Friday, July 9, 2010

As Easy as Falling off a Log

One particularly interesting thing about an island culture that has developed over a period of two thousand years or so, is that you’re bound to get very unique and sometimes very quirky festivals. Any Japanese culture buff will be able to tell you about the dozens of famous festivals and their reasons for being that happen all across Japan, but few may know of the Onbashira festival.

The onbashira festival (literally translated as sacred pillar/log) is a festival unique to the Suwa region of central Nagano prefecture. What’s particularly interesting about it is that it is so outrageous and outlandish that it only occurs every six years. Every six years the sleepy towns of Chino-city and Shimosuwa-machi are flooded with hundreds of thousands of spectators as the local townsfolk drag huge tree logs cut from the mountain forests, all the way into town, across rivers and down hills to the shrine. It is believed that the spirits of the trees can be brought to the town this way. The town’s spiritual energy must be replenished every six years.

It’s not as simple as it sounds though. Dozens of logs are cut and teams from each neighborhood decorate and drag them. This is a process of several days. Men ride upon the logs throughout the journey chanting and singing all the way. The city of Chino has a river to cross. Each festival, some log-riders plummet to their death during the river crossing. Shimosuwa’s festival involves sending the logs down a steep slope. Again, some log-riders perish in the fall. The whole event is even broadcast on national television.

This year’s main event has passed already but you can still catch the action. Smaller neighborhood versions of the event take place throughout the entire Suwa region for as long as a year after the main festival. These small scale onbashiras are a great experience and many neighborhoods welcome outsiders with free food and drink as well as a chance to have a go pulling the log. A lot of fun and not to mention safer than the perils of the main onbashiras crossing the river and tumbling down hills at high speed.

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