Pop stars flaunting kimonos and traditional headdresses, overpriced bowls of ramen in hipster restaurants, tattoos of misspelled Japanese charactersall of this hits close to home for me.

Growing up in a country where I was ridiculed for what I ate and my slender eyes, I grew increasingly defensive about anyone interpreting my culture. I felt a stirring of that reaction when I heard about Meishin Kyudojo. I had stumbled across a flyer for the Japanese archery dojo at Toyo Shokuhin in Cary while stocking up on cod roe spaghetti sauce and seasoned seaweed.

Suspicious that it might be another blatant appropriation of my heritage, I did some research and learned that Apex’s Dan and Jackie DeProspero had been operating the kyudojo in “conformance with all Nippon Kyudo Federation procedural standards” in their backyard for years.

Intrigued, but still not completely convinced, my boyfriend and I drive there one Saturday morning for a closer look. The air is still a bit brisk from the morning chill. A thick forest of tall maples and slim evergreens surrounds the DeProsperos’ property. A stone walkway leads behind the house and up to the kyudojo.

Dan DeProspero is the first to greet me. Jackie, who helps him run the kyudojo, is absent for this morning’s practice. A sturdy man in his sixties, DeProspero has a whitening beard, and might make an excellent Santa Claus in the not-too-distant future. He’s wearing keiko-gi, or practice kyudo attire, made up of a top, a skirt, socks, and a belt. To a layperson, it looks like a cross between a casual white kimono and a bathrobe. A bundle of bows and arrows is slung over his shoulder.

DeProspero moves aside the guard rock at the head of the walkway to the kyudojo, indicating that a class is in session. At the end of the path stands an older, lanky man, Elmar Schmeisser, who waves to us from just inside the doorway. As we approach the genkan, or entrance, DeProspero and Schmeisser instruct us to take off our shoes but keep our socks on. As I try to step from the stone genkan onto the wooden flooring of the kyudojo, DeProspero and Schmeisser exclaim, “No!”

I had tried to put my shoes on the wooden floor. Taken aback by their reaction, I step on the stone genkan with my now shoeless feet. This too, elicits cries of disapproval.

The proper way to enter the kyudojo, DeProspero teaches me, is to remove your shoes, leave them on the stone, and then step onto the wooden flooring in your socks. Done any other way, it’s seen as bringing the outdoors into the space of the kyudojo. I am quickly realizing that DeProspero and his students take their kyudo practice very seriously.

“These younger Japanese,” chuckles DeProspero, once we’ve entered correctly.


Three students arrive and seamlessly enter the space without any sock hiccups. Schmeisser, who has been attending the kyudojo since 2002, had already been practicing the art for years before moving to North Carolina. Sabra McGrew, the only woman in today’s group, has been practicing for five years and will be awarded her shodan ranking, the first of eight kyudo rankings, later today.

The interior of the kyudojo, or the shajo, is where the shooting takes place. Divided into two main sections by a wooden beam, the shajo has an informal practice area and a more formal shooting area. Upon crossing the threshold from the informal to the formal space, we and the students line up side by side and bow to DeProspero. We also bow to the small Shinto altar, the kamidana, which hangs on the wall. Under the altar is the kamiza, the seat from which the teacher and guests of honor sit and observe.

After paying our respects, we take our seats within the kamiza. The kyudojo is an open space, so we can see straight through the building, from the pathway where we had entered to the targets set up outside across a grassy lawn, or yamichi.

Meishin Kyudojo is serenity embodied. Today the landscape is quiet. The sky is clear. All that can be heard is the chirping of birds and the occasional rustle of leaves. The students begin moving into place for their first set of shootings. As they approach the edge of the hall, they walk in such small, smooth steps that their feet barely leave the floor. The students form a straight line according to rank and slowly kneel. Every movement has a meticulous, deliberate quality that also flows like a dance.

