It is a bit hard to argue with a festival that has been going on, without pause, for over 1200 years. The situation is made even more fascinating when you realize that Japan’s Onbashira Festival involves a real life, and way cooler although incredibly dangerous version, of Walt Disney World’s Splash Mountain. Once every six years, either the Year of the Monkey or the Year of the Tiger, thousands of people gather at Lake Suwa, 120 miles west of Tokyo, to chop, ride, and raise massive logs.
The festival is part of an ancient Shinto tradition that uses the massive trees to purify its shrines. The event lasts for two months, beginning in April and ending in June. Like anything that has been around for 1200 years, there are many specific rituals that are required as part of the festival. Phase 1 involves locating trees around Lake Suwa that have 3-foot diameters and are 50 feet long. On average, these trees are 150 years old and weigh over 10 tons. Once chopped down, lumberjacks remove the branches and bark. They also carve out a notch where ropes are attached. In all, 16 logs are needed for the ceremony.
In phase 2, each log must be dragged six miles to a Shinto shrine. Along the way, the lumberjacks turn into lumber riders. There are two hills between the forest and the shrine. At the first hill, Kamisha, there is a gentle slope. Here, the holy logs are decorated with ‘antlers,’ also known as 2x4s covered with streamers. On each of these antlers stand forty lumberjacks. It is a great honor to ride on this log, with the most respected individual in front. As thousands watch, the logs, with riders atop, are pulled over the hill, as the log slides to the bottom. If the log gets stuck, spectators help pull it to the bottom.
The fanfare of singers, music, and brightly colored costumes continues at the second hill, known as Shimosha. What are missing are the antlers and the confidence. Shimosha is very steep and without antlers to create drag, the logs fly down the hill. The same loggers and lumberjacks must now hold on desperately and enjoy the ride, which is known as kiotoshi. Those who survive will participate in the final part of the ceremony, Onbashira, the ceremonial raising of the logs outside the shrine. This process gives its name to the whole festival. Here, lumberjacks must ride the logs as they are raised vertically.
The dangers of the log riding are very real. Every festival, severe injuries result. In 2010, two men died during the final log raising. In 2004, two men drowned as they helped carry a log across a river. Tragically, another fatality occurred this year during the log raising. A 41-year-old man riding the log as it was elevated outside of the Shinto shrine, fell over forty feet to the ground. Despite a new rule that all participants must wear a harness, the deceased failed to followed this prerequisite. The man, Yukihiro Kusakabe from Nagano Prefecture, will be noted in history, as according to Shinto beliefs, any death resulting from participation in Onbashira is considered honorable and worthy of rememberance.