Except for the final event of setting up the pillars (Tateonbashira), Onbashira is a festival on the move. While there are reserved viewing areas available, getting seats is expensive, not guaranteed (for some seats/events there’s a lottery system), and by definition hampers your freedom of movement. One of the thrills of Onbashira is walking and mingling and taking in the energy from various spots along the way. The seats pull you out of the action. So we can’t recommend them.
Coming by train, access is from Shimo-suwa Station. Check the map on the Shimosha page or follow the crowds to find the action. (Also check the Shimosha page for festival details.) The log riding (kiotoshi) hill is about 4 km away.
For Yamadashi, in the past there has been some free seating on tarps down by the river, which isn’t bad for a while. You’ll be able to watch the logs drop from there, if from a distance. Once you’ve seen a couple that way, if you have time and are feeling adventurous, I’d recommend heading up into the neighborhood above the log riding slope (the blue route on the bottom of the Shimosha page will get you there). At that point the logs are moving forward pretty slowly, waiting for the preceding pillars to fall. But the atmosphere along the road and through the neighborhood is festive. The chances of not constantly being offered cups of sake are slim.
The further up into the hills you go during Yamadashi, the fewer spectators there are. This is fun too, if you don’t mind the walking. Getting up there fairly early will give you a unique perspective. See the Shimosha page for times.
For Satobiki (pulling to the shrines, in May), the general pattern is the same as Kamisha below.
Access to Kamisha’s Onbashira by train is via Chino Station. The basics for exploring the festival are similar to Shimosha. Both the Kiotoshi slope and the crossing point for the Miya River are less than 2 km from the station. See the Kamisha Onbashira page for a map and festival details.
The lay of the land is quite different from Shimosha, the crowds of spectators during Yamadashi (in April) tend to be a bit more disperse, and the Yamadashi route runs a lot longer. One trick with Yamadashi is to use the many roughly parallel roads that run along the main route for movement. The main route can be a real crush…fun to watch, not so fun to move against (though you’d be amazed how many people try to).
For Satobiki (the part of the festival in May), there’s action going on all along the route between Onbashira-yashiki (Shimekake for Shimosha) and the shrines the whole time. This overall situation is the same for both Shimosha and Kamisha. There’s always something to see, so grab a drink, stroll about, and enjoy.
Food for thought
Lately I’ve seen warnings for tourists about the festival–fat bold-faced fonts warning people to steer clear of the pillars. Maybe this is just intended to heighten the sense of danger, or done out of an abundance of caution, but let me reassure you–in the places where there actually is a level of danger (aka. the log riding slope), you’re not going to be anywhere near the path of the log. For spectators, Onbashira is completely safe.
Whatever you do, have a blast! The parishioners sure are!