There are two famous schools of mounted archery that perform yabusame. One is the Ogasawara school. The founder, Ogasawara Nagakiyo, was instructed by the shogun Minamoto Yoritomo (1147-1199) to start a school for archery. Yoritomo wanted his warriors to be highly skilled and disciplined. Archery was seen as a good way for instilling the necessary principles for a samurai warrior.

Zen became a major element in both foot and mounted archery as it also became popular among the samurai in every aspect of their life during the Kamakura Period.

Yabusame as a martial art helped a samurai learn concentration, discipline, and refinement. Zen taught breathing techniques to stabilize the mind and body, giving clarity and focus. To be able to calmly draw ones bow, aim, and fire in the heat of battle, and then repeat, was the mark of a true samurai who had mastered his training and his fear.

The other archery school was begun earlier by Minamoto Yoshiari in the 9th century at the command of Emperor Uda. This school became known as the Takeda school of archery. The Takeda style has been featured in classic samurai films such as Akira Kurosawas Seven Samurai (1954) and Kagemusha (1980). The famed actor of many samurai films, Toshiro Mifune, was a noted student of the Takeda school.

The Decline and Revival of the Bow

With the arrival of the Portuguese and their guns in the mid-16th century, the bow began to lose its importance on the battlefield. At the Battle of Nagashino in 1575 well-placed groups of musket-men firing in volleys practically annihilated the cavalry charges of the Takeda clan.

An archer is awarded a white banner signifying divine favor of his skills.

Mounted archery was revived in the Edo Period (1600-1867) by Ogasawara Heibei Tsuneharu (1666-1747) under the command of the shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune (1684-1751). Given that the nation was at peace, archery as well as other military martial arts became more of a method of personal development rather than military training.

Today, Yabusame is held at various times of the year generally near shrines. It never ceases to amaze and thrill spectators. The excitement builds as a horse and an archer bear down the track toward a target. When a successful hit is made, the resulting sound is echoed by the cheers of the exuberant crowd.

A Second before Impact

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Geisha Dancing - Kamogawa Odori

The Kamogawa Odori Geisha Dance
The spring dances of Kyoto offer a rare glimpse of Geisha performances

A young Maiko (Geisha Apprentice) performing in the Kamogawa Odori

True geisha dance performances are rare events that one can only witness if they are part of the affluent clientele of Kyoto’s elusive Geisha tea houses or if they are fortunate enough to procure a seat at one of the annual public performances given in Spring and Fall.

Spring dances are traditional events held every year to celebrate the ending of winter. Most of the year, the general public only has the chance to occasionally spy geisha as they scurry along the streets of Gion and Pontocho to their assignments. These spring dances represent a chance for the public to see the geisha in all their glory performing ancient traditional dances.

Before the performance guests may observe a tea ceremony

The Kamogawa Odori is a geisha dance performance presented in the late spring in the Pontocho district of Kyoto. Pontocho is one of Kyoto’s few remaining geisha districts, the most famous being Gion. The Pontocho district has been putting on their Kamogawa Odori since 1872.

The Kamogawa Odori is perhaps the most famous of the spring dances. It has certainly attained international attention attracting the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Jean Cocteau.

Every year a new performance is put on based on a variety of traditional Japanese stories. The first performance was a love story set in Kyoto sometime in the distant past.

The young ladies fight over the “handsome” fan maker

The story revolves around Kasumimura, a young handsome man (played by a geisha) who makes fans. He is quite popular with the ladies, but his heart is set on only one girl, Akane, to whom he proposes marriage. One of his highborn clients is not satisfied to let him go so easily.

The noble lady lures the handsome Kasumimura to her residence with the promise of work. She wants a special fan made with a portrait of herself drawn upon it. As he follows the noble lady’s carriage to her abode, the weather suddenly becomes colder and snow flakes begin to fall ominously.

The noble lady reveals to Kasumimura that she is the dreaded Yuki-Onna, the snow woman spirit. Yuki-Onna offers her love, but Kasumimura bravely declines. Yuki-Onna’s love, however, is not easily cast aside. Her loves freezes the hapless fan maker.

