In the Soma area of Fukushima Prefecture, spectacular horse races are conducted in full samurai gear. Famous for breeding horses, the animal's deep connection to the region is evident in the local culture and art.
The Soma-Nomaoi is said to have its origins in the early 10th Century when samurai warriors secretly did military training here
Obori-soma ware is a unique combination of ceramics with porcelain, distinguished by its fine bluish surface cracks, and insulation properties that make it easy to hold even when filled with hot water
Soma is accessible by train and bus from Tokyo and Sendai.
The rail network has not yet fully recovered from the 2011 earthquake. The best route by train is to take the JR Tohoku Shinkansen line to Sendai, and switch to the JR Joban line for Soma. The journey takes three and a half hours. A highway bus also departs from Sendai for Soma and takes a little over three hours.
The Soma area is known for its three-day Soma Nomaoi festival, which takes place in late July. Almost a thousand years old, this tradition sees a variety of activities, the most exciting being the horse races and competitions. In the race, a dozen riders in full samurai gear gallop at full speed around a 1,000-meter track with their ancestral house flags streaming behind them. In the competition, several hundred riders compete to catch one of the 40 flags shot into the air with fireworks.
Until recently, Soma had a distinctive pottery style, called obori-soma, characterized by its crackle glaze and horse artwork. Although the traditional potters are now living in different cities in the region after the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 due to the creation of nuclear exclusion zones, they continue to work to keep their traditions alive.
The 17th century Soma Nakamura Shrine is located on the grounds of the Soma Nakamura Castle ruins. It enshrines the patron god of the Soma clan, Myoken. The architecture is impressive, with a passageway connecting the main hall and worship hall. The importance of horses in the area's history and culture is reflected here, too, as the animal frequently appears in the shrine's art.
The Nomakake ritual is held at the Odaka Shrine during the Soma Nomaoi festival, with horses captured barehanded by riders presented as offerings to the shrine. Its sizeable weeping cherry tree also makes this place a favorite spot during the cherry blossom season.
Further out, the Hyakushaku Kannon rises out of the side of a hill. Despite its appearance, it only took form in 1931, carved solely by one local man who has passed on his work to the fourth generation.