One of Japan’s oldest traditions but it can be potentially deadly
Have you ever dreamed of sliding down a mountain on a giant log? Probably not, but if on the off chance you want to try it out, you should head to the Onbashira Festival, held in the Nagano prefecture of Japan.
The religious festival is held over two months. However, locals say the preparations often begin three years in advance. The celebration occurs every six years, so if you were hanging out for the ride of a lifetime you’ll be waiting around a while since the previous festival has just concluded.
It is believed the tradition originated around 1200 years ago and symbolically renews the Grand Shrine. It is one of Japan’s oldest continuous festivals and also believed to be the most dangerous.
Yamadashi literally means “coming out of the mountains.” Before this portion of the festival, huge trees are cut down in a Shinto ceremony using axes and adzes specially manufactured for this single use. The logs are decorated in red and white regalia, the traditional colors of Shinto ceremonies, and ropes are attached. During Yamadashi, teams of men drag the logs down the mountain towards the four shrines of Suwa Taisha. The course of the logs goes over rough terrain, and at certain points, the logs must be skidded or dropped down steep slopes. Young men prove their bravery by riding the logs down the hill in a ceremony known as Kiotoshi (“tree falling”).
The second section of the festival, Satobiki, involves the same teams putting right the 10-ton logs which will be providing support for the religious Shrines for the next six years. During this section of the ceremony, it is common to see multiple men riding the logs and fighting for the front position on the log, a spot which is traditionally reserved for the brave and valiant.
Do not be fooled by the longevity of the festival. At every festival, many accidents are reported and even the occasional death. The celebrants don’t care. For these men, death during the festival is considered an honorable occasion, and their families will be joyous and experience no mourning.
This year, Yukihiro Kusakabe died when he fell more than 40 feet from one of the logs as it was being raised on the grounds of a shrine.