Yuki Onna: the Snow Woman

The deadly but beautiful Yuki-Onna

Yuki-Onna, the snow woman, is winter manifested in a deadly, ghostly form. She is depicted as all white with long black hair wearing a white kimono — beautiful but deadly like winter itself. And like winter, Yuki-Onna was cruel and ruthless in killing unlucky souls caught in her icy realm. She was particularly known for killing mortals by either breathing upon them with her icy breath or simply leading them astray so they would die of exposure.

Yuki-Onna is best remembered from author Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaiden, a collection of various strange and ghostly tales. She attacks two men in a lone hut in the wilderness but spares one because of his youth and good looks.

His fiance, Akane, comes and rescues him. Through the strength of her love, Akane is able to defeat Yuki-Onna and revive Kasumimura. Yuki-Onna, heartbroken, weeps warm tears and melts away as winter slowly comes to an end.

Akane and Yuki-Onna fight over Kasumimura’s love

The fan maker and his brave fiance return and spring comes to Kyoto. Here again is a vibrant echo from that ancient theme of the coming of spring and the ending of winter. Thousands of years ago, in Ancient Mesopotamia, stories were told about the goddess Ishtar visiting the underworld to free her love and subsequently end winter.

Kasumimura returns as Springs begins

The second half of the performance was a series of dances representing a selection from the 11th century Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. At the beginning of her book, Sei Shonagon, an imperial court lady, wrote about the four seasons and the times of day of each season that she enjoyed the most.

Sei Shonagon:
 Observant and Opinionated Court Lady

Curtain representing the seasons

Sei Shonagon was a lady-in-waiting at the Japanese Imperial Court in the beginning of the 11th Century. She kept a personal diary of sorts in which she wrote down her experiences but mainly her feelings. Such diaries were common at the time and were called pillow books because these books were often kept next to people’s pillows in which they would write their experiences and observations. The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon gives an invaluable insight into the world of the Imperial Court of Kyoto a thousand years ago. Sei Shonagon’s observations are witty, wry, poignant, and at times condescending. Sei Shonagon was a contemporary - however, not a friend - of the famed novelist Murasaki Shikibu who wrote The Tale of the Genji.

Young maiko dance in kimonos the color of cherry blossoms

In spring it is the dawn that is most beautiful. As the light creeps over the hills their outlines are dyed a faint red and wisps of purplish cloud trail over them.

A Geisha dancer representing summer nights

In summer the nights. Not only when the moon shines, but on dark nights too, as fireflies flit to and fro…

Autumn evenings

In autumn the evenings … when the sun sets, one’s heart is moved by the sound of the wind and the hum of the insects.

A Geisha plays as a servant working on a winter morning

In winter the early mornings — the attendants hurry from room to room stirring up fires and bringing charcoal; how well this fits the season’s mood!

The Kamogawa Odori is held every May. For those who wish to see authentic geisha performances, the Kamogawa Odori shouldn’t be missed.

The Finale

On Seijin-no-Hi (Coming of Age Day) in early January in Japan, an archery ritual known as Momote Shiki is held at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo for all those turning 20 for that year.

10 Archers at a time shoot two arrows at a central target.

At Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, a Shinto Priest fires a whistling arrow signfying the start of an archery ritual to commemorate Coming of Age Day.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Japanese Archery Ritual - Momote Shiki

Momote Shiki: Japanese Archery Ritual 
Centuries-old ritual held for the fortune of new adults

Archers in old style kimono preparing to shoot n the archery ritual known as Momote Shiki

Seijin-no-Hi or Coming of Age Day is celebrated all throughout Japan on the second Monday of January. Throughout the country, similar ceremonies and activities take place among those newly turned 20 such as the wearing of special kimono, going to shrines, attending speeches, and so on. At Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, a unique ceremony takes place that is often overlooked in favor of seeing the kimono-clad girls that populate the shrine on that day.

Behind the main shrine complex an archery ritual known as Momote Shiki is performed for the good fortune of all those turning 20 and becoming new adults. Archers wearing a style of formal kimono that samurai once wore in olden times shoot two arrows a piece at a central target.

