Kokoro-hitotsu (心ひとつ), One Heart, is Onbashira’s constant refrain. In our fragmented modern society, it serves as a reminder of our collective well-being, that we’re not just a welter of individuals, that we need each other absolutely.  This blog will mostly follow the movements of Harumiya’s fourth pillar, familiarly known as Haru-yon.  Minato, a collection of villages now a part of the city of Okaya, has been in charge of that pillar for over a century.

The blog will also introduce aspects of the festival mostly unknown to non-Japanese speaking audiences in the form of translated articles, blog posts, etc.  Interviews with  important members of the Onbashira community are also planned.  At the very least the blog hopes to offer some new perspectives on the festival while conveying something of its essence. Anyway, it will be a running record of Onbashira 2016. Thanks for your interest, and as they say, have a safe, fun, festival. Yoisa!


The Next Generation

One thing that’s always interesting is seeing the area’s young people get involved with Onbashira. While children can participate with the “kodomo no kiyari” and often join their families near the front of the Onbashira procession, the actual work of pulling the hashira is reserved for those who have come of age. While a young man’s first Onbashira was likely a rite of passage across the region, these days the number of young participants is dwindling. How to effectively pass the tradition on in the 21st century is a real issue. The public schools typically don’t touch the subject, the curriculum being cookie-cut by bureaucrats in Tokyo and Nagano City. The bulk of teachers are transferred in from outside the region, too, so at best Onbashira is viewed as a local oddity. Once, at a local middle school just before Onbashira 2010, the baseball coach gave the team a real dressing down:

“Onbashira’s coming up, but there are times it’ll conflict with practice. You’ve got to decide. You want to do Onbashira or be on this team. Think about it!”

Even without such pressure, many young people could care less about the tradition. Some even find it decidedly uncool.  But there is a percentage of young people who are crazy about Onbashira and have taken to it with particular zeal.

For this post, we interviewed a handful of young motozuna-shu (ropes crew) members. In their early 20s, for all except one this was their first time having a role in the festival.  One of the friends participated in 2010 when he was just 16–he was the youngest to ride the pillar coming down the slope this year.

Their answers have been edited and condensed in some places.

What did you think about Onbashira when you were in school? What kind of education did you get surrounding the festival? Do you think it was sufficient?

We didn’t understand much about it in those days, but had a sense that it was a festival for the grownups. We thought it was cool, though.

There wasn’t much as far as “education” around Onbashira. Not enough at all, actually. We learned from what our fathers told us, or through pulling with our families. That gave us a “feel” for it.

How do you feel about Onbashira now?

As we get older, we’ve come to see it’s importance and understand how we’ll value it from here on in.  Actually having a role in the festival, seeing everyone working together to do their part and the unity that comes from that is really special. It’s good to feel a part of it, and we look forward to contributing more in the future. And because it’s a festival, of course we look forward to having fun!

What kind of Onbashira did you want to have this time?

Since it was the first time (for most of us), just having fun pulling the pillar and experiencing the atmosphere was enough. There weren’t many young people, so we wanted to help boost the energy level and make our Onbashira mentors proud.  We also wanted to help Minato (the neighborhood), learn more about Onbashira, and see it in a new light.

“Having the honor of doing kiotoshi, I tried to join in with all the enthusiasm I could.”

What was the most fun part? What was the toughest?

Most fun:

-The moments when everyone’s action merged together and our hearts became one (kokoro-hitotsu).

-Seeing kiotoshi up close (gave me goosebumps)

-The log riding! And seeing everyone safe.


-Finding the balance with work.

-Not enough toilets.

-Handling the ropes involves different techniques, and there should be more instruction regarding that.

What would you like to say the young people in the area?

Come join the party! We want to show everyone what the young guys here are made of, so we need as many as possible to join in. We need your help to make Onbashira more fun than ever.

Is there any aspect of the festival you’d like to see change?

-Keep to the time schedule.

-Improve relations between people in the area and within the group. Important not to just insist on what we want, but to try to understand each other

How do you see Onbashira in the future? Tell us something about your hopes and vision for the festival.

-While preserving the old traditions, would like to see it become a more open event.

-There’s nothing else like it, so want people from all over the world to come and see.

