Horses have never really liked me ... this one has just caught on.

Horses have never really liked me … this one has just caught on.

Last week I was invited by collaborators to attend the Nomaoi horse festival in Minamisoma, Fukushima. This festival dates back 1000 years, to the warring states (sengoku) period, and appears to have arisen from some kind of training ritual. It was cancelled in the year of the Great East Japan Earthquake but has otherwise been held every year, even during the war (as far as I know). It is a big event for the towns of Soma and Minamisoma, and I and other collaborators were invited as guests of our local project collaborator. He arranged us excellent seats for all the events, souvenirs and a formal dinner, so overall it was an excellent event. It’s a major tourism event for the town, but it’s also clearly of huge importance for the town itself, with (I think) this year 504 horses and riders participating, and probably an equal number of footmen.

Summoning the beasts

Summoning the beasts

The ceremony lasts three days, but I only saw the second day. This day starts with a parade through town by the samurai, all mounted on their horses and wearing their ceremonial armour. They are arranged in groups according to their sponsors: the most important sponsors are the three shrines that are the focus of the day, but other groups – suburbs, companies, etc. – can also sponsor a squad. The squads are arranged in the style of the armies of old, with a general, colonels, etc. Higher orders wear flags on their backs, and ride ornately decorated horses. They stop at regular intervals along the parade to announce their purpose, and occasional small dramas of military life are played out (with comedic overtones) during these moments.

A peasant's last sight

A peasant’s last sight

This parade is surprising for the amount of activity it involves – in addition to general’s conferences, there are occasionally lieutenants charging up and down the line, drummers announcing the arrival of a new squad, announcements of names and faces over a loud-speaker, and occasional tumbles – I saw one man thrown from his horse, and the people opposite me nearly got run down. The riders are all ages and sexes and all classes – I saw one of my collaborators (an internal surgeon) on horseback, followed soon after by a heavily made-up girl who would probably be judged to be pretty low-class by the locals (I’m not a good judge of these things). Very elderly men rode by on plodding draught horses, followed by children on ponies. The trappings were largely traditional, with the stirrups, saddles and girth all apparently modeled on the ancient fashion. We’ll come back to that …

After the parade we returned, with military precision, to our base camp for a 10 minute rest, and then headed to the racecourse. Here, the braver warriors gathered to race each other around a 1000m circuit as a huge crowd watched. This racecourse would also be the venue for the final battle, so I was to spend several hours here in our covered tent, enjoying my obento lunchbox and my free beer, and watching warriors try to kill themselves.

The battleground and warriors in transit

The battleground and warriors in transit

I say “kill themselves” because the races were incredibly dangerous. I watched 6 races, with 6 participants per race, and out of the 36 participants identified the following events:

  • 3 fallen riders
  • 2 hospitalized riders
  • 4 escaped horses
  • 1 injured horse

Fun for all the family! The riders fell because they were hurtling around a tight track on horses without proper stirrups, with massive flags strapped to their backs. The horse fell because it tripped over its rider. No one was wearing a helmet. This is the most dangerous festival I have ever seen in Japan, by a long shot, and with an injury rate of 1 per 12 participants would have to be one of the most injury-prone sports I have ever seen. It was at times quite hideous to watch.

Finally after the races were (mercifully) finished we got to enjoy the final battle. This battle is a mad scramble to catch flags falling from the sky, in which all the (surviving) samurai gather in the centre of the racecourse and charge after the flags. The flags are, of course, hurled aloft by fireworks, shot out of a kind of mortar, that explode with a huge roar high above the gathered horses. Standing on the hillside, I could look behind me to some of the resting horses and see how they panic when the fireworks cracked. Horses and fireworks mix so well, why not start a battle with a massive explosion? And then do it 10 times? The warriors compete for 40 flags, fired into the air over 10 bouts. I left after 4 bouts, and in that time I saw two warriors fall from their horses – and when they landed they were still wrestling over the flag they had caught. Now that’s commitment …

Capture the flag, samurai style

Capture the flag, samurai style

This festival is a thoroughly engaging and entertaining event, well worth taking the opportunity to view. It’s edgy, exciting and historical, and everyone gathered there is really involved. I strongly recommend, if you’re in Japan at the end of July, making a trip to Minamisoma to experience this unique Japanese event. Just don’t participate if you value your life!

 

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