Wild Horse Festival

Wild Horse Festival (Soma Nomaoi)

Type of Holiday: Historic
Date of Observation: July 23 to July 25
Where Celebrated: In and around Haramachi City, Japan
Symbols and Customs: Flags, Horse Race, Mock Battles, Opening Ceremony and Procession, Samurai Costumes, Wild Horse Capture

ORIGINS

The Wild Horse Festival commemorates the prowess of Japan's samurai warriors by recreating events and scenes that took place hundreds of years ago. In those days, samurai warriors belonging to the Soma clan used the plains around the city of Haramachi to carry out their military exercises. The Japanese people feared and admired these warriors and marveled at their skills. Each year during the military exercises, the head of the Soma Clan released wild horses and challenged the warriors to capture them. It is believed that this training technique can be traced back about 1,000 years, when Tairo Kojito Masakado, an ancestor of the Soma clan, challenged the warriors under his command with this feat as a means of improving their horsemanship. Today's festival features a ritualized WILD HORSE CAPTURE , as well as other military displays.

The Wild Horse Festival is a historic holiday, one that commemorates a significant historical event. People throughout the world remember significant events in their histories. Often, these are events that are important for an entire nation and become widely observed. The marking of such anniversaries serves not only to honor the values represented by the person or event commemorated, but also to strengthen and reinforce communal bonds of national, cultural, or ethnic identity. Victorious, joyful, and traumatic events are remembered through historic holidays. The commemorative expression reflects the original event through festive Wild Horse Festival

celebration or solemn ritual. Reenactments are common activities at historical holiday and festival gatherings, seeking to bring the past alive in the present.

Around 1,000 years ago, Japan's warriors began to develop their own culture. The values and ideals of samurai culture differed somewhat from those of the Japanese upper class. The samurai valued bravery, military skill, personal loyalty, the ability to suffer hardship without complaint, and a strong sense of personal honor. The power of the samurai class deepened between 1300 and 1600. In that era, under the influence of Zen Buddhism, samurai culture contributed important elements to the Japanese arts, such as the tea ceremony and flower arranging. According to some historians, the samurai became the most powerful group in Japanese society and contributed much to the unique culture of Japan. During the Tokugawa period (1603-1867) the samurai became a closed social caste, meaning that one had to be born into a samurai family in order to become a samurai. As the Tokugawa era waned, so did the power and influence of the samurai. Many became bureaucrats and lost the military prowess that had made them famous. When feudalism was abolished in the 1870s, the samurai class lost its special position within Japanese society.

Among all the samurai clans of days gone by, the Soma clan was especially renowned for its warriors' skill with horses. The Soma established themselves in the area around present-day Haramachi in the fourteenth century. Threatened by the constant conflict that characterized medieval Japan, the Soma clan developed yearly military exercises to keep its warriors in top shape for battle. During the relatively peaceful Tokugawa period, the value placed on military hardiness rather than the need to be constantly prepared to fight kept these military drills alive. When the samurai class was abolished in the late nineteenth century, the members of the Soma clan, proud of their samurai identity, continued their yearly military exercises. Gradually, these events lost their true military rigor and became a historic festival commemorating the values and skills of samurai culture. The head of the Soma clan still presides over the festival. He is called the taicho, or commander, of the event.

Some experts believe the Wild Horse Festival to be the most authentic samurai festival in Japan. Indeed, the government of Japan officially recognizes the Soma Nomaoi festival as one of the nation's important "folk cultural assets." In recent years the three-day festival has attracted about a quarter of a million spectators.

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Flags

All festival participants must have a banner, or flag, that displays their clan symbol. In past centuries, all the samurai clans devised flags that bore symbols representing the clan. Festival participants must research their clan symbol and submit their flag design to the festival committee, which will judge it historical accuracy. Once approved, the flags must be specially made to order.

Horse Race

The horse race is one of the highlights of the festival. Twelve riders in full samurai garb, including flags and katana swords, race a distance of 1,000 meters at top speeds. To demonstrate the tough samurai spirit, even those riders that are thrown from their horses are encouraged to remount and finish the race.

Mock Battles

In order to recreate something of the battles of olden days, clan banners are shot into the air along with fireworks. The festival participants then compete to take possession of the banners.

Opening Ceremony and Procession

On the first full day of the festival, the current head of the Soma clan offers prayers for success in battle at a local Shinto shrine. Then he sounds a blast on a conch shell. This signals the festival participants to assemble for the procession to the mock battleground. The sight of hundreds of horses and riders in magnificent samurai costumes marching through the city streets is a favorite with festival goers.

Samurai Costumes

About 600 men participate yearly in the events the make up the Wild Horse Festival. Those who wish to participate must fill out an application and be approved by the festival committee. Participating can be a very expensive proposition, as all participants are expected to wear genuine antique or good quality replica samurai costumes. These costumes include not only clothing, but also helmets and armor. What's more, one is expected to provide one's own horse for the three-day event. The horse, too, must wear historically accurate gear.

Many riders have authentic samurai regalia handed down to them by their ancestors. Spectators are thus treated to a display that rivals and sometimes outshines that available in any museum.

Wild Horse Capture

The wild horse capture, or Nomagake ritual, takes place on the last day of the festival. Samurai warriors drive a group of unsaddled and unbridled horses in to the precincts of a Shinto shrine. Other festival participants, dressed all in white, capture the horses with their bare hands. The horses are then presented as offerings at the shrine. Wild Horse Festival

FURTHER READING

Buell, Hal. Festivals of Japan. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1965. Caesar, Ed. "Freeze Frame: Samurai Horse Race, Haramachi City, Japan, 24/07/06." The Independent. July 25, 2006. www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4158/is_20060725/ai_n16640117 Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005.

WEB SITES

City of Haramachi, Japan www.city.haramachi.fukushima.jp/english/nomaoi/nomaoi.html

Japan Atlas web-japan.org/atlas/festivals/fes06.html

Japan National Tourist Organization www.jnto.go.jp/end/indepth/history/traditionalevents/a36_fes_soma.html

Toraba.com www.toraba.com/feature-soma-page-1.htm

Wild Horse Festival (Soma-Nomaioi)

July 22-25
The Wild Horse Festival, or Soma-Nomaioi, takes place annually in Soma City and Minami-Soma City in Fukushima Prefecture in eastern Japan. The festival occurs over four days, July 22-25. It is a historical re-enactment of military exercises that are more than 1,000 years old.
In the event's highlight, on July 24, about 600 mounted samurai warriors in replicas of traditional Japanese armor gallop across the vast Hibarigahara plain and vie for 40 shrine flags propelled into the air by fireworks. On the same day, 12 armored Samurai warriors compete in a 1,000-meter race. Other colorful spectacles include opening ceremonies at three shrines on July 23; a procession on July 24 summoned by conch shell horn and war drums; and the Nomagake ritual on July 25. During the latter event, white-clad wranglers capture horses with their bare hands and offer them at the Odaka Shrine. These military exercises are thought to have originated in the 10th century, and they have been re-enacted for hundreds of years. Thousands of visitors come to witness the colorful spectacle and amazing equestrian skills.
CONTACTS:
Japan National Tourist Organization
One Rockefeller Plaza
New York, NY 10020
212-757-5640; fax: 212-307-6754
www.japantravelinfo.com
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