-Need to get more young people interested by educating them about the festival. With lots of people participating it’ll be even more fun.

-Would like to continue this awesome festival that’s been passed down to us, while making sure people understand and respect the tradition. And since relationships are so important, to respect each other, too.

Anything you’d like to say to our readers?

-If you’re interested, please make the trip to Suwa!

-Onbashira’s probably the most thrilling festival in Japan, so try to check it out sometime!

-People here are really into Onbashira! It’s got a lot of history too.

Anything else you’d like to mention?

-Looking forward to our neighborhood’s Onbashira in the fall!
-I’m really glad we made it through without any injuries.
-I want to help Minato’s Onbashira light to keep on shining.


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.

Kiyari’s role

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.

Ceremonial Kiyari

Kiyari has two kinds of songs. One is “Shinji no Kiyari”.  As I just said Kiyari sings to invite the gods from the mountains.


Working Kiyari

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.

Harumiya 4’s Yamadashi (video edition)

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!

Top photo by Emi Yamazaki

The Pillar Riders: An Interview

As Shimosha’s Yamadashi fast approaches, a few words about the norite (nori-tay), the guys who ride the pillars down the slope, seem appropriate. The Hananori holds the honorary position at the very front of the pillar. We’ll talk about that special role in a separate post after Yamadashi.

As is mentioned elsewhere on the site, riding the pillars down the log riding slope is a relatively recent phenomenon. In typical Onbashira fashion, no one’s quite sure when or how it began. Even so, it has become an integral part of the celebration. Shimosha’s pillar riding has become so renowned that for many it is synonymous with Onbashira itself.

To become a norite, first a participant has to seriously want to do it. Then the elders and other people of responsibility in the Onbashira community decide if he is fit for the role. (Someone with only a passing relationship with the community wouldn’t be considered.)

So why would people do such a thing? Fumiaki Aruga of Minato’s Harumiya 4 pillar will be going down the slope once again Friday afternoon. In the photo at the top of the page, he’s the one standing on the pillar, dressed in red, closest to the front. Fumiaki was kind enough to answer a few questions for the blog. Check out what he had to say about being a norite and holding a role at the epicenter of the Onbashira celebration.

Q: How many times have you participated in Onbashira?

Fumiaki: This is my 5th time, my first being when I was 16.

Q: How many times have you ridden the Harumiya 4 pillar down the slope?

Fumiaki: This week will be my fourth time.

Q: So many people wonder why anyone would do this. Well, why do you?

Fumiaki: It’s like they sing in kiyari: “Now we bring the great tree from deep in the mountains down to the village to become a god.” Being chosen to accompany the pillar down the tough pass at the kiotoshi-zaka [log riding slope] is a great honor.

Q: What do you want to aim for during the festival?

Fumiaki: Doing my best and, along with the sacred pillar, overcoming the different obstacles we’ll encounter at the slope. And then to continue pulling without mishap.

Q: Do you have a message for the young people of Suwa?

Fumiaki: First of all, actually take part in Onbashira. Not just by pulling as a regular parishioner, but by joining one of the teams [ie. teko-shu, motozuna-shu]. From there, be sure to take an interest in why we hold the festival.

Q: Anything you’d like to say to the people reading this around the world?

Fumiaki: This isn’t just a “crazy” festival. It’s a grand celebration with real meaning and tradition behind it. Definitely, learn more about it on this blog.

Thank you Fumiaki, that’s a fine idea!  We pray for the safety of the norite, and everyone’s great success.

Harumiya 4 is the leading pillar of Shimosha’s Onbashira. Come out to see it (and Fumiaki!) go down the slope this Friday, April 8th, at 1 PM. A map (along with other schedule info) is at the bottom of the Onbashira in Shimosuwa page.

Photo: Harumiya 4’s Kiotoshi, 2010  By Emi Yamazaki

Bonus: Video of Harumiya 4’s 2010 descent. The actual sliding starts at about 4 minutes.

Yoshi Does Onbashira

Today our friend Yoshi, who was on the ground in Chino over the weekend, has kindly provided a guest post. His photos and a couple videos follow bellow!

