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Samurai festival returns to glory in disaster-hit Fukushima

MINAMISOMA, Japan -- 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 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 March 11, 2011 quake-tsunami disaster.

But 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 told AFP as a scorching sun beat down on Minamisoma, a small community about 20 kilometers (12 miles) 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.”

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.

But on Saturday its street 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 hundred 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.

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Local people in samurai armor race horses during the annual Soma Nomaoi Festival in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, Sunday, July 29. Some 400 horses and thousands of people took ...

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