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!

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.



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

Whirlwind clean-up: the fastest show on Earth



Coming down the mountain…

The video below contains a series of scenes from kiotoshi, Onbashira’s famous log riding event in 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!