Archers arriving at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo

The Momote Shiki ceremony is conducted by the Ogasawara-Ryu, one of the oldest schools of Japanese-style archery. The Ogasawara family has long been associated with martial arts training most especially archery. The founder of the Ogasawara line was Nagakiyo who was born in the mid-12th century. He excelled as a mounted archer and was granted the surname of Ogasawara by the Emperor after the name of his birthplace in modern Yamanashi Prefecture.

12th century Japan was a transitionary time. In prior centuries, the Emperor’s Court ruled the land from Kyoto. Nobles held the reigns of power but as time progressed they began to lose their power to the emerging warrior class. With the increase of violence, the noble administrators had to rely more and more on the formerly despised warrior class to quell the problems. Eventually the warrior class came into its own in the mid-12th century when the powerful warrior family, the Heike or Taira, came to dominate the Imperial Court.

The archers wear a style of kimono worn by samurai 800 years ago

The Heike became arrogant in their new found power thus breeding many enemies. War broke out between them and their powerful rivals the Genji or Minamoto clan. The leader of the Genji was Minamoto-no-Yoritomo. Yoritomo destroyed the Heike family and came to rule all of Japan as Shogun. He ruled from his capital Kamakura which lies an hour south of Tokyo by train.

Nagakiyo had been Yoritomo’s mentor and instructor in mounted archery. With Yoritomo’s ultimate victory, the Ogasawara’s fortunes rose. Yoritomo was keen that his warriors keep their martial skills honed even during peacetime. The reason for this and his decision to set his capital in Kamakura far from Kyoto was the precedent set by his former enemies, the Heike family.

Before shooting, the archers give reverence

One of the prevailing opinions of the day as to why the once powerful Heike family fell so completely was their descent into decadence. They spent more time worrying about their appearance and their poetry ability than they did on their martial skills. One Heike general was famous for abandoning his position in abject terror when a flight of geese so startled him that he thought the Genji were attacking. A great part of this stemmed from the Heike’s close proximity to the culture of the Imperial Court.

Yoritomo did not want his followers to become soft and weak like the Heike. He wanted to establish a strong legacy so he set his new capital in Kamakura far from the Imperial Court. Furthermore, he avidly supported the Ogasawara clan in training warriors to maintain their skill and discipline. A number of archery rituals still practiced today were started because of Yoritomo’s stern insistence that his followers retain their martial fighting skills.

A Shinto Priest preparing to shoot a special arrow to begin the ceremony

Archery whether mounted or on foot was strongly emphasized because at this time the much-praised samurai sword had yet to truly come into its own. In Yoritomo’s time, the bow was the principle weapon of the samurai and the symbol of his profession and spirit.

Yoritomo’s shogunate government lasted until the early 14th century. After his Spartan policies were ignored, the Kamakura Shogunate leaders became lax with luxury and in the end they fell to more determined and stronger enemies. The Ogasawara survived the downfall of the Kamakura shogunate and went on to serve the new shogunate government establish by the Ashikaga clan.

A Shinto Priest loosens and removes his left sleeve so it will not hinder his shooting

Sometime after the power of the Ashikaga shoguns declined, the warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu established a new shogunate government set in Edo (today Tokyo) in 1603. He requested Ogasawara Tsunenao, the head of the clan at the time, to be a mentor and instructor to his son.

The Tokugawa Shogunate ushered in an unprecedented two centuries of peace. Fighting skills were no longer in great demand; however, practice of the martial arts continued but took on a new form. Archery and other martial skills became less about the physical and more about the spiritual. Archery became viewed as a way to self-improvement; of disciplining the mind and soul.

The Ogasawara clan continued to serve the Tokugawa shogunate until 1868 when the shogunate was abolished. In the midst of a rapidly modernizing Japan of the late 19th century, the Ogasawara continued to teach their traditional arts. However, since there were no more samurai to train in Japan’s new society, the Ogasawara opened their school to the general public.

Today the Ogasawara perform a number of archery rituals throughout the year at a number of shrines. Every spring in the Asakusa district of Tokyo, they perform the mounted archery ritual of Yabusame.

