Now that I’ve taken the plunge and ordered takeyumi I thought I should re-read 「弓ごよみ」 (Yumi Goyomi), by respected bow-maker 松永重宣 (Matsunaga Shigenobu) (kyoushi, 8-dan at the time of publication), and learn more. The book is a collection of columns that were published serially in Kyudo magazine from January to August, 2008. In them he discusses the way he makes bows, the characteristics of materials, yumi handling, care, repair, as well as various reminiscences of teachers and yumi-shi of the past, most notably his father, the first Higo Saburo.
The articles are both practical and inspirational. On the practical side there is a lot on materials and the bow construction, though this, too, has an element of spiritual practice. It almost has to, it seems, because with natural materials each bow is slightly different, and the people he makes them for are all slightly different, too. It requires a sure hand and even surer judgement.
Before I begin work on a bow, I meditate quietly on what kind of bow I am going to make. Once I have the image in my mind, I strive single-mindedly to realize that, no matter what happens. To accomplish this I work at night [he wakes up a little after 2:00AM] to avoid being distracted by visitors.
The bow-making process is highly influenced by seasonal changes in the weather, most importantly the humidity. This impacts not only the bamboo as it is growing, but all steps of the process, including the critical period when the adhesives are drying. He laments that, perhaps due to global warming or other factors, the climate where he lives has changed and become more wet, and so, more difficult.
There are interesting comparisons between bows made with nibe, the traditional adhesive derived from deerskin, and those using synthetic adhesives, between fiberglass/carbon and bamboo, between bamboo bows with and without carbon, strong bows versus weak bows, the use of synthetic tsuru versus hemp, etc. As you might expect, he favours the old ways, developed over the centuries, though these days most of the bows he makes do use synthetic adhesives.
He’s quite adamant about using hemp bowstrings, though:
When the yumi is new, it’s best to use slightly heavier arrows in order to give some stability. And don’t use the thin Kevlar bowstrings. A new bow is unstable and will be damaged. People say that when, after 300 arrows, a (hemp) string breaks, this action restores the recoil power of the bow. The bow’s power derives from the extension of the sodake (outer or front-facing bamboo) and the compression of the uchidake (inner bamboo), to which is added force of the sobaki (wood laminated on the sides) and the higo (heat-treated bamboo and/or wood strips sandwiched between the outer and inner bamboo). This is what hemp strings were made for.
A lot of his practical advice comes in the section on care and repair. He sees, of course, his share of bows returned with damage. In ways reminiscent of the quote from Confucius in the Kyudo Kyohon, he asks us, the people using them, to look within ourselves for the causes, rather than (I presume) blaming the bow or the craftsman. For example, one common problem he sees is bows that have been exposed to humidity. Among other things he says that, “A good bow is a light bow,” but since the bow will absorb moisture from the air if left unattended he says he will sometimes pick up a bow that’s been returned and be shocked by how heavy it’s become, just from the accumulated moisture. They need care, especially when “young.” He says that it takes 2-3 years of solid use to tame a nibe bow.
There’s more “archer look within” advice in a discussion about a common injury in which a strip of the sodake (outer bamboo) snaps. I saw that happen once at a taikai and it made a sound like a rifle shot. His analysis of this is very precise, and essentially psychological. “I’ve never heard of this happening when shooting at the makiwara.” And “I’ve never heard of this happening at kai.” Rather, it happens during the draw when, due to incorrect tenouchi, too much force is concentrated on the area around the metsukebushi. He recommends using a “small” tenouchi (something my teacher also advised just the other day), and also says, while some teachers these days recommend not allowing the bow to turn (yugaeri) in order to improve the chances of hitting the target, for takeyumi it’s essential to let yugaeri work properly.
So, these and other sections (such as a lot of detail, including photos, on exactly how to string the bow) are very useful, the kind of thing you might only pick up a little at a time from teachers and sempai.
My favourite section is The Qualities of a Good Bow:
A good bow is a light bow. When the form of the bow, the technique, and the whole body of the archer can all be brought into balance through the draw, that’s a good bow… A bow that matches the body of the archer, that can become one with the body of the archer, so that they work together, that’s a good bow. A bow that is ready to work with you when you think, “Let’s get to work,” is a good bow. A bow is not merely a tool. You must think of it as part of your own body. Then, and only then, will mind, body, and bow become one (sanmi ittai).
Sort of says it all.
The book doesn’t seem to be widely available but you can find it at some kyudo shops in Japan for ¥1,050 (with tax). The usual places that handle ordering in English and overseas shipping, like Asahi Archery and Sambu Kyuguten don’t seem to stock it but I bet they could get it for you if you ask. Oddly this is also one of the few books that Amazon doesn’t seem to carry. I guess they’ve become complacent! The author uses technical terms from the yumi world without explanation (he’s writing for Kyudo magazine, after all) but the effort of working through it is well-rewarded.