The Onbashira festival is finally at an end. After months of preparation and twelve long days of labor, the sixteen onbashira pillars have reached their resting places at the corners of the four shrines of Suwa Taisha.
Tens of thousands of visitors from Japan and abroad came to the Suwa area to witness this unique event. During the Yamadashi section of the festival, spectators walked for miles to see the incredible descent of the pillars down the steep Kiotoshizaka. During Satobiki, visitors marveled at the celebratory parades of dancers, performances and traditional songs that filled the streets of Shimosuwa.
Below I’ve included some photos from my experiences during Shimosuwa’s Onbashira festival, and some background on its many sights and performances.
Kiotoshi was one of the most eagerly anticipated parts of the Onbashira festival. Parishioners dropped each log down the Kiotoshizaka, a steep hill that reached slopes of up to 28 degrees, before continuing towards the town of Shimosuwa.
For the safety of everyone involved, the pillar is anchored to a post with a rope before being pulled over the edge of the hill. When the pillar is teetering over the edge of the slope and all parishioners are prepared, the axe-handler (yokitorishu in Japanese) cuts the rope in one swift motion and launches the log downhill. The parishioners then chase it down the slope while trying to control its descent. It all ends in a few seconds, but is an exciting and unforgettable experience.
The Kiyari Chant
Local men and women train for months to learn the proper technique for singing Kiyari, the traditional chant of the Onbashira festival. It’s primal, incredibly loud and far-reaching. The songs keep everyone in time as they move the pillar, and include prayers for their safe passage and strength to continue forward. As the Kiyari singers take up the chant, parishioners ready themselves to pull the onbashira. At last, everyone yells, “Yoisa!” and pulls the pillar forward another few meters.
The Kiba Gyoretsu Parade
The Kiba Gyoretsu is modeled after parades that accompanied Shogun, Daimyo and other important persons during the Edo period. Some aspects of the parade have undoubtedly changed, but the samurai bodyguards, archers and staff-wielding heralds are reminiscent of an earlier Japan. As they marched between the Harumiya and Akimiya shrines, each group performed their own feats and dances. In one, the heralds twirled, juggled and balanced their staves elegantly and effortlessly on their fingers and chins.
Another part of the Satobiki parade was called Nagamochi, where performers carried a heavy trunk on a long, narrow pole. The pole bends under the weight of the trunk and creaks as the performers move forward. The performers’ steps and cane twirls were choreographed, and each group had their own unique style.
Traditionally, the Nagamochi trunk was used during weddings and carried items that the bride would bring to her new home. In Suwa, Nagamochi were used for a wide variety of purposes, including bringing offerings to the Suwa Taisha shrines. Many of the people I spoke to at the festival were particularly interested in seeing this event because it can’t be seen in many other parts of Japan.
Tateonbashira: Raising the Pillar
When the pillars finally reach their destination, they are raised into place in their designated corners. Parishioners tie ropes around each pillar; some are attached to pulleys and others are used to hold on to. Depending on the size of the pillar, between 10 and 20 people may ride it as it slowly rises vertically above the crowd. The Kiyari singers continue their chant, and on “Yoisa!” everyone joins in, extending their arms and waving their onbe streamers.
A Festival Unlike Any Other
The Onbashira festival is an incredible and unique event that can only be seen in the Suwa region of Nagano prefecture. Not only is the festival a feast for the eyes, with elegant parades, colorful costumes and amazing feats of strength, it is also a window to the spirit of Suwa’s people. In spite of months of preparation and training, and difficult and tiring obstacles, locals love their festival and working together with one another.