Hello all! For those who do not know, my name is Kevin Feeley, and I’ve been interning at JASGP for a month now and wanted to introduce you to something fantastic.
Yeah, that’s right, I’m wearing a Happi coat, and yeah, I look amazing, and yeah, Obama approves. But me looking awesome in a traditional Japanese festival jacket is not the point of this post. The jacket’s festival is the point of this post. The Kanji, for those who cannot read it, says – from left to right – Nagano’s First Group, Onbashira Festival. Nagano is a prefecture in Japan, so “Nagano’s First Group” means “The first group from Nagano to Participate (in the Onbashira Festival).” But what is the Onbashira Festival? Let’s look at the back of the coat.
First off, it’s amazing. Second, for those who do not know (as I did not know before the coat found me), the image displayed is that of the “Onbashira Festival.” If you could read the kanji on the front, then you probably already know what’s going on, but for those who have not heard, Onbashira is one of Japan’s oldest and most dangerous celebrations. The festival itself is fairly straightforward: Every six years Nagano’s finest men go up into the mountains and fell massive trees before transporting them down to the Suwa Grand Shrine. The trees themselves are meant to be “honored pillars” or “onbashira,” and replace the pillars from the previous ceremony. Now, to transport these trees down the steep slopes to reach the shrine, the men will ride them down. The festival has been going for 1200 years, and hang on did I just say ride trees down a mountain. Yeah, these grown men will ride sixty foot, twelve ton logs down a steep slope at breakneck speeds. If you do not believe me, I have proof:
Now, you are probably asking yourself “Isn’t this incredibly dangerous?” and the answer is resoundingly “YES.” It is Japan’s most deadly festival, with fatal incidents in 1980, 1986, 1994*, 2010, and 2016. It is worth noting, however, that Onbashira is actually two separate festivals a month apart: the first part is called Yamadashi, which is the incredible log riding ceremony, and the second part is called Satobiki, which is almost as dangerous. Satobiki is the actual raising of the pillars at the shrine, and often grown men will ride the pillars as they are raised. The most recent festivals saw Yukihiro Kusakabe in 2016, and two other men, Noritoshi Masuzawa and Kazuya Hirata in 2010, fall from the raised pillars to their deaths. As tragic as these occurrences are, there is a cultural allowance for them. The people of Nagano believe that dying during the Onbashira Festival is an honorable death, one that holds great meaning in the wake of the religious festivities. This likely alleviates some of the fear involved when opting to ride atop the logs, though probably not all of it.
I am quite fascinated by the Onbashira festivities. I am not one for religion, so the idea of risking my life for a religious ceremony is almost beyond my comprehension. Yet, the steely resolve necessary to go through with something as dangerous as Onbashira, be it a sense of religious or cultural duty, is nothing short of inspiring. Sure, the ceremony itself may hold little meaning to us outsiders, but it means a great deal to the people of Nagoya, and at the end of the day that is what I take away from the festival: having the courage, or necessary resolve, to go through with something that means a great deal to you, no matter the cost or consequences.
*The regularity of the event is unclear, as well as why the festivities took place in 1994 instead of 1992. Nevertheless, Onbashira typically takes place six years after the previous festival.