Discovering Aomori’s Horse Culture ― How locals are adapting equine traditions to the modern day

For centuries horses were an integral part of Aomori culture. They helped farmers plough fields and merchants haul goods. In the harsh depth of winter, they would safely transport people across snow-covered landscapes. Coveted by aristocrats across Japan, the region’s now-extinct Nanbu horse breed would even carry samurai to battle. But not everything equine in Aomori is in the past. In this article, we look at the region’s horse culture, and efforts by locals to reconnect with horses in the modern day.

Galloping along a cherry blossom-lined track, Ayuko Kamimura rises slightly from her saddle, her purple and lilac hunting outfit ruffling in the wind as she begins to draw her bow and arrow. No sooner has her shot slammed into its target, she reloads, her horse still at full tilt while the crowd bursts into applause.

This is Towada City’s annual Sakura Yabusame horseback archery competition, an event that draws on centuries of samurai tradition and martial skills. The difference between this and yabusame events held elsewhere in Japan is that the riders are all female.

“Because of Shinto tradition, yabusame is typically for men only, but we decided to make a non-Shinto competition that women could participate in,” explains Ms. Kamimura, a yabusame rider who founded the event in 2001. “We started with about 10 riders and no spectators, but now the Sakura Yabusame in late April attracts 40 competitors and people from around Japan. We now also have the Yabusame World Championship here, for women and men, in October.”

Although the Sakura Yabusame is a striking spectacle, yabusame in Towada isn’t just for watching. At the Towada Horseback Riding Club, Ms. Kamimura now runs one-day and three-day yabusame experiences that cover riding and archery skills, as well as classes on yabusame attire and equipment, such as the special stirrups used by riders. By the end of the one-day course, even horse-riding novices are usually able to fire an arrow sat still on horseback, while after three days it’s possible to shoot on the move.

“Yabusame is one way we can promote horses as part of tourism here in Towada, while also handing down horse culture to the next generation,” Ms. Kamimura explains.

Just northeast of Towada, you can also experience Aomori’s horse culture at Misawa Horse Park, which was created in 2016 by Mr. Asao Joboji with the aim of re-establishing what he calls the partnership between people and horses.

“Horses were once an important part of Aomori life, irreplaceable partners used in farming and as transport, and the area around Misawa was one of Japan’s leading horse producing areas. But over the last 50 years or so, there has been less of a connection to horses, and the number of horses in Aomori has declined from 6,000 or 7,000 to roughly 300,” Mr. Joboji says. “So, I created the park to promote our horse culture, and also to give working horses a place to live once they retire.”

Today, Misawa Horse Park offers a range of activities across the year, from riding lessons and multi-day kids camps to business training seminars where visitors can learn about non-verbal communication by interacting with horses. But perhaps the most distinctive Aomori equine experience available at Misawa Horse Park - and at various other riding clubs in Aomori - is winter horse trekking.

“We had originally planned to close in winter, but I was out on a ride one day, and with the roads closed, there were no cars: just snow, fields, and me. It was beautiful. It made me want to create a winter trekking activity, ” Mr. Joboji says. “It’s cold, but you can take amazing photos, and you can imagine how ancient Japanese would have felt, being out in nature with just your horse.”

More Equine Experience in Aomori

There are plenty of other ways to connect with Aomori’s horse culture. You could start with a look at the Towada Art Center, where one of the signature pieces of the multi-genre collection is Korean artist Choi Jeonghwa’s Flower horse. Rearing up on its back legs outside the art center, the 5.5-meter-high horse is decorated with vivid flowers that create a stark contrast to the center’s minimalist design. While in Towada, you could also try one of the city’s quirky looking Umagin tours, donning a cardboard horse’s head for a winter’s evening walk around art sites, a night of bar hopping or a day canoeing on Lake Towada.

Beyond Towada, you could visit Tsugaru in August for the Uma Ichi Festival, where to honor the spirits of horses who have served farmers in the area, giant horse floats are paraded and then set ablaze. Or if you’d rather observe real horses, head to Cape Shiriyazaki on the Shimokita Peninsula to see Kandachime horses grazing on rugged, windswept pastures. A descendant of the Nanbu horse breed, these stout horses have been designated as a Natural Treasure of Aomori.