The Hachinoe Horse

In Okinawa, it's customary to receive one or two Hachinoe horses as a gift, usually in August, although Christmas is fast becoming another giftgiving time there. They are considered one of the oldest and most famous local toys in Hachinoe, Japan, although they are commonly known as Yawata Uma, which comes from their relationshi with activities at Hachiman shrines.

Hundreds of years ago, a woodworker and maker of lacquerware drifted from place to place in Japan and finally settled in Tenguzawa, about two miles from Hachinoe. He began making wooden horses modeled after the herois horses of that era which were used to carry "masterhands" during the Shokyu era (1219-1222) to the Yawata Shrine. Once at the shrine, these men performed "Yabusame," shooting a bow from horseback. Each rider was allowed one shot during this ceremony, which was attended by horses and riders from near and far.

The craftsman used only a hatchet and chisel to carve the wood toys, then painstakingly painted them with sure and steady hands. Years later, local farmers began to make their own Yawata Uma toys during the long winter months. Over the years, the toys improved in production and decoration, although they are still handcarved and handpainted to this day.

hachinoe.jpg - 153810 Bytes Each year on the 15 of August of the lunar calendar, the festival of Yawata Shrine is still celebratd. Yawata Yari (spears) and Matoi (banners) are hung and Yawata Umas are sold at souvenir stands set up for the celebration. They can also be found at souvenir shops through Okinawa and Japan, as well as seen on display at restaurants, coffee bars, shops or even on someone's desk at work.

The Yawata Umas come in many sizes, from finger high to over a foot tall, singly or in pairs. Some even come with a "baby" horse set in a cutout of the stomach area. The toys are usually black and red in color, with black denoting the male and the red the female.

The popularity of the Yawata Uma has grown over the years so much that they are now exported to other countries.