An Online Japanese Miscellany
Gitchô (= stick ball) was a game popular from the Heian period among the court nobles, but one which came to be popularly played in streets up to the Edo period.
Not much is known of the official rules for gitchô. Some believe it to have been essentially a form of what is now played as field hockey, while others suggest it was a form of croquet. It was probably something between the two. There seems to have been no actual court or field for play, and it isn't clear what kind of goal was involved.
There can be as few as two players playing against each other, or two full teams of as many as four or five players per side.
The official playing instruments (at least, those used by the nobility) were J-shaped, brightly painted wooden sticks two feet, eight and one-half inches long, called chô. These sticks were used to bat about an equally gaudily painted wooden ball (called a kyû). The photographs below depict modern reproductions of the original Heian instruments (left) and surviving originals from the street version of the game as played by commoners (right). As can be seen, commoners more typically used long, forked sticks, or even mallet-like ones.
The illustrations below depict the commoners version of the game, played in the streets and by others who couldn't afford the "official" finery. Note that both illustrations depict sticks resembling modern polo mallets.
A variation on gitchô was played on horseback, and called dakyû (= striking ball) or kiba dakyû (= horseback dakyû). In play, it seems to have been a cross between polo and lacrosse. Two teams, outfitted identically (save one team wore red hats and the other white), vie to put a ball in the goal. They pass the ball from teammate to teammate using long staffs with net-like terminals similar to those on lacrosse sticks.
The tradition of identifying teams by white and red most likely dates from the Kamakura period, and would have been the result of the famed Genpei war, when the opposing sides had as their identifying colors white (Minamoto) and red (Taira). It is not clear how the teams might have been distinguished prior to the Kamakura period.
Kiba dakyû was a pastime of the Heian nobility, though it really took off under the Kamakura bakufu, where it was viewed as part sport, and part martial training, in that it was an excellent way to learn and perfect skills at controlling a horse in tight confines and at high speed. It nearly died out, but was revived by the interest shown in the sport by the eighth Tokugawa shôgun, Yoshimune (1677 1751). Today, like many ancient sports and pastimes, it is kept alive and primarily performed by a small number of practitioners who engage in competitions annually as part of shrine or temple festivities.
Note that the players photographed wear mukabaki, the chaps commonly worn by archers and hunters, and that sometimes they wear what seems to be a variant on the archer's sleeve, only on their right (stick) arms instead of the left (bow) arms. That not all players wear these (the photographs come from a variety of sources) may be the result of different schools or traditions of the sport.
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