The last samurais
If there’s anywhere you could get the 47 Rōnin and Kurosawa’s seven samurais together, it’s Soma. In this city in Fukushima prefecture they’ve been breeding horses for generations. In fact, around 400 horses, with their riders’ permission, are the leading players in one of the oldest customs kept alive in this part of east Japan, based on the samurai tradition. It’s the Soma-Nomaoi festival, held every July over the course of three days (from 23 to 25). On the night of 22 July the festival kicks off with inaugural ceremonies at three sanctuaries: Ota, Odaka and Nakamura.
The Soma-Nomaoi is classed as an Intangible Cultural Asset in Japan and features three main events. At the first, ‘Koshiki Kacchu’, 12 horsemen dressed as samurais compete in a one kilometre race. They’re clad in armour, helmet and katana and they wear the flag of their town on their backs, which fly out at high speed. The second, ‘Shinki Sodatsusen’, attracts much larger crowds. Hundreds of horsemen fight to get hold of any of the 40 pennants that are propelled into the air.
The third event is based on a military exercise in which wild horses were released so that soldiers could catch them with their bare hands. The captured horses were then offered to a Shintoist deity. This ritual, known as ‘Nomagake’ is a much more festive affair these days and is extra curious because all the participants are dressed in white.
It’s thought that many of the traditions on which the Soma-Nomaoi is based date back to the start of the 10th century, when the samurais practised exercises in military discipline in this part of Japan. A legacy that ‘21st century samurais’ aren’t willing to lose.