On January 2nd I went on hatsumode. Hatsumode is the first shrine visit of the year in Japan. On the 1st through 3rd of January Japanese people go on hatsumode to their local shrine to pray for the new year. I, of course, was also going to go on hatsumode, but not the normal way, I was going to go by horse!
Since coming to Japan this time I joined the local riding club called Polo. The people there are great! I don’t have a car so they pick me up at the train station, and drop me back off again when I am done. The are always willing to talk to me, and often let me hang out all day. It’s a fun club, were people learn to ride and enjoy going on trail rides together. The horses at the club aren’t my beloved, elegant Arabians, the are the traditional horses of Japan, a breed called Dosanko, and are not the most beautiful of horses. They’re short, I would estimate them to average about 13-14 hands. The smallest is closer to twelve and the largest is probably about 14+ hands. They have big heads and big round bodies, with a short thick neck connecting the two. Never destined for the dressage ring, they make perfect trail horses, surefooted and hardy, and for the most part calm. Originally breed to be warhorses, they now are a dying breed, (as are all Japanese horse breeds) unable to compete with Thoroughbreds, Warmbloods, and Arabians in racing, dressage, and jumping which are the popular horse sports in Japan today. These horses are still used in one of their traditional sports. The reason that the club is called Polo is because they still play traditional Japanese style polo at the local shrine each year. I didn’t get to see it last year so I’m definitely going this year!
So, back to hatsumode. I woke up pretty early that morning to meet one of the nice ladies from the riding club that lives near me so we could carpool to the barn. It was cold but clear, which was great because the weather earlier that week was calling for snow and rain. We got lucky. We got to the barn, tacked up, got dressed, figure out who was going to ride when (we had more riders than horses) and off we went. The riding club is on the top of a mini mountain on the edge of Hachinohe. It’s a rather steep mountain in fact, so the first challenge of the trail ride was to navigate ourselves down the mountain. Doing this always reminds me of a passage in the Tale of the Heike when one of the generals successfully sneaks up on his enemies by bringing his mounted army down a cliff face that the enemy was using to guard their backs from attack. Anyway, the horses are very surefooted so even though it was icy and snowy it wasn’t that bad. We successfully navigated the mountain and crossed the road to stop for a brief time at the convenience store to go bathroom, change riders etc.
The next phase of the ride took us through the dormant ride paddies. For all that the mountains are steep in Japan, the flatlands are well…flat, no hills or anything. Cultivated that way over centuries for rice growing. Rice paddies are like large rectangular pans with the sides built up into walkways and roads. Even though most of the ground here is frozen now, the ground in the rice paddies is still soft. However, the roads and walkways were perfect for trail riding as we trotted and cantered though them. Surrounding the paddies were the train tracks for the local lines and the shinkansen (bullet train) which flew by as we passed. It was a lot of fun and quite invigorating. We changed horses and walked through the rest of the rice paddies and into the outskirts of town where we paused to put on our formal riding jackets and make sure that everyone had a leader for their horse.
I probably should take a moment to name the horses. We had 6 of them with us, and by the end of the ride I had ridden all but one. They were Chibi, Buchi, Kotaro, Icchi, Michael, and Western. Chibi and Kotaro are both black geldings, Chibi is a bit larger, and I think a bit calmer as well. I ride Chibi a lot. Kotaro can get a little grumpy. Buchi is the old lesson horse that everyone loves, me included, and is still fit and healthy even though he is approaching 30 years old. He is also the tallest horse and a brown and white pinto. Icchi is the smallest horse, and a palomino. I’ve never rode him so I don’t know his personality very well. Michael is a red chestnut horse, quite good at jumping, but tricky. He gave me my first fall in years after going over a two foot jump and stopping the minute his front feet hit the ground. He’s a good trail horse though. Western is another brown and white pinto and a bit more high strung than the others, though I’ve only ridden him once.
We had stopped by the river, below a huge bridge that crossed the river and headed towards the shrine. While I generally spend most of my days in a bit of a daze of confusion, I became slightly more confused when I couldn’t figure out how we were going to get up to the bridge, the only way I could see was the stairs but we weren’t taking the horses up those, right? I mean they were nice stairs each step being quite wide, in fact short people (like me) would have probably taken a step forward between each step down. But they were still stairs.
Well, I was wrong. We did in fact take the horses up the stairs. I was riding Western and was a bit nervous. Climbing stairs on horseback is actually like climbing a steep hill. The horses seemed fine with it, so it was all good. Another new experience for Alyssa. But directly after the stairs was the bridge. It wasn’t a particularly large bridge width-wise. Enough room for a side walk on each side and one lane going in each direction. However it was a rather tall bridge, and we were riding on the raised sidewalk and the whole time the only thing that I could think of was that while the horse might be protected by the side rail, on the horse I was not, the side rail did not go up that high, and it was a very steep drop. Needless to say I survived. What was amusing was that the cars passing by would inevitably slow down and little faces would be pressed to the windows in surprise.
After the bridge was the main road leading to the shrine, and it was packed. I mean Michigan Stadium on a Saturday after a game lets out packed. It’s a good thing that the horses were pretty calm because the roads were mobbed. We were able to slip down a small side road to head to the shrine. Then we headed down the road towards the torii. Western was fine until we reached the yakiimo man. Yakiimo is baked sweet potato that is sold by vendors at festivals, and on the street during the winter. Historically they would sing as they walked, announcing their wares. Now they play a recording. As we came by the cart the yakiimo guy closed the lid of the cart and about gave Western a heart attack. But since I managed not to run over any pedestrians, it was all good.
We finally, after about two hours, arrived at the shrine. We tied the horses up and took off their bridles and loosened their saddles.
This is just part 1. Will try to finish part 2 by tomorrow. Pictures too!