Who would ever think up a festival like this and then keep it going for 1,200 years

Suwa Taisha Onbashira Festival

Who would ever think up a festival like this and then keep it going for 1,200 years
It was our second day of pulling a ten-ton log down a mountain with 50 hefty men clad in fancy gear riding on top of it that my friend Andrew visiting from Australia turned to me and said, "who would ever dream up a festival like this and then keep it going every 6 years for 1,200 years - these guys have to be nuts!" He was referring to the "Onbashira Matsuri (Festival)", considered to be one of the three most unique and dangerous festivals in Japan.

I live in a small farming village at the foot of the Yatsugatake Mountain range in Nagano Prefecture and the main Shinto shrine for our area is Suwa Taisha (Grand Shrine), which is spread across two sites near the shores of Lake Suwa - known as Kami Suwa and Shimo Suwa. Each site has two main shrines, so there are 4 of these magnificent 1,200-year-old wooden shrines in total. Shintoism is about worshipping nature and it is believed that divinities dwell in the trees in the mountains so that by bringing selected sacred trees down from the mountain and raising them as natural pillars outside the four corners of each shrine every 6 years will bring spiritual renewal to the shrines. Accordingly, every Year of the Monkey and Tiger in the Spring, 16 trees in the mountain forests above the shrines are specially selected and blessed and cut down using only axes and hand labour, dragged and slid down the mountain and across a river and then raised up to stand outside the four corners of each shrine. The whole process takes over 3 months and is divided into two parts with one three-day festival in early April and another three days in early in May. The first part involves bringing the logs to the bottom of the valley, and the second part involves standing the logs up in the shrine. There are various Shinto ceremonies and dangerous slope and river crossings along the way.

So my reply to Andrew, over the noise of the bugle and drum band and the other 3,000 log haulers around us chanting "Oiisa,oiisa" was," Yes, it is nuts, but the roots of the Onbashira Matsuri are very spiritual and are a deeply held tradition of the local people. Otherwise why would you continue such a difficult, time consuming and dangerous festival for 1,2000 year".

But we were having fun joining in the festival atmosphere with all the local people, including the rugged farmers who do the heavy work and the families with young children who get to have a tug on the ropes. Certainly in our village everyone had a role to play and 520,000 people came from all over Japan wearing colourful happi coats to join in and experience the carnival atmosphere and the sense of accomplishment as the log slowly made its way towards the shrine. Surprisingly there were very few foreigners given that Suwa is only just over 2 hours from Tokyo by express train or on the freeway.

Andrew had joined me for the first part of the Kami Suwa festival in early April. Our village had been assigned the number 7 of the 8 logs to be brought down the mountain for the Kami Suwa Taisha. For three days, from sunup to sundown, there were eight 16-meter-long logs connected to two 200 meter ropes being hauled by over 2,000 locals for over 10 kilometres through forests, fields and towns. Nothing is used to make the logs slide easily over the roads and everything is done using human power - from cutting the trees down to making the wisteria ropes used for hauling.

To add interest, or for fun, or just to make it harder, no one could tell me why, but they add 5-meter-long branches, or 'wings' to the logs, at the front and at the back, and then 50 young men climb up the 4 wings and on the log and ride on them throughout the whole 3-day journey. By Andrew's calculations, the extra wings and 50 men riding the log would add another 5 tons to the 10-ton weight to be hauled. No wonder they need 2,000 people to pull them along at walking pace!

Again, no one could tell me why, but on the last day of the journey they seem to deliberately tackle two formidable obstacles; a steep narrow slope, and a river. Both spots create a climatic spectacle of excitement. These two events attract the biggest crowds of onlookers as the men on the wings and riding the log can and do easily fall off on to the ground or in the river creating quite a bit of havoc and danger. In our case, we saw a few participants having to be rescued from drowning. Two people have died in each of the last festivals, but so far thankfully this time only 4 people have been injured.

Moreover, perhaps just to make sure no one takes things too seriously, or maybe to dull the pain, copious supplies of blessed sake are offered to one and all of the participants. It certainly made for plenty of flushed and boisterous log haulers! Needless to say, I'm glad and so are all the other villagers that we have a month break before part two of the festival in early May.

If you are inspired to join or just watch this amazing festival, you don't have to wait 6 years as you still have time to catch the remaining parts of the festival. The Shimo Suwa Shrine holds its first part of bringing the logs down the mountain this weekend on 8, 9,10 April, and the log raising on 14,15,16 May, while the Kami Suwa Shrine will hold its log raising on 3,4,5 May and I’ll be there for that. See this site for details: http://www.go-nagano.net/tag/onbashira

by Phil

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