For 1200 years one of the most dangerous but exciting rituals “Onbashira” happens after every 6 years in Japan. Large groups of people ride tree logs weighing as much as 12 tonnes down the mountains at steep 27-degree slopes in a show of courage.
What is Onbashira & how do they celebrate it?
“Onbashira” is one of Japan’s oldest festivals, which devotees celebrate for around 2 months, in the Suwa area of Nagano, central Japan. It starts in April in spring, once every six years on the Year of the Tiger and the Year of the Monkey, and ends in May in the same year. For this event, the locals choose sixteen giant fir trees deep in the surrounding mountains to become the Onbashira pillars.
In April they haul them by the hand towards town in an event called “Yamadashi”. Then in May, they pull them the rest of the way and raise them in the corners of the Suwa shrines. They become sacred pillars at the shrine – four pillars at each of the four shrines. This second event is called “Satobiki”. The religious experts consider only 150 years old and at least 17 meters tall tree logs as worthy of the honor.
Why is Onbashira so dangerous?
Due to the number of deaths of locals, Onbashira has become Japan’s one of the most risky rituals. Deaths mainly occur during the Yamadashi (coming out of the mountains) ritual. In this ceremony people drag these 10-12 tonnes tree logs. A large groups of people ride them down the mountains on steep slopes in a show of courage. Then they ceremoniously wash them by the snow-fed waters and carry across the Miyagawa river.
Participants also die while falling from atop the logs during parade through the town. Some die while erecting them at the shrines in the later part of the rituals.
This whole series of rituals attracts a lot of tourists. Since the whole event is spread over a period of around 2 months, tourists from other countries get enough time to visit nearby areas. Thus they get to know better about the rich cultural heritage of Japan.