Onbashira – A dangerous log ride takes center stage during a Japanese festival

There are some pretty outrageous festivals around the world.  While huge music and party-type festivals come to mind, when it comes to cultural festivals, you can’t beat the Japanese.  Japan has a considerable variety of festivals that take place all over the country and range from the Sapporo Snow Festival to the Hounen Penis Festival.  Any flashpacker looking for a unique experience in Japan during the years of the Monkey or the Tiger should go to the Lake Suwa area (about 3 hours north of Tokyo) and take part in the Onbashira festival.


Some of the festival participants

Only occurring every 6 years, this festival is held to “symbolically renew the Suwa Grand Shrine” in the Lake Suwa area of Japan.  A huge festival, Onbashira lasts several months and is made up of two main segments:  “Yamadashi” (which means “coming out of the mountains”) and “Satobiki” (which means “raising of the pillars”).

During Yamadashi, large numbers of local Japanese use ropes to drag enormous logs though the city, including over steep hills and through the river, to the four shrines that will be their final destination.  During the trip, young Japanese ride the logs to prove their bravery in a ceremony known as “Kiotoshi”.  This is the part of the festival I was a part of on Sunday, April 4th.

Our Experience

The star of the festival going down the hill.

We were afraid it would be overcrowded so woke up at the break of dawn and made the 90-minute drive into the Suwa area.  We arrived about two hours before the first log was scheduled to go down the main hill and I knew I wanted to get up there before the police lines were set.  I succeeded in getting into the thick of things and managed to stay close for the entire first run down the hill.

After that I met back up with the people I had gone with and we walked around a bit.  One thing about Japanese festivals is the number and variety of food stalls that get set up.  We snacked on a few things and walked the route towards the river crossing where we staked out a place on the riverbank to watch the next crossing.  Apparently this is where a couple participants die every year usually due to the sudden exposure to the very cold water (leading to a heart attack).

Festival Tips

The view of participants and onlookers from the hill. Almost every bit of color in this image is someone involved in the festival.

Remember that whenever you go to a festival, bring sunscreen!  You’ll be spending most of your time outside and getting sunburn can really effect your travels.  Also, these types of festivals are extremely crowded.  Get there as early as you can to get a lay of the land and find a spot where you can really get the experience you are looking for during the festival.  This goes double for those flashpacker photographers seeking amazing images.

This was a great festival experience and I felt lucky to be in Japan during one of the few Onbashira years and that it was close enough to drive to.  Festivals are always at the top of my list of things to see while traveling.  They give you an insight into the culture, let you try local street foods, and are usually a unique and colorful experience you can tell stories about.  It may sound like common sense, but while you’re doing research for your trip, make sure you spend some time checking to see if any festivals are taking place.

(Note: factual information was taken from Wikipedia and various sources in Japan.  It is correct to the best of my knowledge)

Making sure the rope is set on the Log

Festival Participant

Breaking open the sake barrel before the main event begins

The star of the festival going down the hill.

Gravity takes the log.

Regaining control of the log.

The bugles and flags crossing the river in advance of the log's water crossing.

Rope pullers chanting as this man is carried across the river.

The log begins to make its way forward.

It starts to head down.

Close to impact

The log enters the river.

The chaos of regaining control of the log.