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Mane attraction: Coastal parts of Fukushima Prefecture have a long-standing love of horses

Tons of of armor-clad individuals on horseback parade via the streets of Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, in the course of the Soma Nomaoi pageant on a sometimes blistering scorching day on the end of July every year.

As impressive as this spectacle might sound, the parade is definitely the precursor to a breathtaking present of horsemanship that is performed at the local racetrack later the same day.

Carrying gargantuan flags emblazoned with clan imagery, riders guide their horses around the monitor at breakneck velocity in an electrifying race before collaborating in a flag-catching ceremony that harkens again to the savage battles of the Sengoku interval (1482-1573)

The rites that take place in the course of the three-day pageant, which this yr shall be celebrated from July 27 to 29, mirror the deep respect the region has for its horses and equine tradition.

Indeed, it’s thought that round half the pageant’s individuals personal horses solely for the aim of participating in the annual occasion.

“It’s a lifestyle,” says Takashi Wagastuma, who owns a thoroughbred. “I basically work so that I can ride and take part in the Soma Nomaoi festival.”

Touring round coastal parts of Fukushima Prefecture, there’s clear proof that horses are revered by the local population. Stables and floats are a widespread sight at many homes close to Minamisoma, while riders can ceaselessly be seen galloping around Hibarigahara racetrack or along the seashore at Kashima in the mornings and afternoons.

The area additionally celebrates occasions during which locals gown like jockeys and take part in races. It’s also widespread to see horses chewing hay at corrals round town and if there’s a clump of manure on the aspect of the street, no one appears to bat a lot as an eyelash.

Men dressed in armor take part in a procession at the Soma Nomaoi festival in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, in 2018. | JERFAREZA DAVIANOMales wearing armor participate in a procession at the Soma Nomaoi pageant in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, in 2018. | JERFAREZA DAVIANO

Equine legacy

The historical past of Soma Nomaoi is believed thus far again 1,000 years or so to a time when the founder of the Soma clan, Taira no Kojiro Masakado, introduced it as a type of army exercise. The person who at present plays the main position on the pageant annually is Michitane Soma, a descendant of Soma clan chiefs whose lineage could be traced again 34 generations.

Historical evidence of the event could be traced back to around 400 years in the past. Its format has modified several occasions over the course of its history.

“Samurai society lost a lot of influence between the bakufu era (of the Tokugawa feudal government) and the Meiji Era (1868-1912),” says Fumihiko Futakami, a curator at the Minamisoma Metropolis Museum. “As the Soma Nomaoi festival was an event founded by the Soma clan — a family that lost its samurai status during the Meiji Era — it wouldn’t have been surprising if the festival also disappeared. However, the Soma Nomaoi festival became an event that was affiliated with shrines and has been able to continue as a result.”

Through the Allied Occupation, the GHQ didn’t look favorably at Shinto-related events that have been evocative of Japan’s militarism main up to and through World Struggle II.

“Rather than hold an event that showed chivalry and was reminiscent of fighting, Soma Nomaoi was transformed into a peaceful sports festival,” Futakami says. “The races started as a result.”

Nevertheless, Fukushima Prefecture’s close ties to equine culture prolong past the Soma Nomaoi pageant and quite a few prehistoric artifacts linked to horses have been discovered in the area.

Archeological proof means that horses first entered Japan from mainland Asia through the Kofun Period (250 to 552), ultimately spreading to areas resembling Nagano, Gunma and Fukushima.

A man dressed in armor take part in a procession at the Soma Nomaoi festival in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, in 2018. | JERFAREZA DAVIANOA man wearing armor take part in a procession at the Soma Nomaoi pageant in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, in 2018. | JERFAREZA DAVIANO

Horse-related artifacts have been discovered numerous websites in the Hamadori area along the Fukushima coast, including the late fifth-century horse-shaped haniwa figures from Soma, as well as fifth- to sixth-century horse tools from Minamisoma and a seventh-century wall painting in Futaba that boasts a clear depiction of horse driving figures — one of one of the best preserved of its time.

“People in the Hamadori region had a culture of making burial grounds inside caves, rather than in the ground where things would decompose,” says Makoto Hirasawa, a curator at the Fukushima Prefectural Museum in Aizuwakamatsu. “This resulted in a high proportion of immaculately preserved artifacts from around the end of the Kofun Period.”

The Fukushima Prefectural Museum has a number of prehistoric horse relics in its permanent exhibition.

“In the sixth century, horse tools were placed inside graves in places such as the city of Iwaki (in Fukushima Prefecture),” Hirasawa says. “Metals were rare at the time, so finding these items inside a grave is definitely a sign of social standing. Horses weren’t used by commoners at the time and owning a horse was more a status symbol than anything else. To own a horse in the Kofun Period was a representation of authority. Thereafter, horses were primarily used for transport and documents exist relating to their sale.”

