Think of battle scenes in the movie "The Last Samurai," and you have an inkling of the splendor of the Soma Nomaoi, or "wild horse chase" festival.
Here, the samurai past from yet an earlier era is re-enacted as hundreds of mounted "warriors" in full body armor stage mock battles. The centuries-old festival, held in Fukushima Prefecture in July, evolved from days when warriors were trained in the manly art of war and wild horses were offered to deities.
Last year, the Great East Japan Earthquake and the crisis at the Fukushima No.1 nuclear power plant limited the festivities, but the event is back in harness this year.
Three shrines hold send-off ceremonies July 28 for a street parade of riders attired in medieval armor.
The main event comes the next day, when galloping "warriors" waving banners vie to capture colorful sacred flags shot up into the air. Fireworks accompany the spectacle.
Horses also feature in Chaguchagu Umakko, held on the second Saturday of June. The festival features a procession of richly decorated stallions and mares ridden by women and children along a 15-kilometer stretch between the Sozenjinja shrine in the village of Takizawa, Iwate Prefecture, to the Hachimangu shrine in the prefectural capital of Morioka.
Its origins lie in farmers praying for the health of their workhorse animals, which were pivotal to agriculture in days gone by. It also heralds the end of the rice planting season.
For a change of pace, hats decorated with artificial flowers are the main feature of the Hanagasa Festival, or "flower hat" dance festival, in Yamagata each August.
Thousands of dancers show off colorful hats as they dance in unison through town streets.
The Soma Nomaoi "wild horse chase" is held July 28-30. Send-off ceremonies are held July 28 at the Nakamurajinja shrine in Soma, the Otajinja shrine in Haramachi and the Odakajinja shrine in Odaka, all in Fukushima Prefecture. Purification rites are performed the same day in Haramachi, as is the race in full body armor at the Hibarigahara field in Haramachi. The chase for sacred flags is also held at the Hibarigahara field on July 29.
JR Haranomachi Station is on the Joban Line. A Super Hitachi train takes about 3 hours from Ueno Station in Tokyo.
The Chaguchagu Umakko proceeds along a 15-kilometer stretch between the village of Takizawa and Morioka city in Iwate Prefecture on June 12. Takizawa is a 20-minute taxi or bus ride from JR Morioka Station, which has Shinkansen services. Free shuttle bus services will be available on the day of the festival.
The Hanagasa Festival is held Aug. 5-7 in central Yamagata. Yamagata is about 3 hours by Shinkansen from Tokyo or Ueno.
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