Hi! This is Yoshihiro Aruga. I’m one of those Kamisha Ujiko [parishioners] who is under the protection of the Suwa grand Upper shrine.  Yamadashi festival of the Onbashira-sai festival finally took place on April 2nd and April 3rd. (For some, they had Yamadashi festival for three days.)  Our neighborhood won the Honmiya-ichi log, which is the biggest  among the eight sacred logs. How big is the log? It’s 3.3m in circumference and 18m in length.   Yeah. It is big!!!  And it’s been 96 years since the last time we won the biggest log. (Last time in 1920)  It was so good and exciting to drag this big log with people from Shiga area and Toyoda area. (My neighborhood is Shiga, 四賀) I wore a happi [festival jacket] with my neighborhood’s name in Kanji on the back. I was so proud of taking part in this sacred festival.  Every time we dragged the log for some distance, the process started with Kiyari song to put every one’s effort and strength together, which gives you the feelings of unison as well. We needed to make it through this sharp turn called Oomagari, which takes maneuver skills to get the log through the turn. This also had to be done with everyone’s effort in unison.  Afterwards, there was one challenging spot between my grandma’s Japanese traditional storage house called Kura and the power poll which will remind you of something like a puzzle ring. Some  onbashira logs hit the roof of the storage house and brushed against the pine tree when they passed the spot.  After that, Ujiko people dragged the log all the way down to the Kiotoshi-zaka hill. The honmiya ichi onbashira log rested overnight for the two main events of the Yamadashi festival which would take place next day.

   Early in the morning on April 3rd, Ujiko of Shiga/Toyoda area gathered at the kiohotoshi-zaka hill. Every one of them had been looking forward to this Kiotoshi log-sliding for a long time. I was so excited about the chance that I could see the event so close and be part of the event with my family (My dad, wife, 7 years old son, my big brother and his family who visited us for the festival from Tokyo).

  After a day of the festival, I realized how great we can live day by day like now. My dad is in his mid 60s now.  I remembered him telling his ex-coworker that he was glad to bump into him in the festival and both seemed to be in good health.  I thought he was exaggerating a bit about that, but now I can understand how he felt and what he really meant now.  My sister-in-law was with us last time and we made good memories from the festival, but she passed away 3 years ago.   Thinking about this, I realized how important and grateful it is to be able to share this festival and this moment with my family and beloved ones. My parents might not be with me next time.  My wife or my son might not be with me there to share the feelings and the moment.  Or another important person might not be with me next time in 2022. This every-6-years event is not only the sacred festival but also it might be the way to confirm how grateful we can feel about our life.  I think I can highly appreciate this special festival in many ways now.  So I’m looking forward to enjoying the 2nd half event called Satobiki with the important people in May.

The logs followed this schedule:

Yamadashi festival of the Onbashira-sai festival(The log-dragging from the mountain to the rest point)

On April 2nd

Start at 7:30am

Pass Oomagari big turns in Anayama area

Arrive at log-sliding hill around 5:30pm


On April 3rd

Start at 8am

Hold the Shinto rites and the ceremony

Slide down the Kiotoshi-zaka or “the log-sliding hill or slope” at 9am

Cross the Miyagawa river to purify the log around 1:30pm

Arrive at Ankoku-ji temple’s Onbashira yashiki rest place around 2:30pm

Onbashira festival starts!!! Our sacred log is Hon Miya ich which means Main shrine #1. The largest log among 8 logs

Onbashira festival starts!!! Our sacred log is Hon Miya ich which means Main shrine #1. The largest log among 8 logs

On April 2nd, dragging the hon Miya 1 log to set it up for the log sliding.

The log sliding of Honmiya 1 is under preparation

The log sliding of Honmiya 1 is under preparation

The log sliding of Honmiya 1 is under preparation

Hon 2, Nakasu and Konami destroying grandma’s pine tree.

From the view of my grandma ‘s house. The medo branch hitting her Kura storage house at Onbashira festival. Go go Hon ichi

Eating Yosakoi roll or Onbashira roll with the background of Hon Miya ichi's log-sliding on TV. This is how you can end the Onbashira day.

Eating Yosakoi roll or Onbashira roll with the background of Hon Miya ichi’s log-sliding on TV. This is how you can end the Onbashira day.



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 (kiotoshizaka). 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

“For Onbashira,” 2016. With the official Suwa-taisha seal