The Momote Shiki ritual is carried out on Seijin-no-Hi, Coming of Age Day though the ritual predates the holiday by centuries. Momote - means “hundred hands.” The ritual is a bit of Shinto mathematics: ten archers at a time shoot two arrows a piece. The number of archers times the number of arrows equals 100. The type of arrow used has white fletching or feather. This is the same type of arrow which is sold as good luck charms at shrines during New Years. The Momote Shiki ritual is the origin of this arrow charm. The Momote Shiki ritual used to be held in private until the Edo Period (1603-1867) when it became open to the general public.

Before the archers begin, a Shinto priest shoots a Kabura-ya, a special red-colored arrow with an turnip-shaped head. The arrow makes a whistling noise as speeds along. The noise is believed to drive away evils from all four directions.

Archers draw the bow above their heads before bringing it down to aim

The archers wear a type of kimono known as a kariginu. The kariginu was the everyday dress of the samurai of the Kamakura Period (1192-1333) and was based on clothes worn on hunting expeditions. On their head is an eboshi — a type of hat worn by court nobles in earlier centuries.

The traditional way of shooting the bow is very slow and meticulous. The archers begin by slowly uncovering their left arm and shoulder leaving them and the left side of the chest completely bare. The purpose for this is practicality rather than for ritual purposes.

Traditional kimono robes are loose and flowing which could easily inconvenience the shooting of the bow. Female archers however do not reveal their shoulders and chest. They put their arm through a specially designed hole on the sleeves of female kimono then tie up the sleeve.

The bow is raised upwards and brought slowly down while the arrow is pulled back past the ear. Then at last the string is let loose and the arrow speeds towards the target. The emphasis of the ritual and Japanese archery in general is not on striking the target accurately but on the spiritual repose the archer achieves and maintains throughout the whole ceremony. Balance is sought between spirit and bow when the mind is empty but not dwelling on emptiness.

Archers receive a ceremonial serving of sake after the ritual

A Zen Master of the Kamakura Period once wrote:

No target’s erected
No bow’s drawn
And the arrow leaves the string;
It may not hit,
But it does not miss!

Once all the archers have shot the required number of arrows, they receive a small portion of sake and the ceremony is considered concluded. The health and good fortune of the new adults is thus spiritually assured for the year.

Modern Deadly Arts of the Samurai - JPOP

The samurai were Japan’s elite warrior class of long ago - masters of many deadly weapons and stern possessors of martial fighting skills.

In Tokyo’s modern mecca of electronics and anime, Akihabara, the samurai have re-emerged as masters of a new deadly art.

Running From the Bulls of Pamplona

Running From the Bulls of Pamplona

There comes a time in the life of every young man when he feels the need to test his meddle and tempt the hands of Fate. This may take the form of signing up with the French Foreign Legion and fighting in far away places, hunting large animals with large guns, jumping out of airplanes, or pitting his wits against the speeding enraged bulls of Pamplona.

Personally, I blame that macho-istic bastard Hemingway for my foolhardy decision to run with the bulls of Pamplona several years ago. Ernest Hemingway’s classic novel, “The Sun Also Rises”, brought world-wide attention to Pamplona’s bizarre age-old festival of allowing bulls to run through the streets as they please running over and goring those mad enough to run with them. Hemingway created an international pilgrimage of machismo to Pamplona’s San Fermin festival. For some of those pilgrims, that journey has led to a gory martyrdom.

But gory martyrdom is what the San Fermin festival is all about. Saint Fermin, Pamplona’s patron saint, was martyred in Roman times by being drug through the streets by bulls somewhere in France. This grisly demise is honored by Pamplona’s residents every year in July with a huge week-long festival. In the morning the bulls and the fools run. In the afternoon bullfights are held in the Plaza de Toros Arena. The rest of the day and on through the night time is spent in merry-making. Various different parades of floats, musicians, and banner-waving drunks periodically sway and weave their way through the crowds. People will party until they drop where they stand from exhaustion but the party just rolls on. Its like Mardi Gras with bulls.

Hemingway’s spirit seems to haunt the festival. I could just imagine old Ernest slouched jauntily in a doorway with a drink in one hand and Sangria stains down his white shirt as he watched the festival with approving eyes. In one of the streets, there is a bust of Hemingway wearing a bull runner’s bandanna.

