The horse in Japan 日本の馬
Imported from Asia in the 4th century, a horse is an emblematic animal of Japanese culture. Whether at the heart of Shinto rituals or ancestral military equestrian Imported from Asia in the 4th century, a horse is an emblematic animal of Japanese culture.
The courier of the gods
The horse has always been considered the sacred mount of the kami, Japanese gods. During the Nara period (710-794), the practice of shinme, consisting in offering a horse as a votive offering to a shrine to serve as a divine mount, spread. It was thus customary during a prayer or a wish to present a horse to the kami of the sanctuary as a sign of gratitude. Some shrines even required a horse of a particular color according to the prayer! The animal was associated with the cult of the rain. It was customary to offer a black horse to pray for the occurrence of this and conversely, a white horse for it to cease. These horses given to the sanctuaries were then bred in special stables within the sanctuaries. This practice proved to be very costly for the sanctuaries, obliged to take great care of these offerings, but also for the pilgrims.
Also, some, unable to offer a horse, developed a substitute tradition: the gift of a sculpture or a painting of a horse on a wooden plate. These votive tablets called ema, literally "horse images" are gradually replacing shinme . From the Muromachi period, subjects other than the horse appear on the ema. Today very few sanctuaries perpetuate the tradition of keeping horses within their walls. Kompira-san in Kagawa Prefecture still has a stable with two resident horses! They take part in the festival ceremonies every October 10. Nikko's Tôshô-gû also retains a stable; a building adorned with the famous sculpture of the three wise monkeys. It is not uncommon to see a fake horse in the old stable of a sanctuary in memory of this tradition. Just before entering the famous Miyajima shrine, Itsukushima-jinja, you will observe a fake white horse in its box!
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Other Shinto rituals call on the horse. At the Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka, in the tradition of Ao-uma shinji, seeing a white horse (previously a black horse with bluish reflections) at the beginning of the year protects against evil spirits and brings you longevity. At Ise Grand Shrine, the same omen of good fortune awaits you if you have the honor to owe a sacred horse led by a priest very early in the morning on a day bearing the number 1. The uma dashi matsuri, festivals in which the horse is used from mount to kami, are still current. Before the ceremony, a special saddle and a gohei (stick with strips of white paper) are placed on the horse. Young people standing on either side of the animal hold the reins firmly to allow the spirit of the kami to take place on its mount.
A deeply rooted culture
Japanese equestrian culture takes many forms inherited from military equestrian arts, Shinto rituals, and traditions of the imperial court. Very popular from the end of the Heian period (794-1192) to the Kamakura period (1192-1333), yabusame is an equestrian martial art in which a galloping rider must hit three targets. In this very high-level military art, the archers demonstrate exceptional skill. You can attend yabusame demonstrations in shrines during festivities, such as at Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gû in Kamakura, every year in September. Horse racing, called kurabe uma, has been held since the Heian period (794-1185). Originally at the imperial court, these races, now integrated into Shinto ceremonies, are contested in particular at the Kamigamo-jinja in Kyoto every May 5.
The most picturesque horse celebration is held every second Saturday in June at Morioka Hachiman-gū in Iwate Prefecture. During a 15 kilometer procession between Takizawa and Morioka, horses with multicolored harnesses cross urban and rural settings to the sound of the soft chagu chagu, the sound produced by their bells. The Chagu Chagu Umako has been held in honor of the animal for 200 years to celebrate the end of the rice planting period. Also worth mentioning is the Soma Wild Horse Gathering Ceremony, Soma Nomaoi, which has been listed as an intangible national heritage of folk culture since 1978; the dakyu, old Japanese polo, which is still played during the Horetsu shrine festival in Yamagata or even the horohiki, displaying long banners on horseback.
The equestrian world
Since the first horse races organized in Yokohama in 1862 by foreign residents, races have been very popular in the archipelago. The JRA, the Japanese racing association established in 1954, oversees the proper organization of professional racing. Over the decades, Japan has risen to the rank of a Tier 1 nation in horse racing; organizing international races of the highest level. In recent years, the success of Japanese horses in major competitions has propelled Japan to 3rd place in the world in the horse racing rankings for thoroughbreds. Almost 90% of these competition horses, whose reputation is now worldwide, come from breeding studs located in Hokkaido.
The most prestigious race in the country, the Japan Cup, inaugurated in 1981, is held in November at the Tokyo Hippodrome, located in the city of Fuchu. This has housed a horse racing museum since 1991. In addition, a horse museum opened its doors in 1977, on the former Yokohama racetrack in Negishi; where modern racing was born. Amateur horse races take place regularly throughout the archipelago and bring together members of riding clubs from all regions. These kusakeiba welcome competitors of all ages: from children competing in pony races to the elderly!
In addition, the city of Obihiro in Hokkaido has been organizing a unique race in the world for more than a century; banei tokachi. Draft horses weighing almost a ton pull a sulky with a jockey and a load (approximately 1 ton) on a sand track with two obstacle mounds. Beyond the speed, it is especially the endurance and the power of the horse as well as the technique of the jockey which make the difference in this kind of competition. Impressive?