If the kacchu-keiba (horse race) is analogous to the race into battle, then the shinki-sodatsusen is the battle itself. Here the riders test the skill, bravery and luck. The battle is made up of several skirmishes. Each skirmish begins with a couple of fireworks blasted up into the sky. Each fireworks carry a banner which, after the explosion at altitude, come wafting back to earth. Any samurai who catches a banner, receives fame, glory and probably a few bit of yen. On a technical note these images were shot with the 645Z and the smc FA 645 300mm F4 ED (IF) which is equivalent of a 240mm on a FF35mm camera. I used a monopod to give some extra stability and it gave excellent results. The speed of the autofocus was slow, but it the overall sharpness was great.
Carrying the flags of their houses, the riders race around the circuit. It’s always an interesting challenge trying to convey motion in a still image. I used a slow shutter speed and panned the camera with the subject. Get it right and you should get a blurry background while the subject remains relatively sharp. One rider was a young girl who galloped around the course with the men. I didn’t manage to get her name, but it was an impressive feat of horsemanship, irrespective of age or gender. The winners collected a piece of paper from the trackside umpires and then galloped up a zig-zag path through the crowd to top of the embankment where they collect their prizes.
On day two of the Soma Nomaoi festival, the riders parade back to the Higarigahara-Saijochi horse racing ground from their respective hometowns. Once at the ground everyone starts to get organized. Samurai on giant horses shouted instructions. Others put the final touches to their armor. There were plenty of aging samurai preparing for battle. Some took a quick break from the heat for refreshments. This shot sums up how I, or probably any foot soldier, feels when standing next to cavalry. You’re small, vulnerable, and fully aware why a horse is far more useful than any kingdom. Following the samurai are those offering spiritual protection. Ladies performed a traditional sacred dance, and mikoshi (portable shrines) were carried into the arena. Armor on, flags unfurled, prayers offered, time to ride. And yes in the above epic samurai shot, the horse is sticking its tongue out to the camera 🙂
The Soma Nomaoi samurai horsemen festival takes place each July in Fukushima Prefecture. Following the devastation of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami it was cancelled, but it restarted once again in 2013. I attended this year to document one of Japan’s great festivals, and the resilience of Fukushima’s people. Preparations for the lead samurai and his horse at the castle beside Nakamura Shrine. Breakfast of champions. Sake and cucumbers at Nakamura Shrine. Gearing up. A priest from the shrine places the helmet on a samurai rider. Time for a quick portrait. New camera, same technique of getting up in people’s faces. Priestess helps one of the youngest riders get ready. The little girl was actually the daughter of the Shinto priest. Statues at the shrine show the importance of horses to the area. The priestess like all of the other participants on horseback was an excellent rider. The mounted samurai were followed by pikemen and priests carrying a mikoshi (portable shrine). The samurai and priests then parade south from Soma to Mina Soma and the …