The Onbashira Festival of the Lake Suwa area in Nagano is one of most famous festival in Japan and also one of the most dangerous because it involves felling a number of huge trees from the mountain forests, riding the logs (which weigh several tons) down the steep mountain slope and then erecting (by hand!!) at the local Shinto shrine. To get a better idea of events of Lake Suwa’s festival, you can see some fantastic photos here and here and here.
Although Lake Suwa’s Onbashira event is perhaps the largest and most exciting, Matsumoto also has its own (toned down) versions of the festival that take place at some of the shrines in the city. The actual day of the festival depends on the particular shrine, but like in Lake Suwa, it takes place only once every six years. The rituals of Onbashira date back hundreds of years and the trees offered to the shrine were used in rebuilding its structure as the wood deteriorated from age.
I was lucky enough to get to experience the Susukigawa Shrine Onbashira Festival right after moving to Matsumoto this past Golden Week. The whole ritual starts a few months before the actual festival when the two trees are felled and brought down from the mountain (unfortunately I didn’t get so see that part). By the day of the festival, the trunks of the trees have had their bark removed and the wooden smoothed out. In order to transport each tree to the shrine, gigantic ropes are attached to it so the entire neighborhood can help pull it through the streets. Although the young men of the neighborhood are the main participants, women, children and the elderly also help pull the rope (in fact, it would probably be impossible to move the tree trunks without their help).
The process of pulling the Onbashira log along is quite a sight. Three or four of the young men actually stand on top of the log (not to mention make it even heavier…), acting as the leading “cheerleaders” who shout out encouragement and chants to the pullers. Then there are men armed with long, sturdy sticks who help nudge the log along by wedging their sticks underneath the front and leveraging it up so it budges just enough to give traction to the pullers. The pullers heave the log in sync with the chants of the cheerers. If you attend the festival, you’ll also notice the colorful “pompoms” on a stick, if you will, that the festival participants wave and shake for encouragement.
The Onbashira logs arrive at Susukigawa Shrine around noon, where everyone takes a long break for lunch. Like in the Ofune Matsuri (Boat Festival), the crowd separates in to their respective neighborhoods and have a big picnic together under the shrine’s humongous trees. Here another interesting ritual occurs: in each neighborhood group, the men pass around one of the “pompoms” and take turns singing, waving the pompom in circles over their heads. The songs and style of singing seem to be specific to the Onbashira Festival, and I’m guessing have been passed down through the generations (though the lyrics can be made up in an impromptu fashion – see the video below).
After lunch, singing, and a dose of sake, it’s time for the main event – erecting the Onbashira logs at the side of the shrine. First the logs, which are parked just outside the shrine premises, need to be pulled up next to either side of the shrine’s main building. This is a bit more difficult than pulling on the street because of the soft ground under the trees and a couple of shallow steps on the path. Crowds gather around the narrow shrine path to watch and cheer on.
When the Onbashira logs are finally positioned on both sides of the shrine, they are erected so they stand up perfectly straight. Due to several accidents in past years, unfortunately (or fortunately) the logs are lifted using cranes instead of pure manpower. Still, using a crane is more difficult than it sounds and it is a spectacle to watch the three or four ton logs getting picked up and somehow maneuvered into their posts. In yet another peculiar ritual, once the Onbashira are standing, some of the men take gigantic wooden mallets and hammer at the base of the logs (due to the large crowd, I unfortunately couldn’t get a photo of this).
Considering the infrequency of the festival, it may be hard to be able to go, but do keep an eye out if you’re around the Matsumoto and Suwa area and check if Onbashira is scheduled. The next festival in Suwa is in 2022 and in Matsumoto in 2023. Hopefully you enjoyed the photos for now 🙂