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A Day at the Races, Samurai-style
The Soma Nomaoi festival of northern Japan features three days of parades, horses and heroics
David Michael Weber (crossfire)     Print Article 
Published 2005-08-02 22:29 (KST)   
Samurai and horses in traditional attire parade through the street
©2005 D. Weber
Pint-sized Pikemen
©2005 D. Weber
In the northeast region of Japan, in the prefecture of Fukushima, the Soma Nomaoi, an age-old tradition handed down from samurai times, is celebrated to this day with a fanfare of medieval parades, horse racing, and horse chasing.

Nomaoi means "wild horse chasing" and dates back over a thousand years. Warriors in full battle dress would chase wild horses in the areas of Shinto shrines dedicating the best horse to the gods.

The Soma Nomaoi was started by the Soma clan, a small but valiant clan surrounded by powerful enemies. They used the Nomaoi festival as a military exercise in order to keep their fighting skills sharp.

Perhaps another reason they survived the Sengoku(Warring States) Period was their horses. Soma had a reputation for excellent horses in the Tohoku area (northern Japan). Good horses were always in demand by warring clans and it would not have been wise to wipe out the best horse trainers in the area. In 1622, when the country was at peace, Soma's wild horses began to be painted onto teacups and pottery.

Soma Nomaoi riders race to the finish line
©2005 D. Weber
Riders struggle to capture a falling banner
©2005 D. Weber
The Soma Nomaoi festivals spaned three days, July 23-25. The first two days were held in the small town of Haramachi, two hours by train from Fukushima City. The first day was more like a preview of the second with a short parade and a few horse races.

Day two was the main day of the festival. It began at 9 a.m. with a long parade of riders in full samurai armor and carrying colorful pennants on their backs. Even the horses are dressed up in traditional harnesses. The participants of the parade are so numerous that a parade can last almost two hours.

From time to time the riders stop and boast of the feats they strove to accomplish that day. Periodically, riders with large trumpet sea shells blow on the horns in unison, playing a tune that samurai of bygone days no doubt once heard as they marched into battle.

After the parade, a series of horse races take place. Half a dozen riders wearing armored suits without helmets and with large pennants on their backs race around a track field. Not all the riders make it around as spirited horses sometimes throw their heavy riders. A few riderless horses continue racing until they have to be stopped. These horses' dedication to their duty is admired by the judges and the crowd alike.

A Rider captures glory
©2005 D. Weber
After the races, the riders gather together in a colorful array of armor and pennants on the field to await the next event. Trumpet shells are blown, then fireworks explode overhead.

With each firework two banners come down. A mock battle then ensues as armored riders vie with each other for the honor of capturing one. Forty banner winners in all ride up a spiral slope to offer up their banner as an offering to a local shrine.

Entry to the races and the mock battle costs visitors 1,000 yen.

The third day of the festival was held in Odaka-machi, south of Haramachi. On the grounds of Odaka Shrine, 22 men in white clothing catch wild horses using only their hands.

The Soma Nomaoi festival is an interesting festival for both horse racing fans and enthusiasts of Japanese history and culture. It is held every July 23-25, with the main events occurring on July 24. Haramachi can be reached by train and bus from Fukushima City and Sendai.

- Riders race around the track 

©2005 OhmyNews
A native Tennesseean, David M. Weber is currently at the grammatical grindstone cranking out gerunds, dangling modifiers and perfecting tenses as an English teacher in Japan. In his travels, he has hiked the Inca Trail, been mugged in Mexico City, broke his leg in Switzerland, attempted to bike through Mexico and failed, climbed Pyramids in Egypt and Mexico, drank great quantities of beer at Oktoberfest and gambled at Monte Carlo.
Other articles by reporter David Michael Weber

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