Review: Yumi Goyomi

Yumi Goyomi Cover Photo

Yumi Goyomi

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.

This entry was posted in equipment, kyudo, kyudo notebook, tenouchi, yumi. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Review: Yumi Goyomi

  1. Douglas Chin says:

    Hello,

    Was wondering if you have some time to help with questions about Take Bamboo Yumi.
    I live in Toronto, Canada where we have four season, the temperature change from plus 40 in the summer to minus 40 in the winter. I been inquiring with Kyudo shop about types of bamboo that might work for our weather. I have been given various answers, from use a yumi with a soft wood core to we do not recommend bamboo yumi for Canada.
    I was hoping for your opinion and any though, More of our members are move up in rank and would like to explore bamboo bows.

    Here what I understand
    -The most common damage of Bamboo Yumi is due to lack of skill.
    -Bamboo Yumi Not so weak against temperature. Especially recent bamboo products are produced by using strong adhesive
    -Bamboo Yumi is weak against dryness

    Bow that were recommend by some kyudo shop
    Kuwabata Masakiyo
    Kusumi Kurakichi
    Ittousai

    Thank YOU for any help

  2. karamatsu says:

    Hello!

    Sorry about the delay. I was away for a while, and WordPress holds up comments until you have a chance to review them (some are spam).

    These days the temperatures here in Hokkaido aren’t so extreme, maybe +30C (or higher) to -30C, but unless you really go outside and shoot when it’s -40C, what really matters is the temperature/humidity where you shoot and store your bow. Within a reasonable range (i.e. the range of heat/cold that people would normally be comfortable in), I imagine the bows would be OK. Temperature will change their draw weight, though, getting stronger in colder temperatures, so one recommendation I got was to buy one bow for summer and a somewhat weaker one for winter. A bowmaker in Kyushu that I talked to said that from summer to winter there, he sees maybe a 2kg difference.

    Humidity is a bigger problem. Hemp strings break very easily and I suppose in the worst case a bow might also, though as you say, it seems like poor handling is more often the culprit. Some people here take their bows home during the winter so they can be stored in a more controlled environment. Another common thing is to buy a kind of thick, padded yumi-bukuro which may also help to prevent the bow from getting too dry.

    But the bottom line is that people here use a wide variety of takeyumi, and within reason I don’t see why you couldn’t use them there. The most common names at our dojo are probably Nagano Issui and Kuwabata, but there are many others. I’m not a bow expert or anything, but since these days virtually all bows are made in Kyushu (the only exception I’ve heard of is Shibata in Kyoto), I don’t know if any are truly favoured for cold-weather environments, but I will ask my teachers. Regardless of the name, the thing is probably just to take more care during the cold months.

    What you might do is research the bowmakers that you’re interested in, and then contact them directly to see if they have any recommendations. If you custom-order the bow, mention the range of temperatures/humidity and that may be taken into account when the bow is made. Some high level kyudoka actually monitor the temperature and humidity each day, seeing how it affects their bows, so I imagine bowmakers have rules of thumb that could help in the construction as well.

    I really like my takeyumi so certainly recommend them. The feeling is completely different (hemp strings also help to bring that out). The main obstacle is really budget! But you do want to use one, just make sure that your tenouchi is stable, with a reliable yugaeri, otherwise the bow has to twist to absorb the shock of the release, which isn’t good. That said, in the old days, 30-40 years ago, takeyumi were all people ever had, so even beginning students used them, so I don’t see how they could be THAT fragile, but still… given the price you’d want to be sure!

    Feel free to write again if you have any questions. I think WordPress will automatically accept your comments now.

  3. karamatsu says:

    So I asked my main teacher about this. He didn’t seem to think that any one bowmaker was to be recommended more than any other regarding cold/dry weather. More important is just taking good care of the bow. He recommended that, before practice when humidity is low (say, below 50%), it’s good to rub the bow gently with a cloth or (untreated) chamois to warm it up a bit, and then wipe it gently with a dampened cloth. The same treatment is also good for hemp strings (as is rubbing it with extra kusune if it seems dry — some bowstring makers don’t use a lot and I once had a string come completely apart in dry weather). Just let me know if there’s anything else I can find out for you.

  4. Douglas Chin says:

    Thank You for the responses and researching further. I’m starting to get the sense that most damage to bamboo yumi is due to lack of skill and neglect.

    One of my greatest fear is causing beyond repair damage to a bamboo yumi. We once had a Sensei describe a yumi break in kai. She told us it was one of the most horrible sound you can hear, like a scream from human being. Her tone and vivid description left a great impression on me.

    Thank again
    Greeting from Toronto, Canada.

  5. karamatsu says:

    Wow, that doesn’t sound pleasant at all! I’ve seed/heard one break in a relatively new dojo that had concrete walls. I would have compared it more to a rifle shot. What often happens is that a layer of the outer or inner bamboo will snap and sort of peel off, perhaps because it’s cracked over time. In those cases the bow can often be repaired. Another time, a friend in our dojo was drawing a bow at the makiwara and the entire top (uwaseki-ita) broke off. I imagine that was one unpleasant sound, maybe closer to that scream as the wood and bamboo fibres ripped one by one. Nnnnnn… not a good thought. That one was a total loss, though you can use the centre section to make a nice gomu-yumi!

    But I think you’re right about the origin of damage. They need care and proper handling, and they don’t last forever, but maybe that’s part of what makes them special. One other thing is that you can sometimes find used takeyumi on online auction sites, or even second-hand stores here in Japan. Often they’ve been neglected and need to be reshaped to some extent, but they can be very economical. Two people in my dojo bought takeyumi that way for around 4,000 yen (less than US$40), a teacher here reshaped them, and they’ve been fine.

    Good luck!

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