Photo: Relief on pine by Kenji Osaka. Original image from the Edo period, 1799
Onbashira’s roots are steeped in mystery. And while theories of its origin abound, for many, that uncertainty is fine. “If we understood everything about Onbashira, it would take away the magic,” I was told by the man who burned the relief pictured above.
What’s for sure is that Onbashira’s history stretches back. Way back. The first written record of it dates from the middle ages and indicates origins during the Heian Period (circa 800 CE). Other evidence places the roots far earlier. Pillar festivals themselves are still extant in many areas around the world. While the details vary, these celebrations typically involve the community bringing a pillar, pole, or tree from nearby mountains or deep forest and raising it in the village. Such festivals still happen in as far-flung locals as Southeast Asia, India, Nepal, Tibet, and Mexico. The traditional European Maypole is a pillar festival of sorts. The tradition of setting up an evergreen tree in the town square for Christmas shares the same symbolic roots. What these various traditions have in common is bringing the pillar(s) down to town and raising them. The pillar acts as a symbol of nature’s regenerative power, renewing the ties between the two.
Onbashira’s roots lie in what came to be known as Shinto, the traditional Japanese world view. Evidence of circular pillar structures has been excavated in the Suwa area dating back more than 10,000 years (Jomon era). Think of them as wooden stonehenges. Originally these were structureless temenos, purified sacred spaces of communion. Like all traditional cultures, the people of Jomon related to the wind and water and mountains, and didn’t necessarily view these as distinct from the human community. Eventually these elemental relationships were anthropomorphized, at least in part. Invading armies brought their own brands of mythology and casts of gods. Shrines were built to accommodate these outsized mortals and the circular spaces of Jomon were altered to accommodate the more boxed in gods. In time, as is typical in Japan, everything got mixed up and cobbled together. With the rise and fall of political fortunes, what the “sacred space” was honoring also shifted from a god of wind and water to a harvest deity to, during the middle ages, a god of war. These days it’s considered the life source and a guardian deity. What that means in modern Japan is open to interpretation. Onbashira has continued through it all.
The festival’s fortunes have similarly experienced rises and falls. There was a period during the middle ages when it almost died out, then experienced a revival in the early 1800s. Records say that at the time mountains and valleys were a solid mass of people throughout the festival. Also during that period the festival’s regional organic nature began to shift as particular pillars were assigned to specific villages. By the turn of the century it had turned into such a sake fueled spectacle that stricter regulations were introduced.
Today, alcohol is strictly prohibited during the festival for those pulling the logs. Kiotoshi, riding the logs down the hill, is a relatively recent innovation. Like the festival itself, no one knows when or how it began. Safe to say it started after the revival and before alcohol was banned. Standing on the pillars as they are being raised during Tateonbashira has more symbolic importance than bombing down the hillside and is likely the older of the traditions by far.
Until not so long ago, Onbashira involved not just changing the pillars and rebuilding the treasure hall, but rebuilding the entire shrine. The tradition changed with a decline in the native forest, reinforcing the ecological nature of the festival.
So while Onbashira’s form has evolved greatly, the locals’ passion for their periodic festival of renewal remains unchanged.