Sunday, May 16, 2010

Onbashira Festival

This is how our friend Taya describes this festival (she's been to it 3 times now!):
Every 7 years they spiritually renew the shrines by replacing giant log pillars in the grounds. Trees are selected, prayed for and cut and dragged through the mountains, through rivers and valleys and the town until they find their final resting place in the shrine. Guys ride the logs down slopes, through rivers and while being raised to standing position; weighing a few tonnes this is quite dangerous.

We attended the festival in Chino (a town 2 train stops away) and in our town, Shimosuwa. Josie got some pretty good video of one of the logs coming down the mountain in Shimosuwa.

Last weekend was the final stage of the festival where they erected the logs at the shrines, one of which is just up the street from our house. Unfortunately, Josie was too sick to attend much of the festivities. For three days you could hear announcements, taiko drumming, bugles, primal screaming and yelling. We did manage to go out for a short walk or two and see what all the fuss was about. We took video of them dragging the log up to the shrine, but we're having trouble posting it. Maybe we'll put more video and photos on flickr soon.

Sad footnote: Two men died this year while falling from the log as it was being raised up. They say it was probably because they didn't have their safety harnesses attached. Maybe because they were too drunk on sake? Or just trying to be tough? In any case, the festival carried on as usual. I guess that's how it goes when it's been happening for 1200 years.

We found it interesting that they allowed the vendors right up on the shrine grounds. Japanese culture and religion are so intertwined; maybe that's why they seem to have less deference for keeping shrine activities free of commercialism. Then again, every vendor has to give a cut of their profits back to the shrine. Similarly, we heard that when they sell Onbashira merchandise like pens with Hello Kitty riding the log, Hello Kitty also has to give a percentage to the shrine. Here are some pictures of the vendors.

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