Soma-Nomaoi: A Festival Celebrating Over a Millennium of Horsemanship
Many people heard of the city of Minamisōma, located in Fukushima Prefecture, as one of the areas damaged in the tsunami that followed in the wake of the March 11, 2011 Great East Japan (Tōhoku) Earthquake. Fast forward a few years, and though there is some variation between regions in how far along the reconstruction has progressed, for the most part life has returned to how it was before the earthquake. In the midst of all this, a certain festival forced into suspension because of the tsunami made its comeback in the summer of 2015, almost four and a half years later. Its name is Sōma-Nomaoi, and today we’re going to tell you a little bit about it. Ref: https://www.flickr.com
What is Sōma-Nomaoi?
One of the great summer festivals of Japan’s northeastern Tōhoku region, Sōma-Nomaoi dates back over a thousand years and is held every year for three days in July. The sight of over 500 armored and helmeted warriors riding on horseback will have you feeling as if you’ve fallen through the time stream back to the days of the Warring States era. It’s a truly impressive sight, one that would not be out of place in the climactic battle scene from the movie “The Last Samurai.”
A History of the Festival
After the Kamakura shogunate came into power, it’s said that Taira no Masakado began a type of military training in which wild horses were used as mock-ups for enemy forces. Later in history, all military exercises of this sort were forbidden, but Sōma-Nomaoi was permitted on grounds of it being a sacred ritual, and it is in this form the festival continues to this day.
Highlights of Sōma-Nomaoi
Day 1—The Opening Ceremony
The warriors gather at the shrine, and after praying for safety and drinking from the shrine’s sacred sake, they commence preparations for heading off to the battlegrounds.
Day 2—The Core Festival
The warriors form rank and set off with swaggering heroism to Hibarigahara, where the events of the day will take place. Far from a simple parade, you’ll feel as if you’re seeing ranks upon ranks of samurai marching to war.
Armored Horse Race
The gathered warriors doff their helmets and in their place tie hachimaki, those headbands symbolizing the spirit and soul of the people of Japan. Then, the race begins: 10 at a time, they set off at full speed on horseback down the 1,000 meter course.
Shinkisōdatsusen (“Divine Flag Scramble”)
During this event, a flag is shot high into the air with a firework, and as it flutters down to earth the hundreds of gathered warriors vie to be the first to seize it. The sight of a massive group of mounted warriors all converging intently on a single spot will leave you feeling like you’re standing on the sidelines of a real battle.
*Arguably the very best parts of the festival are the armored horse race and Shinkisōdatsusen on the second day.
The festival concludes with a profoundly historical ritual called the noma-gake. In it, an unsaddled horse that’s been herded into the shrine precincts is caught bare-handed and offered to the shrine.
This ritual is said to be carried out just as it was over a thousand years ago, which leaves you with a strange sense of the immensity of time and history. It’ll give you an incredible chance to feel first-hand the thrill and spectacle of a classic festival, so be sure to head up to Sōma and experience it for yourself!