Clad in samurai armor, Ishin Takahashi was among thousands who took part in an ancient festival at the weekend in the shadow of Japan’s crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant.
With an evacuation order following last year’s atomic crisis and rampant fears about radiation, the 1,000-year-old “Soma Nomaoi,” or wild horse chase, was all but cancelled following the quake-tsunami disaster in March 11 last year.
A year later, Takahashi and others wearing 10th century period costumes hope that reviving the traditional festival will help lift spirits in their disaster-struck community — and inspire the younger generation.
“This is a symbolic first step to recovery,” the 69-year-old said as a scorching sun beat down on Minamisoma, a small community about 20km from the nuclear plant that went into meltdown after it was swamped by the giant tsunami.
“Some of our communities remain devastated, but I’m sure we can rebuild them or make them even better,” he said.
Minamisoma remains largely a shell of its past, with many residents having fled to other communities across Japan over fears about living in the shadow of the doomed reactors — the site of the worst nuclear accident in a generation.
However, on Saturday, its streets came alive with locals — many of them returning just for the festival — galloping triumphantly on horses around a specially built hippodrome for the three-day festival.
Clad in decorated helmets and carrying razor-sharp traditional Japanese swords, participants swaggered about on horseback followed by a feudal lord’s procession decorated with colorful banners displaying their family crests.
The sound of conch horns echoed through the streets, with tens of thousands of visitors coming out to see the ancient show of military pomp and pageantry featuring about 400 horses.
“Nomaoi is my motivation in life,” said Kohei Inamoto, a 20-year-old plant worker who temporarily returned for the event after he and his family fled to Chiba, south of Tokyo.
“Nomaoi is my ‘soul’ connection with my hometown. If there were no Nomaoi, I would have abandoned my hometown,” Inamoto said.
Inamoto was among many who missed last year’s scaled-back festival, which saw most of the top events, including horse racing and capturing flags shot into the air by fireworks, cancelled.
The heritage event aims to recreate a medieval battlefield, having originated from secret military exercises held by samurai warriors from the tight-knit Soma clan.
“I’m glad to see the festival come back ... but we are too old to keep it going,” said Shigeru Ouchi, 60, standing beside his steed.
“I’m concerned that young people are disappearing from the town after the disaster, but I hope the remaining youth will take it over and pass the baton to the next generation,” he added.
For decades, small Japanese communities have seen younger people leave for larger urban centers, but the crisis has stoked that exodus and worried older residents fear that the festival might never reclaim its former glory.
“We still can’t hold Nomaoi in style, as it used to be, until the nuclear accident is settled, but I will die before I see that,” Kosaku Motobayashi, 77, said quietly.
Hideki Noda, a 23-year-old farmer, said he wanted to keep the festival alive, but did not know when he could return to his hometown just a few kilometers from the stricken reactors.