Trying Samurai-Style on for Size

Every July, there is a festival in the Soma district of Fukushima Prefecture where participants enter horse races and horseback events. This may sounds pretty tame, but every participant fully-dresses in samurai-style armour (usually armor that has been passed down from generation to generation), and gripping weapons.

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What makes this historical re-enactment festival even more exceptional is that there are thousands of participants and attendees, and the tradition has been carried out by many families of attendees for up to a thousand years.

The festival is called Soma-Nomaoi (or “Soma’s Wild Horse Chase” in English).

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The highlight of the festival is an event called Koshiki Kacchu Keiba (“Armed Horse Race”), which is a 1000 meter race between twelve horsemen, and the Shinki Soudatsusen (Sacred Flag Competition), where hundreds of riders compete to catch forty shrine flags which are shot into the air. Think Quidditch, on horseback. With armor.

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The history dates back to the 10th century, when this tradition was begun in order to allow samurai cavalry members to conspicuously complete military training. When the tradition was begun, the military exercises involved releasing wild horses on a plain for the cavalry to try and capture. I’m not sure that the horses captured in 900AC had such a happy ending after they were caught…

I was given lots of information about the event and the local area at Minami-Soma Tourism Association. And, of course, no visit to a tourism association would be complete without a chance to dress up – this time in kacchu (甲冑) armour!

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My favourite part of the outfit were these very fashionable two-toe cotton socks/shoes. These are designed purposely so that your toes hang over the wicker outer layer that you strap onto your foot afterwards. Why would you want your toes hanging out, you ask? It’s so that when you run (!) you can dig your toes into the ground for more of a speed boost.

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Not only must Japanese men hundreds of years ago have been extremely fit, but their toes must have been extremely flexible if they were used to propel themselves across the ground!

The armour was incredibly heavy. I didn’t notice it until the final top layer of armor was on and the helmet was placed over my head. This armour is samurai-style and therefore was expected to be used in battle.

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I can’t imagine being about to move quick enough to respond as necessary in a horse race! I’m not even confident that I’d be able to stand up for longer than thirty seconds without accidentally losing balance and falling over.

I enjoyed this dress-up experience but would be lying if I said I didn’t breathe a sigh of relief when the helmet and outer-layers were hoisted off of me. The ladies who dressed me chatted to me, telling me about their favourite local food (red bean paste, by the way) and feeding me ice cream before sending me on my way.

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If being extremely scared of horses wasn’t enough, the weight of the armor alone convinced me that I’m not cut out to take part in samurai-era history reenactment festivals… but that being said, I would like to attend it next summer and admire it from a distance!

Soma-Nomaoi takes place on the last Saturday, Sunday and Monday of July, in Soma City and Minami-Soma City. Please read more information about the festival here.

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