Onbashira 2022

Latest news and information

January 23
(Updated info in green)

Onbashira 2022 is still scheduled to take place between April 2 and June 15. Japan is in the midst of another upsurge of Covid-19 and remains closed to international travel. The situation may change concerning business and media travel by festival time, but it’s too soon to tell. From the U.S. Embassy in Japan:

“Travel for tourism and most other short-term purposes is still not permitted, and there is no indication that this will change in the short term. Visa-free travel is suspended. Travelers who believe they qualify for an exception to Japan’s strict entry controls should contact their nearest Japanese Embassy or consulate for information.”

On the ground in Suwa, in an attempt to check the spread of virus, Suwa Taisha (the shrine that holds Onbashira) has just announced Covid-19 guidelines for Onbashira 2022. This includes all the events listed on the Flow of Events page, as well as kiotoshi (the famous pillar riding down the mountainside) on April 3 and 4 for the Kamisuwa / Chino shrines, and April 8 – 10 for the Shimosuwa shrines.

At this point, they’re asking people from outside the Suwa area to avoid traveling to the region for the festival. There’s no indication how, or if, this applies to those in the media. In 2016 over 1.5 million visitors attended the festivities.

Furthermore, Suwa Taisha has announced that if the prefectural Covid risk level reaches “level 4,” kiotoshi (the pillar riding) will be cancelled. In that case, they’ll truck the pillars to the shrines and use machinery to raise them. As kiotoshi is only part of a series of Onbashira events, how this potential cancellation relates to the rest of the flow is unclear.

Even if Onbashira 2022 takes place as planned, local participants will have to either a) have been vaccinated or b) test negative within 72 hours of the festival. In all likelihood, the various pillars / neighborhoods will have their own additional policies as well (requiring masks, for example).

Tickets to view
That all said, the local committees have decided to press forward with selling reserved seating (this info is for viewing Shimosha’s pillar riding). Covid guidelines for ticket holders will also be in place. Social distancing does not seem to be on the agenda (both in terms of seating and busing ticket holders to the site). They’re also asking any visitors to keep away from the routes the pillars are pulled down. Seats for viewing the pillar riding range from 17,000 to 27,000 yen (~150 – 240 USD). There’s a lottery for ticket purchase. Registration is open until midnight, January 30 JST at the following link (Japanese language only)
Further details are on the PDFs linked to beneath the photos (also in Japanese).

But is it really happening?
There are still questions about whether the festival will actually take place. Some organizations have said they’ll make their decisions immediately preceding the festival. This includes the ones selling the reserved seating. It’s entirely possible people will purchase tickets, only to find out at the 11th hour that public viewing has been cancelled. This applies to the festival as a whole.

From Suwa Taisha’s point of view, Onbashira is a Shinto ritual first and foremost, which means replacing the pillars at the shrines. In their way of thinking, the festival of the community actually bringing the pillars down from the mountains is a whole different thing.

Basically, Onbashira in terms of changing the pillars will be happening come spring no matter what. Whether the locals have a real hand in the process and the festival they all know and love takes place is another question entirely. Even with the guidelines in place, there’s still a big question mark hanging over Onbashira 2022. Many of the preparations are behind schedule, and few of the gatherings people usually hold in the lead up to the festival are taking place. Most of the locals I speak with wonder whether the festival will happen at all. At this point, my own opinion is that, despite the guidelines, it could go either way.

Check back for the latest news and information on Onbashira 2022. Updates will be available here and on our Onbashira Facebook page as new information becomes available.

*Featured image: Emi Yamazaki, 2016