Photo:And they’re off! Horsemen compete in the central Kacchu Keiba race, house banners flying.

The Soma Nomaoi Festival: Where the Samurai Spirit Lives On

There’s nothing like a day at the races.

However, the riders atop these horses are not decked out in high boots and spats, the crowds are not in their Sunday best and sipping white wine. No, the riders are dressed in full medieval samurai garb, sitting astride their equally bedecked steeds, and the crowds are mostly comprised of overheating Japanese people fanning themselves in the July heat, small yet enthusiastic groups of foreigners scattered amongst them.

Mounted horsemen in traditional samurai armour pace the track at the Kacchu Keiba event at Soma Nomaoi.

This grand event is Soma Nomaoi, a three-day festival that transforms the sleepy city of Minamisoma–located on the east coast of Fukushima prefecture–into matsuri central for three days as the region celebrated their richly steeped samurai history. The event has its roots over a thousand years ago, started as a military exercise by Taira no Kojiro Masakado, founder of the Soma clan. Now, more than 500 mounted horsemen in full traditional samurai armour take part, bringing the Sengoku period to life in the modern day.

Samurai wave to the crowds during the opening ceremony of Soma Nomaoi.

The first day is packed with parades and opening ceremonies as the horsemen make their first appearances, sitting proud beneath the banners of their ancient houses, the streets of Haramachi buzzing with crowds of people eager to snap photos. The first night is also an opportunity to don your most fashionable yukata, listen to live music and grab some famous Japanese street food – yakisoba, takoyaki, shaved ice, almost anything on a stick.

Flag bearers march down the streets of Haramachi during the opening parade.

The second day is the centrepiece of the festival, with one of the highlights being the Kacchu Keiba, the afore-mentioned race around a 1000-metre track. It’s a majestic sight to behold: horses sprinting at breakneck speed, banners snapping in the wind. Also taking place on the second day is the Shinki Sodatsuen, the flag catching. In this event, flags are launched into the air with the use of sky rockets, to slowly drift to the ground and be scooped up by hordes of waiting samurai on horseback. It’s highly competitive chaos and great fun to watch.

Sky-fired banners fall back to earth to be caught by the waiting samurai below.

Although the third day takes place on a Monday and many people have to return to work, it’s no less enjoyable as the antics shift out to Odaka for some lively horse catching. That’s just what it sounds like: three horses are corralled in a pen while a group of men try to jump on them, calm them down, and ultimately get a rope around their necks to lead them away. Definitely not an activity for the weak-hearted!

The Minamisoma area was hit hard by the triple disaster in 2011. In its own way, the festival is part of the region’s healing; although it was cancelled in 2011, they were right back on the horse (if you’ll excuse the pun) the following year. Last year, 43,000 people were reported to have attended the central event on Sunday, a good chunk of those traveling from out of town.

Victorious horsemen work their way through the crowd after winning a race.

This region has seen difficulty but the people here are truly imbued with the samurai spirit.

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