Photographer: Shiho Fukada/Bloomberg

Meet the Samurai of Fukushima

Every July, hundreds of people in the Soma district of Fukushima, Japan, become samurai for three days as part of the Soma Nomaoi festival. The celebration, which sees horse-riding participants don elaborate armor, aims to recreate scenes from the country's Sengoku period (1477-1573). Photographs by Shiho Fukada/Bloomberg

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    Traditionally, the Nomaoi, or "wild-horse chasing," involves a senior army member releasing untamed animals for the cavalry to chase, capture, and then dedicate to Shinto gods.

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    The Soma-Nomaoi was started as a military exercise more than 1,000 years ago in the Fukushima prefecture. The festival was used as a military exercise in order to keep the fighting skills of the samurai sharp.

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    Today, in the cities of Soma city and Minamisoma where the festival is held, audiences can watch a solemn procession of riders as a conch-shell horn is blown, as well as see a high-speed horse race.

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    Hundreds of participants wear full battle dress and recreate ancient battle scenes, medieval parades, horse races and horse chases.

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    In the lead up to some of the more elaborate aspects of the festival, the samurai make their way through the streets of Soma and Minamisoma.

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    The festival draws a large crowd of onlookers, who sometimes dress in elaborate costumes.

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    As part of the celebrations, the samurai participate in an event called the General's Meeting, which sees them sit and drink sake.

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    Participants mark the end of the General's Meeting by blowing conch-shell horns. 

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    The Koshiki Kacchu Keiba is one of the most visually arresting aspects of the festival: 12 samurai race more than a kilometer wearing full military gear.

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    The high-speed chase can be dangerous as well as eye-catching.

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    Crowds flock to see the winner of the horse race. According to the Minamisoma tourism board, the three-day festival this year attracted 192,600 people.

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    The Soma-Nomaoi festival is very important to the Soma district. Traditionally this part of Fukushima is known for horse-breeding, although the prefecture is now also associated with the 2011 Daiichi nuclear disaster. That year, the festival was postponed—but by 2012, it was fully running again. 

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    Preparing for the festival is an elaborate event in itself as participants don the often heavy and cumbersome armor.

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    Fine detailing decorates the horse equipment known as bagu too.

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    One event in the festival, Shinki Sodatsusen, sees the samurai compete for flags that have been shot into the air. 

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    The festival has been designated as an "intangible cultural asset" by the Japanese government.