Large trees from far up the mountain are towed into town to become gods…
Since ancient times, the Shikinen Zoei Mihashira Taisai (Onbashira Festival) has been held in the Suwa area once every seven years during the years of the Tiger and Monkey according to the Chinese zodiac calendar. Through this series of Shinto rituals, commonly referred to collectively as the Onbashira Festival, shrine sanctuaries are renewed and also Onbashira (sacred wooden pillars) are replaced by selecting trees to serve as them, towing them down from the mountain, and erecting them within the precincts of the shrines. At Suwa Taisha (the Suwa Grand Shrine complex), it is considered the biggest and most important Shinto ritual. The Onbashira Festival, which is also an aspect of Suwa’s proud traditional culture, is carried out by shrine parishioners in the six municipalities in the Suwa area, and the tradition has been passed down through the generations uninterrupted for more than 1,200 years.
Suwa, the City of Mysteries
The Suwa area is enveloped in a rich natural environment, including Lake Suwa, which is closely attached to people’s daily lives, the majestic Mt. Yatsugatake, and the Kirigamine Highlands with a diverse range of plant life. In addition, religious belief at Suwa Taisha (the Suwa Grand Shrine complex), a collection of shrines built to encompass Lake Suwa, is deeply rooted in the local area and also tied to the rich natural environment, such as Omiwatari, a Shinto ceremony accompanying an ice-cracking phenomenon that occurs on Lake Suwa in winter.
“Suwa Taisha”(Shrine of Suwa)
Suwa Taisha (the Suwa Grand Shrine complex) is composed of four shrines located both north and south of Lake Suwa, and it serves as the headquarters of the more than 10,000 Suwa Shrines across the country. Its founding is traced far back to ancient mythical times.
Suwa Taisha is also nicknamed O-Suwa-sama, and since ancient times, the deity enshrined within has been considered a god of wind, water and hunting. During the middle ages, the deity was also worshipped by many warriors as a god of war.
Traditions of Suwa
The Onbashira Festival, which has continued for more than 1,200 years, could also be considered a collection of techniques and traditions passed down through the generations. While the festival has diversified down through the ages, both men and women of all ages each have their respective roles and opportunities to participate, and all shrine parishioners in the area play a part in inheriting and passing on the traditions. Around autumn during a year in which the festival is scheduled, smaller versions of the Onbashira Festival called Komiya-sai are held in each district, and these serve to pass on the techniques and culture to the next generation in each region.
It is a deeply religious festival.
The name Onbashira Festival refers to a series of Shinto rituals to renew Houden (the shrine sanctuaries) and to replace Onbashira (sacred wooden pillars) by selecting trees to serve as them, towing them down from the mountain, and erecting them within the precincts of the shrines.
Sixteen large fir trees become Onbashira, and only those that are well over 150 years old and 17 meters in height are chosen. Once every seven years during the years of the Tiger and Monkey according to the Chinese zodiac calendar, such trees are towed back to town by hand and erected at the four corners of each of the shrines composing Suwa Taisha (the Grand Suwa Shrine complex).
It has a long history, and a Muromachi-period document called Suwa Daimyojin Ekotoba (Illustrated Record of Suwa Daimyojin Shrine) records that Suwa Taisha had been conducting renewal construction during the years of the Tiger and Monkey as far back as the early Heian period. Even now, the residents of the Suwa region remain deeply passionate about the series of rituals composing the Onbashira Festival.
ONBASHIRA famous scene
During a portion of the festival called Yamadashi, held in April, sixteen giant trees, each more than 17m tall and weighing 12 tons, are felled in the deep forest and towed back to town using nothing but manpower. The way back to town is also dotted with dangerous spots such as large bends in the road and steep slopes. However, following a solemn Shinto ritual performed in accordance with ancient rites, the Onbashira overcome the dangerous spots along the way through a combination of techniques passed down through the generations and the physical power of the participants, who move the trees with united purpose toward the shrine while chanting a traditional workmen’s chant called Kiyari.
One characteristic portion of the festival is called Kiotoshi, and during this exciting ritual, people ride on top of the trees as they slide down frighteningly steep slopes up to 35 degrees amidst the enthusiastic and tense atmosphere. The Onbashira are so powerful that they seem almost alive as they slide down the slope fiercely raising clouds of dust, and the sight whips spectators into a frenzy.
During a portion called Kawagoshi, performed at the Kamisha (upper shrine), the giant trees are towed across Miyagawa River, and this is said to signify purifying the Onbashira in the freshly melted snow flowing in the river. The participants look very courageous as they cross the river getting soaking wet along with the Onbashira in the cold river water that is less than 10℃.
In contrast to the majestic Yamadashi ritual, the portion of the festival called Satobiki, held in May when the trees are towed back to town, has a more flamboyant atmosphere. Traditional dances and performing arts are performed as the Onbashira are being towed along, which creates scenes like those in a gorgeous ancient picture scroll. Once the Onbashira reach the precincts of each shrine, a ritual called Kanmuriotoshi is performed, in which the tips of the Onbashira are cut into a trigonal pyramid shape to improve their dignity as sacred trees. Then, they are towed to each of the four corners and erected, thereby becoming gods.
The performing arts passed down in each district preserve ancient traditions and are inherited by each new generation. In particular, the procession of mounted warriors, the highlight of which is the long row of more than 100 warriors with various implements and gorgeous costumes, is a traditional performing art with more than 1,000 years of history.
The Onbashira are towed to each shrine, where a ritual called Kanmuriotoshi is performed, in which the tips of the Onbashira are cut into a trigonal pyramid shape to improve their dignity as sacred trees. Once this has been completed, the Onbashira are wrapped with wires and ropes using a traditional technique and slowly erected by hand to the rhythm of a workmen’s chant until they are soon fully upright. When a 1.5-meter-long Oogohei (a sacred Shinto staff with paper streamers) is pounded into the tip of the Onbashira, the giant fir tree from high in the mountains becomes a god.
TOURISM in SUWA
Although the Suwa area, located near the center of Nagano Prefecture, is a single region, you can enjoy a variety of different trips depending on where you visit. The area around Lake Suwa has accumulated numerous historical and cultural spots such as art galleries and museums, as well as Suwa Taisha (the Suwa Grand Shrine complex). You can experience the area’s long history, culture and beliefs at places like Kamisuwa Onsen with ample hot spring water, as well as breweries and miso manufacturers.
The highland area spreading out at the foot of the majestic Mt. Yatsugatake, is a treasure trove of highland plants, native forests, and the most beautiful sights in the mountains of the Shinshu area. The valuable ecosystem and highland scenery are particularly attractive. In addition, the 70-kilometer-long Venus Line, which connects the Tateshina Highlands, Lake Shirakaba, Kurumayama Highlands, and Mt. Kirigamine, is one of Japan’s leading tourism routes. In summer, you can enjoy flowers called nikko-kisuge (day lilies), which have been designated as a national natural monument, and in winter, you can enjoy pure white snowscapes. D90