Hatsu-uma (First Horse Day) (初午)
Hatsu-uma refers to the first day of the horse in February. A Hatsu-uma festival is held at Inari-sha shrines, and this is often counted as one of Japan's zassetsu (festivals other than those held on the twenty-four points of the old solar calendar, the five seasonal festivals, etc.).
Throughout Japan, it is believed that the deity of Fushimi Inari-jinja Shrine in Kyoto, the headquarters of the Inari-sha shrines, descended on this day in 711. On that account, people worship Inari-sha shrines across the country on this day. It is also a custom to hold a festival of silkworm, ox (or cow), and horse on this day. In the Edo period, children used to enter Terakoya (temple elementary school during the Edo period) on this day.
Hatsu-uma was originally observed on the first horse day in February according to the old lunar calendar; now, however, it is observed on the first horse day in February according to the new calendar. As a result, even though it started as an early spring festival, it is now held on the coldest day in winter.
Although the festival used to be held on the first day of the horse after the beginning of spring (according to the lunar calendar) in ancient times, it is now generally accepted that the festival is held on the first day of the horse in February.
The second horse day in February is called Ni-no-uma and the third horse day is called San-no-uma. Festivals are also held on one or both of these days in some areas.
In Nara Prefecture, it is a custom to have Hataame (flag candy) on the day of Hatsu-uma. This is an event like Halloween when children call on neighbors (or nearby shops in some areas) to receive a present of Hataame.
Hatsu-uma originated from praying for a good harvest for the year, which was later combined with the worship of Inari (god of harvest). Superstition has it that unless it rains on either the day of Hatsu-uma or the night of the rape blossom festival, which falls on the first day of the serpent in April, a fire will break out. According to another common belief, many accidental fires occur in a year when Hatsu-uma falls on an earlier day. In some areas, fire brigade members visit each house to call for the inhabitants to beware of fire, handing over a talismanic strip of paper (ofuda) to avert fire on the day of Hatsu-uma every year.