Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

A Day at the Races – Samurai Style

The Soma Nomaoi festival of northern Japan features three days of parades, horses and heroics

Samurai and horses in traditional attire parade through the town

Pint-sized Pikemen

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.

A Female Samurai

The Soma Nomaoi festivals spans three days: July 23-25. The first two days are held in the small town of Haramachi, two hours by train from Fukushima City. The first day is more like a preview of the second with a short parade and a few horse races.

A Rider Blowing upon a Seashell Horn

Day two is the main day of the festival. It begins 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.

A wee samurai

From time to time the riders stop and boast of the feats they will strive 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.

Traditional Fan Dance held before the races

Following the parade, a series of horse races take place. The race is like a Kurosawa movie meets the Kentucky Derby. Half a dozen riders wearing armored suits sans helmets 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. I watched a few riderless horses continue racing until they had to be stopped. These horses’ dedication to their duty was admired by the judges and the crowd alike. Of course some cynics would say the damn things were just too stupid to know when to quit but the line between dedication and stupidity can be at times a blurry one.

Soma Nomaoi riders race to the finish line

After the races, the riders gather together sporting 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 explosion 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.

Riders struggle to capture a falling blue banner

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

The third day of the festival is 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 year on the weekend nearest to July 23-25, with the main events occurring on the second day. Haramachi can be reached by train and bus from Fukushima City and Sendai.

Riders capture Glory


July 24, 2007 Posted by | Blogroll, festival, fukushima, horse racing, horses, japan, life, matsuri, samurai, soma nomaoi, tohoku, tradition, travel | 8 Comments