I have always wondered what horse races would be like. The movies I watched showed horse races as a luxury sport for the rich. Men and women clad in their best attire would shout and scream for the horses they bet on. One of the Korean movies I watched, showed a man losing his entire fortune on one such race where his young beautiful daughter weeps over the family misfortune. Of course, the daughter then finds a handsome and rich business tycoon…but that’s another story. With all these ideas in my head, I thought the Fukushima Horse Festival would be something similar. Yet, going there and witnessing the Soma Nomaoi Matsuri, I felt that this horse festival was far more than just an adrenaline rush.
Every year on July 29th to 31st, the Fukushima Horse Festival: Soma Nomaoi commences and hundreds of people all over Japan come to observe it. In this 1,000-year-old traditional festival, horsemen clad in Samurai wear with armour, helmets and Katana swords march along the streets, fight against each other and race over a distance of 1000 meters. This festival is said to have begun as early as in the 10th Century when samurai warriors of Soma (who reared many horses) secretly commenced their military exercises.
Apparently, this festival is jointly organized by three shrines in the area – Ota Shrine and Odaka Shrine in Minami-Soma City, and Nakamura-Shrine in Soma City. Because of its historical and cultural significance, this festival has also been designated as a significant intangible folk cultural asset of Japan.
The festival begins with a long procession where children and men dressed in different Samurai armor parade along the road to a huge ground where the race begins. An observant spectator might see horsemen with different kinds of flags – representing each warriors clan and ranking. The peculiar sound of the hoofs of the horses, their neighing, men shouting loudly as the background music blares will make you feel as if you have traveled back in time to the Samurai Era.
Across the road, volunteers give the horsemen some drinks – usually beer or sake, and they let the horses hydrate too. The streets will be quite packed, so make sure you find a nice place to sit and watch. As for us, since we also wanted to observe the festival from the ground, we walked along the streets. But be careful so as to never cross the streets when these “Samurais” are around you. Three ladies right in front of us crossed the road and were forced to return back by the “Samurais”. Apparently, there is a saying that one should not “cross” these military nobles. As they roared “Modore!” (Return!) “Modore!” to these poor women left aghast, all the bystanders felt the glimpse of the medieval Japan.
On a vast ground, shrine flags are shot into the air with fireworks, and the horsemen try their best to catch the flags.
Unlike other Japanese festivals, the Nomaoi matsuri is quite boisterous. You can see tipsy horsemen trying to balance the horse and fighting over the flags too.
As you watch this historical festival under the strong summer heat, all these events offer such spectacular sights that you will feel as if you have traveled back in time to the Sengoku Period (1477-1573).
Be sure not to miss this festival next year, especially if you love history!
Photographs By: Timmy Jim, Tohoku University
The festival is best accessed by train (although some parking is available, it can be a bit of a hassle).
Take the JR Joban Line from Sendai Station to Haranomachi Station. Once you arrive, there will be plenty of direction around to guide you to the main venues. There should also be shuttle buses running from Haranomachi Station and the outer car parking to the central stadium.
More information: https://www.kyuhoshi.com/2017/06/04/soma-nomaoi/
Festival Homepage (Japanese): http://soma-nomaoi.jp/
<JR Joban Line>
Sendai – Haranomachi Station
More information available here ->