A friend from Himeji was clearing out the cupboards in her old family house in Aioi and put aside a few things she thought I might be interested in. Amongst the pile was a pair of old white wooden horses (chagu chagu umako) from Morioka city in Iwate prefecture. How delightful they are!
I then started noticing other similar horses at the shrine sales. I learned that while there are numerous regional toys featuring horse motifs, the most famous wooden horse dolls are Miharu-goma, Yahata-uma and Kinoshita-goma, together known as Japan’s three great horses and all originating in three northern prefectures of Honshu: Fukushima, Aomori and Miyagi respectively. Each region produces horse dolls with a unique style of painting, making it quite easy to distinguish them. It is remarkable that a piece of wood cut simply into a cubist shape and decorated with primary colors is able to express the essence of a magnificent horse with such elegant simplicity.
Miharu-goma are produced in the Miharu district of Fukushima prefecture. They are traditionally painted black with pine soot, and decorations representing the trappings are in red, yellow and blue. Stiff palmetto hemp is used for the tail and mane. The origin of these horse dolls lies in a legend from the Heian period (794 to 1185) concerning General and Shogun Sakanoue no Tamuramaro.
Sakanoue no Tamuramaro (758-811) was ordered by the emperor at the Heian court to subjugate the northern provinces. Miharu castle was under regular attack by the Emishi, original inhabitants of the northern Tohoku region. Before leaving Heian-kyo (modern day Kyoto) for battle, the general went to pray at Kyomizu-dera (temple) where priest Enchin was carving a statue of the Lord Budhha. With a piece of left-over wood Enchin made 100 horse figurines as a parting gift for the general.
Tamuramaro and his Imperial forces reached their distant destination quite exhausted. Facing imminent loss against the Emishi, the timely and mysterious appearance of 100 horses enabled Tamuramaro to win the battle. At this point in the legend there seems to be two endings to choose from!
Ending #1 After the battle all the horses, including the wooden figurines, disappeared. The exception was one wounded horse. No-one was left with any doubt as to where aid in winning the battle had come from, so a villager decided to make 99 replacement figurines with the hope of preserving the 100 horses for posterity. Three years later the wounded horse also disappeared, leaving 99 figurines to be passed down from generation to generation. At some point replicas were made as toys for the children of the village and soon came to be sold at the local shrine as a talisman for a safe and easy birth and the raising of strong, healthy children.
Ending #2 After the battle, the 100 horses miraculously disappeared. The next day a farmer found one little wooden horse covered with sweat. He set about carving 99 others. In the course of time the original figurine was lost but the farmer bequeathed the ones he had made to his grandchildren. They in turn made more as gifts for other local children with a wish to protect them from sickness and misfortune.
Although Miharu-goma are referred to as dolls, I can now appreciate how history and legend have imbued them with profound qualities. The original figurines were carved from a chunk of wood used to make an image of the Buddha and superstition gave rise to Miharu-goma horse becoming talismans. In general, it is believed that black horses are charms for a safe and easy birth and the raising of strong, healthy children, while white horses are amulets for longevity and a good retirement.
Interesting stuff! I will save the history behind Yahata-uma and Kinoshita-goma for future blogs.
(Note: Koma or goma is an archaic Japanese word meaning horse.)
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