Onbashira is Everywhere

In the weeks leading up to the festival, the Suwa area is awash with Onbashira.

At the supermarket

At the supermarket

At the train station

At the train station

Make a wish...

Make a wish…

At the department store

At the department store

In the teacher's room

In the teacher’s room

On vending machines

On vending machines

At company offices

At company offices

At the post office

At the post office

On the beer...

On the beer…

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And more beer!

Last One Before

The last gathering before Yamadashi, held at the community center in Minato. Roughly 300 parishioners attended.

Makeshift shrine

Makeshift shrine

Rousing the troops

Rousing the troops   Photo by Emi Yamazaki

Heads of the different teams. Left to Right: Kizukuri, Oikake-zuna, Teko, Motozuna. The last two in white are this year's O-gohei

Heads of the different teams. Left to Right: Kizukuri, Oikake-zuna, Teko, Motozuna. The last two in white are this year’s O-gohei

Header photo: Breaking open celebratory sake barrels   By Emi Yamazaki

Kizukuri ・ Preparing the Pillars

A few weeks before Shimosha’s Onbashira, the unjiko (parishioners) perform an important undertaking called Kizukuri. This is where they make the final preparations to the pillar before Yamadashi. The work is managed by the Kizukuri-shu. They cut the logs so that the harnesses and ropes can be attached and otherwise get the hashira roadworthy. Following that, the Motozuna-shu attaches the harnesses in a job known as wana-guri.

Image above and other 2016 photos courtesy of Akiko Tamura

Moving the hashira into position

Moving the hashira into position 2016

Teko-shu in action 2016

Teko-shu in action 2016

Kizukuri, preparing the log 2010

Kizukuri, preparing the log 2010

Making the cut, 2010

Cutting the holes the harnesses slide through, 2010

Kiyari encouragement, 2010

Kiyari encouragement, 2010

The following wanagiri shots are from just before Satobiki 2010. Included here to show the harness making process.

Wanaguri, attatching the cables 2010

Wanaguri, attatching the cables 2010

Wrapping the harness, 2010

Wrapping the harness with burlap, 2010

And then rice straw rope

Leaving the pillars with two fat harnesses for the two pulling ropes.

Leaving the pillars with two fat harnesses for the two pulling ropes.

Onbashira Practice

Last weekend we had a “practice” for Haru-yon, Minato’s pillar at Shimosha. It will be the lead pillar of the festival there on April 8th. This day all the different groups gathered at Funatama Shrine for a mock run-through, pulling the hashira along the old Kamakura highway and then up into the hills a bit before returning to the shrine. It was a good reminder that hauling pillars engages a different set of muscles than what you use day-to-day. I also learned the futility of trying to take photos while in the midst of the action. Anyway, the scenery of the Suwa Basin is nice.

 

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Kiyari singers on the hill

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Predictably followed by an after party. This one on the grounds of the village hall, very literally a “community center.”

And we were treated to some stellar Kiyari singing as well, particularly from Hitomi Hanaoka, one of the new generation doing the old traditions proud.

First Gathering

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 party rollin'

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

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

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.

Whirlwind clean-up: the fastest show on Earth

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