Fumihiko Murai, a curator on the Equine Museum of Japan, says that numerous globalization movements had a vital impression on horse culture in Japan.

“In the Kofun Period (when horses entered Japan) and then later in the Meiji Era (when domestic horses were replaced with European horses), there was a general perception that horses should be larger and, as a result, the number of so-called native horses in Japan declined.”

Ultimately, breeds such as the Akita, Sendai and Nanbu horses disappeared altogether.

Within the 20th century, Murai says the rise of mechanization in the agricultural sector effectively ensured that the home horse inhabitants was pushed to the wayside.

Revered animal: One of several horse effigies at Nakamura Shrine, one of three shrines that are central to the Soma Nomaoi festival in Fukushima Prefecture. | MANAMI OKAZAKIRevered animal: One of a number of horse effigies at Nakamura Shrine, one of three shrines which are central to the Soma Nomaoi pageant in Fukushima Prefecture. | MANAMI OKAZAKI

Religious steeds

In spiritual phrases, some consider that horses are carriers of the gods. The nomakake ritual that’s carried out at Odaka Shrine on the third day of the Soma Nomaoi pageant reflects such beliefs.

Futakami says the nomakake ritual is necessary for a number of reasons.

“The Soma Nomaoi festival is held in Haramachi,” he says. “The location was really just a giant area in the Edo Interval (‘hara‘ means ‘field’ in Japanese) and the banks surrounding the pasture land sometimes contained several hundred wild horses. Prior to now, samurai on horseback would chase some of these horses into Odaka Shrine and that’s why the pageant has been given its identify — ‘nōma‘ is ‘wild horse’ in Japanese, whereas ‘oi‘ means ‘to chase.’

“On the third day of the festival, locals would catch horses inside the precincts with their bare hands and present them as offerings to the shrine. The Soma lord would then pray for things like peace and prosperity. Such prayers lie at the heart of the festival and yet its aesthetic is so majestic, it historically attracted a steady stream of visitors.”

Shinme are sacred horses which might be provided to the gods at Shinto shrines. The apply of horse dedication is believed up to now again so far as 1,200 years.

“Of all the animals that humans owned, horses were considered to be the best, and that’s why they were typically offered to the gods,” Murai says. “Shinto typically seeks to purify and protect against calamity, and so horses were seen as talismans — a bridge between our world and the world we can’t see.”

As horses have been uncommon in the early half of Japan’s historical past, equine illustrations have been painted on picket boards referred to as ema (actually, “picture horse”) and artifacts that date again to the Nara Period have been uncovered by archeologists.

In the Muromachi Interval (1392-1573), the form and motifs depicted on the ema began to broaden and embrace other figures.

From the 14th century to the beginning of the 17th century, ema also started to seem in temples, not simply shrines. Even as we speak, places of worship nationwide are coated in picket plaques that comprise hopes and phrases of gratitude scrawled on the again.

Secure relationships

While horses in Japan have traditionally been used as work animals, Minamisoma residents contemplate them to be more like companions. Indeed, it’s value noting that many of the horses which are used in the Soma Nomaoi pageant are former racehorses that have been rescued from an unfortunate destiny.

“Racehorses usually retire at 4 or 5 years old — basically at junior high school age if you think of that in terms of human years,” Futakami says. “Most of them aren’t simply put out to pasture until they reach old age, they’re sent to the slaughterhouse and turned into meat. Horses that are used in the Soma Nomaoi festival have often been given a second life in this regard. Their owners typically love their steeds and consider them to be family.”

Men prepare horses for a race at the Soma Nomaoi festival in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture. | MANAMI OKAZAKIMales prepare horses for a race on the Soma Nomaoi pageant in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture. | MANAMI OKAZAKI

“The Soma Nomaoi festival is extremely important to the local community,” says Shohei Yoshida, a young rider who is saddling some thoroughbreds together with his good friend, Hiroshi Watanabe. Like most individuals, they have regular day jobs, and wish to journey their horses earlier than and after work.

“Horses are great observers of humans,” Yoshida says. “They’re fascinating because they listen to us even though they’re bigger than us.”

In contrast to most individuals who participate within the Soma Nomaoi pageant, Katsuo Fushimi is a retired skilled horse rider and a descendent of a lineage of horse merchants.

Fushimi first took half in the pageant more than 50 years in the past when he was just 14 years previous. His current home in Haramachi consists of a giant corral and driving area, as well as a picket secure that dates back to the Edo Interval. A powerful assortment of 30 saddles sits in his attic, some from the Muromachi Interval, close to a row of Edo Period armor.

