Equestrian spectacle opens in Fukushima Prefecture

July 23, 2011

SOMA, Fukushima Prefecture--The famous Soma Noma-oi (Soma wild horse chase) festival kicked off in Fukushima Prefecture July 23, despite fears that it would have to be cancelled because of the Great East Japan Earthquake.

The event, which has a history spanning over 1,000 years, began with a horse-back procession led by an armored "so-daisho" (leading general) from Soma Nakamurajinja shrine in Soma. A conch shell was blown in the shrine's precincts to commemorate people killed in the March 11 disaster.

The Noma-oi festival revolves around three shrines and is supported by five local equestrian societies. The district of Okuma, which contains the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, sends riders.

About 500 horses usually participate in the spectacle, which attracted more than 200,000 visitors last year, but this year's event is on a reduced scale. Only about 80 horses from two northern communities were able to participate.

The popular armored horse-racing event and the "shinki sodatsu" contest, in which people try to grab flags shot into the sky by rockets, were cancelled.

"Opinions differed on whether the festival should be held, but we want to do it to show our gratitude for the assistance we were given," said Yasumitsu Ushiwata, 67, who heads the equestrian society of the Kita community in Minami-Soma's Kashima Ward.

Sanai Sato, 80, the head priest at Soma Otajinja shrine, which holds an annual grand festival to coincide with the Noma-oi event, said: "Many have left the local communities, but some are returning temporarily for the Noma-oi."

Chohachi Kanno, 59, a Japan Post employee in Minami-Soma's Kashima Ward, participated dressed in armor provided by an acquaintance.

"I came to fetch you!" he shouted, making the rounds of the homes of leading members of Kita community's equestrian society.

Kanno, who lost both his family and his home in the tsunami, now lives with an older sister in Minami-Soma. An experienced Noma-oi rider, he served until last year as a "samurai daisho" (samurai general), the third-ranked officer in the equestrian society but has stepped down from the post.

The March 11 tsunami struck Kanno's coastal home and swept away his four family members. He was working at the local post office at the time. His wife, 58, and daughter, 32, were killed and his son, 35, and mother, 85, are still missing. The tsunami also carried away his horses and armor.

Kanno, who has participated in the Noma-oi every year since the age of 22, initially had mixed feelings about staging the festival, but eventually decided to participate.

"I thought that if I just watched it from the side, my family would have said, 'What are you doing, father?'" he said. "I do it to console the souls of my family."

The event will finish July 25.

(This article was compiled from reports by Motoki Kaneko and Naoki Kimura.)

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A procession departs from Soma Nakamurajinja shrine in Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, on July 23. (Hiroshi Kawai)

A procession departs from Soma Nakamurajinja shrine in Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, on July 23. (Hiroshi Kawai)

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  • A procession departs from Soma Nakamurajinja shrine in Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, on July 23. (Hiroshi Kawai)
  • Chohachi Kanno checks on a horse leased to him by a friend in Minami-Soma, Fukushima Prefecture. (Naoki Kimura)
  • Kanno participates in a procession in Minami-Soma on July 23.

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