The text below is from a speech by the kiyari maestro Akiko Tamura (pictured above). The videos following each section present examples of the different kinds of kiyari.
For Kiyari we sing a special kind of song in a high tone, to set the timing for everyone to pull the Onbashira. Kiyari plays other important parts, too, like inviting the mountain gods to Onbashira and also sending them back home.
Kiyari has two kinds of songs. One is “Shinji no Kiyari”. As I just said Kiyari sings to invite the gods from the mountains.
The other kind of Kiyari song is a signal for participants to pull the pillars. Compared with “Shinji no Kiyari”, working kiyari is really high pitched and short. The song’s lyrics change depending on the situation. Sometimes we encourage people, sometimes we pray for their safety. Things like this.
Kiyari is for the people who participate in this festival to make their hearts as one, but only listening Kiyari isn’t very useful. After Kiyari, you see people responding with “Yoisa” three times, pushing their hands in the air. That is the most important point, saying “Yoisa” together, making all people’s hearts be one.
On April 8th, Minato’s Harumiya 4 pillar had their Yamadashi, the first part of the Onbashira festival. From the start at Tanakoba far up the Higashi-mata Valley to the end point at Shimekake, it was a raucous and energetic day. Kiotoshi, the pillar riding ceremony, was one for the ages. Shoichi Ajisawa was at the Hananori position at the front of the pillar (pictured above). Once again this year Kiotoshi was smooth and incident free.
The first video covers Yamadashi up through Kiotoshi. The fall is at 7:00, but the false starts before are an interesting part of the process. The view is from the top of the slope.
Next, the moment that started off Kiotoshi—the Yoki-tori, Hidetomo Yamazaki, cutting the rope to send the pillar on its way. From 7:30
And finally, a unique view of Kiotoshi from the bottom of the hill…and a close call!
The Yoki-tori (斧取り) has a unique and important role in Onbashira. He uses a ceremonial ax to cut the rope that holds the hashira suspended over the edge of the log riding slope (kiotoshi–zaka). When the blade slices through the air, severing the rope, the pillar falls. There’s enormous pressure to cut it cleanly in one go. This year’s Yoki-tori for the Harumiya 4 pillar is Hidetomo Yamazaki. When asked what he’s most looking forward to during the festival, he said, “Connecting with everyone and concentrating on cutting the rope!” The short video of his recent practice below shows he’s off to a good start!
“For Onbashira,” 2016. With the official Suwa-taisha seal
Generally speaking, Onbashira is not a children’s activity, for obvious reasons. They do take part in pulling with the village families way out in front of the pillar, where there’s a laid back, almost carnival like atmosphere (as opposed to the wildness around the hashira). Some children also play a prominent role in the festivities by joining kodomo-no-kiyari. The “Kiyari Kids” spend a long time practicing Onbashira’s songs of encouragement. The tradition has been around at least since the fifties, and it’s one way that the festival is passed on to the next generation.
It felt like having slipped into an old and familiar skin. Old and familiar, yet somehow brand new. Walking down the street toward the village community center where we’d have the first motozuna-shu (log hauling crew) gathering of the festival, I felt oddly collected in my Onbashira attire. I hadn’t worn it in full since Onbashira wrapped up more than six years before. I remembered the first time I put the uniform on back then, feeling awkward, nervous even. True, I wasn’t sure if I’d gotten the uniform down right, but it was more a matter of having no idea what to expect. And then half-wondering what I’d gotten myself into. But this late February day was entirely different. The soft sun already leaned toward spring. One of the old kiyari singers called out as he trundled past on his basket bike, tassled singing wand flowing in the breeze. This time I knew exactly what I was in for.
The announcements didn’t last long. And even the requisite speeches that start off virtually all events were kept mercifully short. As expected, this particular gathering wouldn’t be an exercise in pre-historic manual labor. The paleo workout crowd would jive with Onbashira, for sure–at least the massive pillar hauling bit. Maybe less so all the carbs that flowed after kanpai (cheers).
Let’s get this show on the road
Officially this gathering was called a kekki-taikai, with a nuance somewhere between “get the show on the road” and “prepare for liftoff.” Indeed the point, as stated numerous times in the speeches, was ketsudan, or group cohesion. In Japanese culture such gatherings are indispensable lubrication for harmoniously functioning groups. This afternoon was for the motozuna-shu folks to get their festival groove on, to imbibe in the Onbashira spirit, to remember that sense of being “one.” So cohere we did.
Pouring the drink of others: a true gentleman
At some point they started up video footage of our hashira (pillar) from 2010. It was fun seeing so many of the same faces in the room, all six years older. Having gone through Onbashira together, there is a connection there that reaches beyond the day-to-day.
Watching scenes of Haru-yon, Minato’s pillar, Onbashira 2010
And then the kiyari singers hit the stage. For me, their wails have always echoed the deep past, especially when the lyrics evoke the mountain realm. This is one part of Onbashira that children are encouraged to participate in. Relatively few do these days, but for those who undertake the training, it’s an education in local tradition that they would never get at school.
Getting on towards evening, they busted out the debut of the call and response that will be a sort of vocal signature for Minato’s pillar throughout the festival. Each pillar comes up with their own version, and each time is somewhat different. This is an elaboration of 2010’s version, recycling the “Minato, Yoisa!” refrain.
With a few words the party was over. The entire room swung into action, and in about ten minutes the place was cleaned up and everyone was heading out the door. Now that’s a cohesive group.
The video below contains a series of scenes from kiotoshi, Onbashira’s famous log riding eventin Shimosuwa. Parishioners sit on mammoth pillars and slide (or try to slide) down a none-too-gradual slope. This video from the 1992 festival is in Japanese, but the action speaks for itself. The main show starts about 1:15.
The video’s title reads: Onbashira! This is the real deal!