Within the Onbashira “structure,” the parishioners fill a number of essential roles. While the colors of the uniforms vary with the hashira, the work the different teams engage in is essentially the same.
These are the guys who do the grunt work of hauling the pillar. They’re also in charge of keeping the ropes in order.
Teko-shu folks are easy to spot, always carrying their trusty staves. They use the staves as levers to keep the hashira on course, redirect it when it has gone astray, or shift it if it gets stuck. This must have been a rough job in the days before paved roads, particularly when it rained.
These guys walk along behind the hashira and are in charge of the rope attached to the back. They act as a “rudder” to the pillar, and on occasions it needs to be backed up, the Oikake-zuna-shu swings into action.
Their high-pitched wails are one of the signatures of Onbashira. Between the singing and the golden or white tasseled onbe, they are one of the most visible of the Onbashira roles. In a way they act as Onbashira “cheerleaders,” singing verses of encouragement that change according to the various stations and conditions encountered along the way.
Their main work occurs before the pulling starts and again after the pillar reaches the shrine. This important role prepares the pillars so the ropes can be fastened. Once at its destination, that part of the log is taken off in a ceremony called Kanmuri-otoshi (Dropping the Crown). From there the top of the pillar is cut into a pyramid form before being raised in its designated corner of the shrine.
The norite (nori-tay) are the guys who ride the hashira, and there are two groups of them: the ones who descend the log riding slope during Yamadashi, and the ones who stand on the pillar while it is raised during Tateonbashira. Both are positions of honor and are among the most prominent of the festival.
While Onbashira has an overwhelming focus on the group, individuals occupy several important roles as well. These are positions of honor held by members of high standing in the community.
If Onbashira has a “leader,” the Gohei is it. Dressed in white, the Gohei stands at the front of the pillar from the time it leaves the mountain until it arrives at its destination (they descend for the log sliding). The Gohei gets the title from the large tasseled staff he holds upright and protects as the hashira moves along. The staff in the old days held a variety of ritual functions, and to this day the role is something akin to an Onbashira Shaman. They used to adhere to rigorous purification ceremonies before the festivals. Today, depending on the neighborhood and the individuals, they still voluntarily undergo some form of abstemious practice: no alcohol the year before the festival, and so on. A vice-Gohei, also dressed in white, stands behind the Gohei on the pillar.
The Yoki-tori uses a ceremonial axe to cut the rope that holds the hashira suspended over the edge of the kiotoshi slope. When the blade slices through the air, severing the rope, the pillar falls. There’s enormous pressure to cut it cleanly in one go.
The first guy on the log, the man in the cockpit as it goes down the kiotoshi slope.
Occupying the top spot of the pillar during Tateonbashira, this position is one of the highest honors of the festival, and perhaps the most symbolically important. “Tenpa” literally means “Edge of Heaven.”