The great horse festival up in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture is a three day event and the first even on the second day is the grand parade where the groups of riders ride out towards the race course and festival grounds. Each group is lead by a commander and has dozens of riders of all ages. The coastal parts of Minamisoma city was heavily damaged by the Tsunami in March last year and many of the horses were killed, so for this year the festival had to scramble to find and train new horses as replacements, I don’t think that I have ever seen such a variety of breeds and sizes in a single event before. There were super heavy draft horse mixed with retired racing horses and native Japanese ponies. There was also quite a range of riders, both kids and young men and women but also many older riders took part. The day was hot unlike anything I have ever experienced before and in the noon sun with no shadow and very little water these riders and their horses spent hours on the streets of the city. I would never have been able to survive a day like this in that armor they were wearing! Sometime around one in the afternoon I had to give it up and leave the festival ground, even though I had managed to get a special photography permission and gone all the way there from Tokyo. Instead I found a piece of tarmac that wasn’t completely in the sun and laid down for an hour and a half while drinking a couple of liters of sports drinks. Next year I will be better prepared and bring a proper parasol. More photos to come! Oh, and if you think the writing of my last post was strange, it’s because I was still suffering from pretty deep brain fry when I wrote it.
Every year in the norther prefecture of Fukushima there’s the famous and magnificent Soma Nomaoi (相馬野馬追), a huge festival involving hundreds of riders from the area of what is known today as Minamisoma. Stretching back to around the year 1060 riders have gathered on a certain field every year to test their skill and compete in combat and the skills of the mounted warrior. The festival is a massive 3 day event with parades, racing, games and test to show of the skills of the local warriors. Back in the old days this used to be the training and recruiting grounds of Japan’s finest cavalry but these days it is a little more peaceful, at least physically. I saw several samurai who were as fierce on the parade as they would have been in battle, much to the consternation of an onlooker who dared step out of line – one man was crossing the road in the middle of a group of riders on his bicycle and was actually charged by the leader of the group, I believe it’s the first time I have seen a man desperately fleeing a mounted rider on a bicycle! I made sure to stick to my side of the road and got treated to a magnificent parade of a large variety of horses, from huge draft breeds to native Japanese ponies, with riders from 6 to 90 years of age. At noon the races started, and it is some of those riders that I managed to photograph and show you today. More photos to come from this most amazing festival, and more on how Minamisoma has survived evacuation, a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown. Stay tuned!
This weekend was the 100th anniversary of the Nihonbashi, or the “Bridge of Japan”, which some of you might be familiar with from your travels in Tokyo. Nihonbashi is not only the name of a subway station and an entire business district just off the side of Tokyo Station, it is also the name of a bridge that counts as the Point Zero of Japan. All distances to Tokyo, all road maps count from this point zero, and as we say in the west, “All roads lead to Rome”, in Japan the saying is quite literally, “All roads lead to Nihonbashi”. Back when Tokyo was first funded, over 400 years ago, this bridge was the unloading point for a large wholesale food and goods market operated by the hugely influential Mitsui family. The first bridge was built in 1603 and it was replaced by the stone and steal bridge we see today in 1911. It was to celebrate this anniversary that the city organized a festival and parade last Sunday. The parade had two themes, Edo and Tohoku, history and the present. There were several teams representing the Tohoku region to show support for the rebuilding of their communities after the March earthquake and tsunami. But one of the more spectacular teams was the Soma Nomaoi mounted Samurai, a group with roots stretching over 1000 years back and still performing annual rituals and exhibitions. Soma is a city in northern Fukushima prefecture very close to the nuclear power plant. The southern city of Minamisoma is only 43km away and when I was there in March it was as close as I got before the roadblocks. Despite this the city has the energy and drive to send this team of horses and warriors to help us in Tokyo celebrate! Someday soon I hope I can get some time of to visit again and see these warriors in their original setting, on the beautiful coast of northern Fukushima.