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.
On Saturday we set out for a tour of Kirigamine Kogen, one of Nagano’s central highland areas connected by the Venus Line. The name Kirigamine means “the misty peak,” because the warm airs of Suwa regularly rise up here and condense into fog. On clear days, however, you can enjoy an amazing view from the top of Kurumayama, the tallest point of the Kirigamine area.
In a land-locked prefecture, the Suwa area is surprisingly blessed with water. The surface of lake Suwa offers beautiful, reflective views of the surrounding mountains and sky. Hot springs bubble up from the grounds of Kami and Shimosuwa and feed over 150 public bathing facilities in the area. And, fresh water from the highlands helps brew Suwa’s many award-winning rice wines.
Visitors to the area have been increasing in advent of the 2016 Onbashira festival, so I thought I’d take a closer look at Suwa’s activities and sights.
Areas of Nagano prefecture are getting ready for a series of festivals in February, and in that spirit I thought I would put together a list of current and upcoming events for the Winter season. Tear yourself away from the ski resorts for a night and visit some of Nagano’s other scenic spots!
Once every seven years, the Suwa area (in central Nagano) holds the Onbashira festival. In this festival, thousands of locals participate in moving 16 massive fir tree trunks from the surrounding mountains to the shrines of Suwa. These fir trees are usually 17 to 19 meters long, 1 meter wide and weigh around 7.5 tons each. These trees become the new great pillars, or Onbashira, in the corners of each Suwa shrine.
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Kami Suwa’s five sake makers organize the Spring 2012 version of the bi-annual Nomiaruki Drink & Walk festival.
Date & time: Saturday, March 17, 15:00 – 19:00
Tickets & commemorative sake cup: 2,000 yen (available at JR Kami Suwa Station and at each Sakagura). A portion of the ticket sales will be donated to a relief fund for Sakae Mura, heavily damaged in the last March earthquake.
This event, held every fall and spring, is a chance to taste the sakes of Suwa’s five brewers: Maehime, Reijin, Honkin, Yokobue, and Masumi. These makers are clustered in Suwa’s Shimizu-machi, an easy 10-15 minute walk from the JR Kami Suwa Station.
In addition to great regional sake, there will be outdoor food stands offering local delicacies.
One is Takasugi-an (which means “too high room”). This is a tea-ceremony room and it was selected as one of the top 10 most dangerous architectures in the world by Time Magazine (top 1 is the Leaning Tower of Pisa). The room is built on two 6-meter high chestnut trees.
I wanted to go inside but didn’t know how people can go in.
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My wife bought me this cool tenugui (a kind of Japanese bandana) for my tenugui collection. You’re probably saying, “Hey, that’s a book, not a bandana.” It actually starts out as a book, about Suwa’s upcoming once-every-seven years Onbashira festival. But then it opens up into a tenugui. Pretty cool! But enough about my tenugui fetish. I wanted to pass on some info about Onbashira, one of Nagano’s grandest festivals. The signature event is the sliding of massive logs down huge slopes, with the Matsuri men hanging on for dear life.
One of my Nagano Inbound Summit cohorts, Itoh-san from B&B Megu House Zuku in Suwa, sent some important information about the upcoming festival, so I’ll turn over the keyboard to her:
Suwa Grand Shrine’s festival is commonly called “Onbashira Festival”. Detailed information is available at the official website,
The dates of the festival are April 2, 3, 4, 9, 10 and 11, as well as May 2, 3, 4, 8, 9 and 10th.
There are volunteer guides for the festival, including native speakers of Chinese, Korean, French, Portuguese and Spanish. These guides also volunteer for tours of the Suwa area. Advanced reservations are required, through the Info Center at the above website or through Megu House Zuku.
Everyone from the elderly down to the children from all 6 towns and cities that make up the Suwa area participate in Onbashira in one way or another. That means event days will be very congested. There will be traffic restrictions in place, so you may end up walking quite a distance to festival sites. Several of the “pension” lodging in Hara Village offer festival and lodging packages.
Access by train is via JR Chuo Line, with Chino, Kami Suwa and Shimo Suwa being the main stations (approx 2 hours from Shinjuku). You can also take a highway bus on the Chuo Expressway from Tokyo. Keio Bus offers access in approx. 3 hours on their Suwa / Okaya line,
Suwa Grand Shrine’s biggest event is the spring Onbashira Festival, but all of the Suwa shrines in the area will also hold “komiyasai”, smaller festivals in the fall. If you want to experience Onbashira up-close and personal, then these local fall festivals may be best. The major Onbashira events in spring can be very crowded, while the “komiya” festivals often offer chances for the public to participate, too.
Finally, on April 29th, Suwa Lake will officially “open”. Numerous events will take place, including peddle boat races and a silk fair.
It’s quite interesting that such a big lake exists like a navel surrounded by mountains.
Around that navel of a lake is a good walking and marathon course. The 16K course is flat and the surface of the course is soft rubber that’s gentle on our feet and perfect for walking and running.
I attended a walking event around Lake Suwa on September 28th. More than 2,000 people enjoyed walking around the lake chatting, listening to their iPod or Walkman, and along the way, some stopped to enjoy lunch or just to lounge around in the grass. Read the rest of this entry
I met up with some of my fellow “Nagano Inbound Summit” participants for a meeting in Suwa yesterday. We did 2 ‘excursion’ tours with a power lunch in the middle.
The 1st excursion was a tour of Masumi Sake’s brewery.
Their Export Manager, Keith-san, graciously showed us the facilities and explained Masumi’s sake production. His enthusiasm for sake and Masumi was impressive — I think I’ve become a Masumi-fan, too.
The owner’s boss (?), Kumi-san, proceeded to explain Masumi’s sake “concept”. Most sake brewers just concentrate on how to make sake — Masumi also focuses on how to enjoy sake. Their sake-tasting room provides the proper ambience for guests to properly enjoy Masumi’s sake, and their gift shop has everything from sake cups to a wide variety for local and other foods to complement their sake.
The 2nd excursion was to see Suwa City’s new “Onbashira Experience Park“. The park just opened last weekend and features two pillars of the same size as that will be used in next year’s once-every-seven-years Onbashira Festival.
An important component of the festival is the Kiyari, a traditional work song. We were fortunate to have Komatsu-san of the Shimo-Suwa Kiyari Preservation Society come and lead us in a chant. Another local, Itoh-san of B&B Megu House ZuKu, provided English explanation. Seeing the massive pillars was impressive, but hearing Komatsu-san’s (aka Mr. Onbashira) chant reverbrate off the far away buildings was most memorable.
In between the excursions, we met over bento at Masumi (compliments to Kumi-san for her miso soup!) and shared info on recent Inbound-related activities. Itoh-san gathering local foreigners to be volunteer guides, Seifuso in Matsumoto organizing a “Wear a Yukata to Matsumoto Castle” event, Minami-Shinshu Kanko Corporation’s successful eco tourism, and so much more. I hope to introduce some of these activities here in this blog.
It was impressive to hear everyone’s efforts to make Nagano Prefecture a more enjoyable place for tourists from overseas.
At the end, some of us stopped at Shimo-Suwa’s Aki (Fall) Shrine.
I was really enthralled by the area, and announced I had become a fan of Shimo-Suwa. One of my buddies said I should wait until I’ve seen the shrines at Kami-Suwa before deciding. I also want to see the castle, go to some of the museums, ride the new Duck amphibious sightseeing bus, and so much more. I guess that means I’ll have to come back to Suwa again soon!