The night before my run I was dancing and drinking in the company of some young local senoritas. One girl I particularly fancied was a dark-haired girl named Bettina. We chatted as best as we could with my limited Spanish which encompassed only a few swear words and some pick-up lines. Surprisingly, I was doing quite well but she would periodically point to her hand. On her hand she had scrawled her boyfriend’s name. I guess this was so she wouldn’t get carried away and forget about him. The ink wouldn’t wash off either much to my misfortune.

Still I was able through the use of pantomime to get her to promise me that she would cry for me if I were gored by a bull in the upcoming run. I believe Hemingway would have approved of this: dying a glorifyingly gory macho death and having a beautiful girl cry over your body.

Come morning I remembered that I had never actually read any of Hemingway’s works except for “The Old Man and the Sea” when I was in the 5th Grade. This story about a big fish didn’t exactly prepare me for handling big bulls. I was entirely on my own. My only knowledge of the run came from second-hand information and the opening scene of “City Slickers.” In it, Billy Crystal is seen at the festival running in front of a bull that is just jogging along at a reasonable pace. I thought this was the normal speed of bulls. No problem.

“Nothing outruns a bull.” an ESPN sports reporter told me matter-of-factually as I looked down into the bull pens during the wee hours of the morning. There were two pens. The first pen contained 10-12 motley-colored bulls. They were smaller in size compared to the bulls in the second pen. The four bulls in the second pen were massive dark-brown bulls I later learned were of a certain breed of bulls especially bred for their fierceness. I did not know this at the time. I was only aware of the fact the bulls in the second pen were awfully big and their horns looked awfully sharp.

The reporter explained to me that a person technically doesn’t run “with” the bulls because they’re simply too fast. People just run until the bulls get almost on top of them, then the runners either get the hell out of the way or get run over. Most people run behind the bulls but this too can be fraught with the danger as bulls have been known to turn around.

This revelation was not what I expected and it did little to bolster my courage. My instinct for self-preservation suddenly flared up urging me to abandon this suicidal bravado. My spirit, however, was embolden by too much Sangria to back out now. Shaking off the doubts, I took my manly place amongst all the other brave Sangria-inspired bull runners.

The traditional bull runner wears all white clothing except for a red bandanna around the neck and a red slash tied at the waist. These red target markers are thoughtful aids in guiding the bulls along the way and showing them where to apply their horns.

The run begins when a rocket is fired off to let those runners who are sobering up to their senses get a head start to the Arena where the race ends. A second rocket is fired shortly after to signal the release of the first group of bulls. After the second rocket fired, a few runners must have suddenly had second thoughts as I saw some bolt and go over the wooden barricades while others climbed up the bars of windows to get out of harm’s way.

A young bull runner and his bull running pals

From my viewpoint, I could see down a sea of heads to the pens but I couldn’t see the bulls. All at once I saw people turning around and then heads began bobbing up and down like a wave. Fear can be contagious. As those standing around me started running away in greater numbers, I found myself quickly running away as well before I even saw the bulls. I was caught up in that mass panic with the sudden clarifying thought of “What the hell am I doing here?” echoing in my mind. Its a question that must hit every bull runner the moment stark sober reality arrives in the form of several tons of speeding bull-flesh.

I bolted into a small square and leaped against the wall at the far side just before the bulls arrived. At first I could see nothing of them but I could hear them. I heard a dreadful hammering sound, the sound of cloven hooves beating against cobble stone. Then the bulls burst into the little square with a clattering flurry of hoof and horn. My Sangria courage swiftly evaporated at the sight. It finally dawned on me that I could actually die doing this stupid sport.

The bulls charged through the square and took a sharp right up another street. One of the bulls slipped and fell in the rush. After he picked himself up, he began to run straight towards me! I tried desperately pretending to be part of the wall but my performance did little to deter him. Fortunately the lone bull must have caught the sight of his compadres out of the corner of his eye because he suddenly swung his horned head around and ran after them.