“The Soma Nomaoi festival is a part of me,” Fushimi says, feeding one of his thoroughbreds some items of carrot. “Even when I was living in Shiga Prefecture for a while, I traveled eight hours to make it back for the weekend. Nowadays, I ride my horses from first light. I head for the mountains, do a bit of jumping and run them around for an hour. It’s become my hobby.”

A man dressed in armor takes part in a procession at the Soma Nomaoi festival in Fukushima Prefecture. | JERFAREZA DAVIANOA person wearing armor takes part in a procession on the Soma Nomaoi pageant in Fukushima Prefecture. | JERFAREZA DAVIANO

Declining horsepower

Whereas Minamisoma retains an obvious love for horses, the longer term of the pageant stays unclear, with the number of members falling yr by yr.

“Performing arts based on horses are usually celebrated in the format of a festival and, if these festivals didn’t exist, it’s highly likely the culture surrounding the animals wouldn’t survive either,” Murai says. “From the Edo Period to the Meiji Era, such events have been used as a means to garner solidarity within villages and foster competitiveness with their neighbors. From now, such festivals will have to outlive by persevering with in a totally different format.

“It used to be that local communities would retain agricultural horses that could be used in the festival, but many parts of Japan are now urbanized and have no horses left at all. It comes down to choosing progress over tradition or the other way around.”

Futakami has seen the dwindling numbers together with his own eyes. “In the past, 10 horses participated in 10 separate races at the festival,” he says, including that the majority of the animals have been agricultural.

“These days, however, retired racehorses from the central racetrack are used in the festival,” he says. “The agricultural horses have been like unusual automobiles and then, abruptly, Components One racing automobiles have been introduced. On prime of this, the riders put on heavy armor while carrying big flags. It requires a lot of talent.

“It’s really quite dangerous. Up to 500 horses take part in the procession and the flags are constantly fluttering in the breeze. There certainly aren’t too many situations like that. Horses are really sensitive, and some animals become easily spooked in unusual surroundings.”

A Nomaoi participant shows off his horse-riding prowess in the city of Fukushima. | MANAMI OKAZAKIA Nomaoi participant exhibits off his horse-riding prowess in the city of Fukushima. | MANAMI OKAZAKI

The pageant can also be something of a financial burden on many families in Minamisoma. It isn’t low cost to take care of the horses, while the price and upkeep of gear by no means seems to end.

The area has also been negatively affected by the triple catastrophe that occurred in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011.

The coastal Fukushima region was partially inundated by the tsunami that resulted from the quake, suffering heavy injury. Around 1,770 residents are thought to have died from causes associated to the disaster within the Soma area. The tsunami additionally swept away a lot of armor and gear that was needed to hold the pageant.

What’s more, residents from many regions that take part in the pageant — specifically, Odaka, Namie, Okuma and Futaba — fell into the 20-kilometer exclusion zone surrounding the damaged Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, and a quantity of Soma Nomaoi members have been caught up in the evacuation.

In 2011, Odaka Shrine lay inside the restricted space so organizers have been pressured to use Taka Shrine situated on the periphery of the prohibited zone as an alternative.

The pageant additionally included a memorial in 2011 for many who misplaced their lives within the catastrophe, together with one devoted to a younger Soma Nomaoi participant.

In a stirring 2011 speech, Michitane Soma referred to the horses of the area as “invaluable,” saying that each horses and riders would “stand together in a spirit of unity toward recovery.”

While most of the animals in the exclusion zone have been culled in the months after the quake, locals went to nice lengths to avoid wasting of the horses — such is the importance of the pageant to the region.

Nevertheless, many residents haven’t returned to their former houses since restrictions have been lifted, main Futakami to query the pageant’s future.

Men ride horses around Hibarigahara racetrack on the second day of the Soma Nomaoi festival in Fukushima Prefecture in 2018. | JERFAREZA DAVIANOMen experience horses around Hibarigahara racetrack on the second day of the Soma Nomaoi pageant in Fukushima Prefecture in 2018. | JERFAREZA DAVIANO

With fewer families dwelling in the region following the 2011 catastrophe, Futakami isn’t seeing the subsequent era of pageant members coming by means of. An growing number of youngsters who had once lived within the region have by no means participated within the event earlier than, leaving a dwindling quantity of young people who can proceed to enter the pageant behind.

“We might even need to rethink the festival’s structure,” he says.

And even if the pageant continues to wrestle to attract as many individuals because it used to, Yoshida believes the region’s love of horses will stay on.

“While we love horses, the Soma Nomaoi festival is particularly special,” he says. “We want to preserve it as part of our identity. Our understanding of the rites associated with the festival has been passed down from generation to generation, and therefore it’s extremely important to us.”