The town of Suwa

During onbashira, we explored some interesting places in Suwa and learned a little about its history. Next to one of the shrines is an Edo-era shop selling a salty type of shio yokan. In a country that often eliminates its past, it is amazing to see a small business that preserves traditions. We also visited an Edo era guest house, which still retains a beautiful small garden in a property that shrunk over the generations.

Suwa’s famed lake is stunning. We saw many types of birds, including tonbi (black kite) and ducks.

The town is also known for its hot springs. We saw this early 20th century building which served the silk factory workers and was known for its “stand-up onsen.” Apparently there were too many bathers for them to sit or lie down in the hot water pools.

Tour of Suwa continues after the jump

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More images from onbashira festival

Onbashira’s most famous event is the swift and dangerous ride down the steep hill on the giant logs. Yet there are also many other images from the festival that struck me. Above are “chindonya” (チンドン屋), a Showa custom that mixes Edo and clown costumes, music, and drag to create a human walking advertisement.

I was also struck at how much Japan’s postal and rail services celebrate the festival. In an era where electronic mail makes the postal service seem like a relic, Japan Post regularly sets up booths at events and festivals to sell commemorative stamps. I also like how JR rail station agents have their own “happi,” or festival coats that combine their modern logo with designs that evoke sacred rituals and community.

Finally, I was struck by this enormously thick “enclosing rope,” in front of one of the Suwa shrines. These braided, rice straw ropes signal purification and ward off evil spirits. I have never seen one this thick. We were told that it was made for this year’s festival, and will stay until the next festival in six years time.

At this shrine, we met a group of seniors in their 70s. They had walked from Nihonbashi in Tokyo all the way to Suwa. The 200 kilometer walk took them ten days. Japanese are incredibly strong!

Onbashira Festival in Suwa

I am still pondering last weekend’s trip to the Onbashira (御柱祭) festival in Suwa. It was surprising to see that this uniquely Japanese event has been picked up by the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper website and the Sacramento Bee (check them out for much better photos than mine). I also defer to Wikipedia for explaining the two and half month series of events, from cutting the trees with special axes, to riding the logs down a steep hillside, to erecting them at the shrines.

One amazing fact is that this festival has been going on for 1,200 years.

Some of my observations:

1. I wrote earlier about this unusual mix of animism, forestry, and virility. Animism because of the care and respect for the trees as sacred objects. Forestry because of the tremendous skills in cutting the trees and the long tradition of relying upon wood for buildings, fuel and paper. Virility because of the reckless riding of the logs, which often turn and injure the riders. This year there was a dislocated shoulder. In previous festivals, there have been deaths.

But while the log riding is considering the central activity, with large crowds and television coverage, the entire festival features seemingly impossible actions made more difficult by the rituals. Not only are the 20 meter logs carried through the hills and streets, but there are dozens of people standing on the logs which can only make the load heavier. Likewise, in photos showing how they lift the logs at the shrine to stand as vertical pillars, you can see that celebrants again stand on the logs as they are being lifted, adding more weight and danger.

2.  In thinking about animism, forestry, and virility, I left out community. The entire series of rituals require hundreds and hundreds of participants, and thousands of spectators who are witnesses in person and through television sets. Hauling the logs are many teams of mostly men in traditional outfits, with different colored shirts marking sub-groups. The logs are tied with ropes and there must have been hundreds of people dragging them through the town. This image of community and exertion was perhaps more inspiring than the very rapid descent down the hillside.

3. There is also tremendous hospitality. Chigira, a young woman who has worked at Sinajina for several years, is from Suwa, and she meticulously organized our weekend. Siblings were marshaled to ferry our group of 11 from site to site, and her parents warmly welcomed us. We learned that weddings are avoided during festival years because the festival and the welcoming of guests is such a large expenditure for all the towns people.

4. While picniking and waiting to watch the log riding on the steep slope, Ito Hiromasa, the Executive Producer and Director of TEDxSeeds said hello to me. It was one of those realizations that Japan is a very small country, and that Onbashira Festival connects city and country people in a deep way. Ito-san also was impressed by the spirituality and mysteriousness of the event. He observed that the great care and hospitality show that the Suwa townspeople “love their culture, land, nature, ancestor and themselves.” These words and feelings seem uniquely Japanese, and I am still thinking about their meaning.

Train bento: A Japanese treat, with organic rice

Last weekend I went to Suwa in Nagano with Kobayashi sensei of Sinajina for the famous, once every six years onbashira festival.

Over two months, the residents of Suwa select enormous trees growing on top of the mountain ridge, cut them and transport them down the hills by dragging them with rope, race down a hill sitting on the logs, and eventually lift them up at several important shrines (while people stand on top of them, I guess, to make it more difficult, heavy and dangerous).

Onbashira is a very pleasant mix of animism, forestry and virility. More on the ceremony later.

But, first, the first joy of taking any trip in Japan is buying a bento at the station. There is an incredible variety, priced from about 500 yen to 1,500 yen. Each comes beautifully wrapped in a box, with fantastic graphic design. You can see some cool typography, artistic mountains and trains, a space shuttle, a pokemon, and cherry blossoms.

I chose the spring special, decorated with sakura petals. Inside I was delighted to find over twenty different foods, including takenoko (bamboo shoots).

Even more remarkable, my box came with a photo and description of the organic rice farmers.

And lastly here’s the purple-striped beauty that got us to the Suwa lake in just two hours from Shinjuku.