Every 6 years, a sacred and dangerous event occurs besides Lake Suwa in Nagano Prefecture, Japan. In a ceremony which spiritually renews the Suwa Taisha (Grand Shrines), the townsfolk of this area cut down 16 huge Japanese fir trees with special axes and ride them as they slide down the mountainside. Welcome to Onbashira, a thrilling festival that claims to be an unbroken Shinto tradition for the past 1,200 years.
Onbashira, meaning “sacred pillars”, refers to the logs meant to replace the foundations of the 4 shrines:Â Maemiya and Honmiya on the northern shore of the lake, and Harumiya and Akimiya on the southern side. The Suwa Taisha, which serve as headquarters to more than 10,000 branches throughout the nation, need to be rebuilt every seven years according to Shinto tradition (the Japanese include the current year in the count) and preparations begin 3 years before the festival itself. In the months leading to the festival, selected logs are cut and strapped with massive straw ropes colored in the red and white of the Shinto religion. These logs measure more than a meter in diameter and weigh around 12 tons each. Come April, the event called Yamadashi (coming out of the mountains) have spectators eagerly anticipating the hundreds or so ujiko (parishioners) dressed in waist-length robes, fundoshi (loincloths), and jitakabi, knee-high, split-toed shoes. Shinto priests sprinkle salt around and chant in a ritual of purification.
It is during the process called kiotoshi when things get dangerous. The ujiko, who are chosen for their health and endurance, climb on the logs and slide down parts of the 30 to 40 degree mountain slope for a distance of about 100 meters. Fireworks, bards, buglers, and the cheer of the spectators all help the participants to go on with their daring endeavor. Most are thrown off the ensuing ride; a few sustain broken ribs or limbs, and death is a common result for every festival. Nonetheless, the festival finds no shortage of volunteers for this singular act of bravado.
The trunks are then rested for a month until Satobiki, where ujiko erect the huge logs in place along the 4 sides of each of the 4 shrines. The logs are hauled for 3 days along a 10-kilometer distance, with songs and performances helping to entertain the devotees. At the shrines, two ropes pull the logs to a vertical position while young men sit on them. Once they reach the top at a height of 16 meters, these men will sing to announce their success. The grandeur of this ceremonyÂ was enough to make the 1998 Satobiki the showcase of the Nagano Winter Olympics opening ceremony of that year. Upon the completion of onbashira, the Shinto gods of farming, hunting, wind and water are appeased until the next festival.
Lake Suwa itself is the site of an interesting winter phenomenon. Because the 14 square kilometer body of water is home to natural hot springs, the surface will freeze solid during the cold months while the bottom remains warm. This causes pressure ridges to form up to heights of 30 cm., called omiwatari (god’s passage), as local believe that these mark the paths taken by the gods enshrined in Suwa Taisha, Prince Takeminakita and Princess Yasakatome. One island in Lake Suwa becomes a platform to a delightful fireworks display every August 15, made up of 30,000 shots that reflect beautifully against the lake surface. Preceded by a music festival that occurs in the first half of August, this lightshow draws around 400,000 each year, and is best viewed on a view terrace in Lake Suwa Tateishi Park.
The next Onbashira is scheduled for April of 2010, and is expected to draw some two million people. You can get to Lake Suwa by taking the JR Nagano Shinkansen from Tokyo, then boarding a Limited Express train on the Chuo Honsen from Nagoya Station to Shiojiri, and finally riding a local train to Kami-Suwa Station.