One thing that’s always interesting is seeing the area’s young people get involved with Onbashira. While children can participate with the “kodomo no kiyari” and often join their families near the front of the Onbashira procession, the actual work of pulling the hashira is reserved for those who have come of age. While a young man’s first Onbashira was likely a rite of passage across the region, these days the number of young participants is dwindling. How to effectively pass the tradition on in the 21st century is a real issue. The public schools typically don’t touch the subject, the curriculum being cookie-cut by bureaucrats in Tokyo and Nagano City. The bulk of teachers are transferred in from outside the region, too, so at best Onbashira is viewed as a local oddity. Once, at a local middle school just before Onbashira 2010, the baseball coach gave the team a real dressing down:
“Onbashira’s coming up, but there are times it’ll conflict with practice. You’ve got to decide. You want to do Onbashira or be on this team. Think about it!”
Even without such pressure, many young people could care less about the tradition. Some even find it decidedly uncool. But there is a percentage of young people who are crazy about Onbashira and have taken to it with particular zeal.
For this post, we interviewed a handful of young motozuna-shu (ropes crew) members. In their early 20s, for all except one this was their first time having a role in the festival. One of the friends participated in 2010 when he was just 16–he was the youngest to ride the pillar coming down the slope this year.
Their answers have been edited and condensed in some places.
What did you think about Onbashira when you were in school? What kind of education did you get surrounding the festival? Do you think it was sufficient?
We didn’t understand much about it in those days, but had a sense that it was a festival for the grownups. We thought it was cool, though.
There wasn’t much as far as “education” around Onbashira. Not enough at all, actually. We learned from what our fathers told us, or through pulling with our families. That gave us a “feel” for it.
How do you feel about Onbashira now?
As we get older, we’ve come to see it’s importance and understand how we’ll value it from here on in. Actually having a role in the festival, seeing everyone working together to do their part and the unity that comes from that is really special. It’s good to feel a part of it, and we look forward to contributing more in the future. And because it’s a festival, of course we look forward to having fun!
What kind of Onbashira did you want to have this time?
Since it was the first time (for most of us), just having fun pulling the pillar and experiencing the atmosphere was enough. There weren’t many young people, so we wanted to help boost the energy level and make our Onbashira mentors proud. We also wanted to help Minato (the neighborhood), learn more about Onbashira, and see it in a new light.
“Having the honor of doing kiotoshi, I tried to join in with all the enthusiasm I could.”
What was the most fun part? What was the toughest?
-The moments when everyone’s action merged together and our hearts became one (kokoro-hitotsu).
-Seeing kiotoshi up close (gave me goosebumps)
-The log riding! And seeing everyone safe.
-Finding the balance with work.
-Not enough toilets.
-Handling the ropes involves different techniques, and there should be more instruction regarding that.
What would you like to say the young people in the area?
Come join the party! We want to show everyone what the young guys here are made of, so we need as many as possible to join in. We need your help to make Onbashira more fun than ever.
Is there any aspect of the festival you’d like to see change?
-Keep to the time schedule.
-Improve relations between people in the area and within the group. Important not to just insist on what we want, but to try to understand each other
How do you see Onbashira in the future? Tell us something about your hopes and vision for the festival.
-While preserving the old traditions, would like to see it become a more open event.
-There’s nothing else like it, so want people from all over the world to come and see.
-Need to get more young people interested by educating them about the festival. With lots of people participating it’ll be even more fun.
-Would like to continue this awesome festival that’s been passed down to us, while making sure people understand and respect the tradition. And since relationships are so important, to respect each other, too.
Anything you’d like to say to our readers?
-If you’re interested, please make the trip to Suwa!
-Onbashira’s probably the most thrilling festival in Japan, so try to check it out sometime!
-People here are really into Onbashira! It’s got a lot of history too.
Anything else you’d like to mention?