What began over 1,000 years ago as a military training exercise started by the founder of Fukushima Prefecture’s Soma Clan has transformed over the centuries into a fantastic annual festival, where men and women clad in traditional samurai armor compete in various races in order to receive blessings at local shrines.
Not only is the Soma Nomaoi Festival an amazing place to experience samurai culture in Japan, but it also gives local families a chance to celebrate the history of their hometowns and the samurai roots of their families.
Here is a guide to making the most of this incredible, unique and traditional 3-day festival.
Guide to the Weekend of Events
Day 1: Official Ceremonies
8:30-12:40 Departure Ceremonies
Local festival participants depart from 3 shrines across the area (Soma Nakamura Shrine, Soma Odaka Shrine and Soma Ota Shrine). These 3 shrines are thought to enshrine the guardian Buddhist deity of the Soma Clan (Yes, the line between Shintoism and Buddhism can become very blurry in Japan). Local people pray and give offerings at the shrine.
12:40-14:00 Reception of the Supreme Commander
In Kashima area, the Supreme Commander is given a reception, attended by the descendants of samurai chiefs, deputy strategists, cavalry chiefs and other high-ranking samurai. After the Supreme Commander gives the order, all the festival participants – complete in samurai gear – make their way to the Hibarigahara Field to see the first horse race of the festival.
Day 2: Processions, Sacred Flags & Samurai Races
9:30-12:00 Samurai Procession
At 9:30, festival participants gather from across Minamisoma and Soma to begin the 3km procession from Ogawa Town to Hibarigahara Field. All races – as well as the Sacred Flag Competition – are held at the Hibarigahara Field.
This procession is a great opportunity to take photos of the amazing samurai armor (known as kacchu) worn by local participants, many of whom are clad in armor passed down through the generations.
12:00-13:00 Armed Horse Race:
At midday, participants make their way to the starting line of the 1000m race course. Over the course of one hour, 10 races are held; each race attended by 10 riders. During the race, the riders proudly display their ancestral banners and brave the race course without their heavy samurai helmets!
13:00-14:00 Sacred Flag Competition
Sacred flags are shot high into the air using cannons. The winner of the competition is the first rider to catch the flags as they races down to the ground. It’s amazing to watch the riders dashing across Hibarigahara Field and maneuvering their horses to try and catch the flags. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – this is basically like Quidditch on horseback.
Day 3: A Wild Horse Chase
During the Monday morning of the festival weekend, the event known as ‘Nomakake’ is held.
Nomakake is the only ritual that has survived in its original form from over 1,000 years ago.
During this ritual, 10 men on horseback guide unsaddled ‘wild’ horses into the shrine compound. Once inside, these horses are chased and cornered by men on foot. Once under control, the horses are guided with rope to the main part of the shrine and are presented to the gods, receiving a blessing in return. Thus ends this amazing 3 day festival!
You can download a full-size schedule which includes the maps above from this link, or by clicking the image below.
Soma Nomaoi & Soma Recovery Tour
This year there’s a chance to see some highlights of this year’s festival as part of a 1-day guided group tour of Fukushima’s coast (to be held on Sunday July 29 2018).
After meeting at Fukushima Station, you’ll take a bus to Minamisoma, head to Hibarigahara Field to see the Armed Samurai Horse Race and Sacred Flag Competition before continuing your journey up the coast to see areas affected by the 2011 tsunami.
It’s a fantastic opportunity to learn about reconstruction in the Soma region of Fukushima Prefecture, as well as getting to experience this 1000 year old festival with an English-speaking guide! See details of the tour here.
The tour costs 8,500 yen and the deadline application is July 17 2018, so please apply quickly! You can apply online for this tour: [Link to Application Form]
If you have any questions about this tour, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org – emails in English are also OK!
Getting to Minamisoma City
By Public Transport:
Take the Joban Line train from Sendai Station to Haranomachi Station.
- If there is no direct train to Haranomachi for a while, take the JR Tohoku Line heading for Fukushima Station and change onto the Joban Line at Iwanuma Station. (You can reach Sendai from Tokyo via the Tohoku Shinkansen).
- Hibarigahara Field is a 25 minute walk from Haranomachi Station (2.4 km). Please make sure to keep hydrated if you plan to walk from the station, as Fukushima is pretty hot during July.
- From Sendai: Take the Joban Expressway and get off at the Minami Soma IC. (1 hour 15 min drive)
- From Koriyama: 2 hour drive via Route 459.
More Information Here:
- Soma Nomaoi official English website (lots of information!)
- Detailed English map of central Minamisoma
- Fukushima Prefecture Tourism & Local Products Association Website
I hope you get to visit the Soma Nomaoi Festival this year! I really recommend this opportunity, as it was an amazing day out last year.
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