A Beginner’s Guide

The Onbashira Festival (御柱祭) is a celebration unique to the Suwa area of Nagano Prefecture, central Japan. It takes place every six years, in the zodiac periods of the Tiger and the Monkey. Locals choose sixteen giant fir trees deep in the surrounding mountains to become the Onbashira pillars (hashira).  In April of Onbashira years, they haul them by hand toward town in an event known as Yamadashi. In May, once spring has settled in, they pull them the rest of the way and raise them in the corners of the Suwa shrines (four pillars at each of the four shrines). This part of the festival is called Satobiki, and Tateonbashira, the standing of the pillars, is the culmination of the celebration. The whole flow of events, from choosing the trees years prior, to hauling the logs, to raising them on the shrine grounds is “Onbashira.”

The six towns and villages of the Suwa area all participate, and locals join in hauling their specific pillars as a community, sometimes numbering in the thousands. For the people of Suwa, Onbashira isn’t just a festival; life events are often reckoned according to its cycles. The parishioners put their whole body and soul into the process of bringing the pillars to town, making it a passionate and intensely energetic spectacle. As one participant said, “For us, Onbashira is life.”

Onbashira’s roots lie in Shinto, the homegrown Japanese worldview, and date back thousands of years. It’s tied to the Suwa Grand Shrine, one of the oldest in Japan, with branches located throughout the country. These branch shrines hold their own Onbashira celebrations as well, though dates vary. The four venues that make up the Grand Shrine are all near Suwa Lake, at the heart of the region. The two shrines on the Shimosuwa side of the lake, Akimiya and Harumiya, are collectively referred to as Shimosha. On the opposite side of the lake, at the foot of Mt. Moriya, Maemiya and Honmiya are known as Kamisha.

In fact, Onbashira doesn’t end with the Grand Shrines’ festivities; the neighborhood shrines throughout the Suwa Basin are all affiliated with the Grand Shrine. From late May, they celebrate their own Onbashira festivals over the following six months, bringing pillars down from the local mountains. Virtually every hill and woodland in the Suwa area hosts a shrine or sacred site—some of them are regular wooden shrines, some are old trees, some great mossy stones.

The entire Suwa area is known in Japan as a “power spot,” a center of mystical energy, and it has been considered a sacred land from ancient times. Onbashira is one way the age-old traditions that ritualized the people’s relationship to the natural world around them carry on today. And it’s performed with a zeal that must be seen to be believed.