Kyoto, Japan – July 25th, 2009
Even one of Sanjusangendo’s statues of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, is impressive. Each one stands life sized and is covered in gold leaf, has eleven faces, and twenty one sets of arms to symbolize the goddess’s thousand. Can you picture one Kannon now? Good.
Now imagine 1001 of them, each one unique and hand carved from Japanese cypress, crowded into Japan’s longest wooden building. A giant statue of the Thousand-armed Kannon sits in the middle of the hall, with 500 smaller (merely life sized) Kannons on each side. The youngest of the statues are almost 700 years old. The effect is mind blowing.
As if the Kannons weren’t enough, the hall also contains the statues of 28 Guardian deities and of Fujin and Raijin, the terrifying Japanese Gods of Wind and Thunder.
I almost hurried off after seeing the statues, but I would have missed the fascinating story of the other side of the hall, which has been used for the Tōshiya archery tournament since the 1600’s. A small but fascinating display lists the truly awe inspiring records of Japan’s best archers.
In the Oyakazu competition, for example, archers shoot as many arrows as they can within a 24 hour period, hoping to ‘clear’ – shoot the length of the hall without hitting the roof, floor, or pillars – as many arrows as possible.
In 1686, Wasa Daihachiro shot 13,053 arrows in Oyakazu, clearing 8,133 of them. This averages out to nearly 6 arrows a minute for twenty four hours straight.