Once every six years, thousands of people gather in the Suwa region to chop, ride, and raise massive 50-foot logs during Japan’s Onbashira Festival—an ancient Shinto tradition that’s been taking place for more than 1,200 years!
Onbashira, or Sacred Pillars, is a two-month-long event to replace the sacred pillars at four shrines, thereby purifying the sites for prayer. The pageantry unfolds in three stages, Yamadashi, Satbiki, and Onbashira.
Yamadashi entails locating and felling 16 massive 150-year-old fir trees. An iconic feature of the region these mammoth firs can each weigh more than ten tons each. Once they are down, woodmen get to work completely removing the branches and bark from the trunk before cutting it to about 50 feet in length. Ropes are stung through the massive hunk of wood and it is often left to dry for a brief period of time.
The second ceremony is called Satbiki, and is perhaps the most well-known outside the region. Hundreds of men haul the logs up steep hills using ropes, then ride down to the shrine while trying their best to stay on the log. It’s considered an incredible honor to ride the logs, but staying on is difficult and very dangerous. The ten-ton logs often leave injuries and can even kill people. Anyone who falls off the log also tries their best to jump back on, but are often repelled by the careening tree trunk or crushed underneath.
After reaching the shrine, the final ceremony is simply called Onbashira and involves raising the log upright with ropes and securing it at the shrine. During this process, riders will still try to hold on and wave streamers from high in the air.
In the past 50 years, there have been fatal incidents at the festival, often involving multiple people. People have been drowned under the logs, crushed under falling logs, and have even fallen from the top while it was being erected. Despite the risks posed by Onbashira, participants consider their deaths honorable if they happen in the festivities.