Now they’re ready to shoot. The lowest-ranking student goes first. Moving steadily and gracefully, he slowly rises to his feet and lifts the bow above his head, takes aim, and draws the arrow back. Then he lowers the whole arrangement to mouth level and releases. The arrow flies swiftly through the air, striking just below the target hanging thirty yards away. He returns to his knees and the next two students follow suit.

After all of the students shoot, DeProspero begins narrating their movements and telling us about the history of the tradition.

Kyudo, or the way of the bow, is considered one of the purest forms of budo, or martial arts. It dates to around 7000 BCE, when it was primarily used for hunting. As hunter-gatherer societies waned in the centuries that followed, kyudo evolved into a weapon for war.

Now it’s practiced as more of a recreational activity for physical, moral, and spiritual development. Kyudo is infused with philosophical influences from both Shinto and Zen Buddhism, making it a ritualistic practice. The more I learn about its history, the clearer it becomes that for DeProspero and his students, kyudo is much more than a physical pastime.

“This isn’t about archery,” DeProspero says. “It’s about learning Japanese culture. It’s a tea ceremony with a bow and arrow.”

DeProspero started his journey into kyudo more than thirty years ago. He went to Japan in 1981 to study Japanese art and teach English in Tokyo. There, he visited a kyudojo run by Hideharu Onuma, a fifteenth-generation headmaster. Over the course of three years, DeProspero became increasingly close to Onuma and his family, and even moved into their house as their uchideshi, or house disciple. He worked in the family’s archery shop and practiced kyudo every day.

When “Onuma sensei,” as DeProspero calls him, died in 1990, he decided to continue the family’s legacy by bringing the art to the United States. Five years later, DeProspero became the first licensed kyudo instructor to teach in the U.S. He started with just one student on a platform in a field before opening Meishin Kyudojo, with the help of the Onuma family, in 2001. The DeProsperos also wrote a book on kyudo, one of the few published in the U.S.

As I watch the students release their arrows and take in DeProspero’s commitment and knowledge, I’m suddenly brought to tears. Growing up in the states, I had lost so much of my heritage. But here, in the middle of rural North Carolina, is a small group of people who have so much respect and care for a culture that isn’t their own, going to painstaking lengths to get every detail right. This, I realize, is the furthest thing from cultural appropriation: this is cultural exchange at its best.


Finally, DeProspero invites us to try kyudo. Though we can’t shoot any arrows”It takes at least twenty hours of practice before we can give you an arrow,” DeProspero sayshe lets us go through the taihai, the minute movements of preparing to shoot.

We begin by learning the different ways of walking, turning, and kneeling. Then we repeat the steps while holding the bow and arrow. Needless to say, we mess up more than once. Our steps are too big; we don’t turn correctly; we move too fast. I consider myself pretty adventurous, but it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

DeProspero and his students begin packing up for the day, placing their equipment back into their bags. The kyudojo currently has eight students who attend regularly. Most have experience in a martial art and are retired from work, because kyudo is time-consuming. While those who stay become avid learners, very few persevere. It isn’t for people looking for a quick thrill after seeing The Last Samurai.

“I’ve had hundreds of students come through this dojo,” DeProspero says. “A lot of people don’t return; the practice takes a long time. I’m not interested in tourists. You have to have a genuine interest.”

“This isn’t an archery range,” Schmeisser adds. “It’s more of a temple.”

Still, DeProspero welcomes anyone interested in the art. The first visit is free. If you decide to join, there is a $15 registration fee and a monthly fee of $45. It gets more expensive after that, with everything from the attire to the gear adding up to an investment of hundreds, even thousands of dollars.

The kyudojo‘s name is written in kanji above the entrance. “Meishin,” DeProspero explains as we make our way back up the stone walkway, means “illuminated spirit.” It’s a perfect description of the experience. I came to Meishin Kyudojo full of skepticism and apprehension, but I was leaving with a sense of enlightenmentnot just about the art of kyudo, but about my culture and the Japanese spirit.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Their Aim Is True”