I heaved a sigh laughing at my reprieve before casually strolling up the same street where the bulls had disappeared. I was a third of the way up the street when panicky runners darted by interrupting my thoughts. There was nagging doubt eating away at me that I was somehow forgetting something quite important. Then it hit me: “the Big Bulls”! Frantically I joined with the crowd in a desperate attempt to reach the end of this death-trap of a street. This particular street was far too narrow to accommodate the amount of human and bull traffic on it. With tall buildings enclosing both sides, there was nowhere to escape except forward into the Arena or backward into the oblivion of oncoming bull fury.

The end of the street was still out of reach, when once again I heard that terrible hammering sound. The sound was coming up swiftly behind me. Moses couldn’t have split the Red Sea as fast and effectively as the sound of those oncoming bulls split that street. Runners dove left and right for safety. I jumped to the side only to find the wall was already covered four ranks deep with quivering runners. I could only cower against the backs of others while my backside remained horribly exposed. The big bulls came tearing up the street with all the noise and fury of a runaway locomotive then were gone.

The gates of the Arena were closed by the time I arrived. I wasn’t too disappointed though. I had enough bull for one day I felt. I had thought my close encounter with the bull in the square had been quite close enough but a girl from the States I met before the run topped my story. While she was huddling against the wall in that narrow street, she fell off the curb and into the street just as the Big Bulls came rushing by. Her hand actually struck the backside of a bull as she stumbled. Fortunately the bull didn’t turn around on her as they sometimes do.

Where the Bulls end up at the end of the day

The next morning I decided to run again because I wanted to see what went on in the Arena. Also some travelers I met during the festival wanted me to guide them on the run because I now had the experience. So I became the official Bull Running Guide.

The next morning I led my little group to the front of pack. It took very little convincing for my group to decide that reaching the Arena before the bulls was a very good idea. The evening before, we had come across souvenir postcards depicting all sorts of horrific gorings from past runs. We successfully managed to enter the Arena well ahead of the bulls. When the bulls did arrive, I bravely leaped over the protective railing and from there I watched the bizarre last act of the San Fermin Bull Run.

The Arena was a kaleidoscopic spectacle of bulls chasing people and people chasing bulls. Rolled-up newspapers, another essential part of the bull runner’s wardrobe, were used to swat bulls in an effort to get their attention. I saw one man get too much attention. A bull tossed him several feet into the air like a limp rag doll. He was luckier than he deserved. He staggered away with his life and limbs still intact. Why people would purposely want to get the attention of a ticked-off bull is beyond any rational guess I can offer. Perhaps it is some kind of lemming instinct, a bit of Darwinism in action: stupidity in the form of bravado culling itself from the herd.

One group of runners seemed to be doing their best to remove themselves from the gene pool. They would just sit and wait in front of gates used to release fresh bulls into the arena. When a gate would burst opened, a charging bull would come running out but then he would stumble and sometimes fall as he crashed into those assembled lemmings. I had sated my Hemingway bravado more than enough already so I refrained from joining in on this suicidal sit-in.

Release the bull!!! Assembled lemmings await their Darwin Award.

After the bulls had gored their fill and the bull runners exhausted their machismo, the bulls were herded into pens and the runners herded out of the Arena. The runners would spend the rest of the day bragging of their exploits or counting their blessings. In the evening a local paper would come out with the statistics of the day’s run showing how many injuries there were and fatalities if any.

Today, part of me wants to go back there again and test my courage once more. But, I’m a little bit older and marginally wiser now not to mention sober at the moment. Next time I think I’ll drive with the bulls of Pamplona rather than run.

A Bull Runner Hauling Ass Before a Charging Bull


About Me

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Tokyo, Japan
Vagabond traveler currently hold up in Tokyo. I've done a far bit of traveling and had a few interesting adventures along the way. This blog is a chronicle of adventures past and present and those yet to come. I’ve been to about 30 countries though some no bigger than a kitchen table. I’ve run with the bulls of Pamplona, hiked the Inca Trail, got mugged in Mexico City, floated down the Nile in an old boat, climbed the Great Pyramid of Egypt, got ripped at Oktoberfest, and rode the notorious Tokyo Yamanote Halloween Party Train.