The Year of the Tiger roars back in 2022 and so does Onbashira Matsuri. This ancient festival, dating back more than 1,200 years, once again takes place in the communities around Lake Suwa in southern Nagano.
The Onbashira Matsuri is not only one of Japan’s oldest festivals, it is also one of the most dangerous. The matsuri is actually an elaborate Shinto ritual that plays out in the mountains, forests and rivers around Lake Suwa to replace four sacred pillars at each of the four shrines that comprise the Suwa Taisha (Suwa Grand Shrine). It all unfolds over two months in spring, once every six years on the Year of the Tiger and the Year of the Monkey.
Suwa Taisha is one of Japan’s oldest shrines and the birthplace—and headquarters—of the 10,000 Suwa shrines dotted around Japan. Villagers prepare for Onbashira by selecting sixteen enormous fir trees to become the sacred pillars (one in each corner of each shrine). Only those that are more than 150 years old and 17 meters tall are worthy of the honor.
Onbashira‘s reputation as one of Japan’s most dangerous festivals is due to the number of locals that have died during the yamadashi (coming out of the mountains) ritual, where trees weighing as much as twelve tons are dragged down mountains, then ridden down steep 27-degree slopes in a show of courage. They are then carried across the frigid Miyagawa River where the logs are ceremoniously washed by the snow-fed waters that can drop to single digits. While the satobiki (pillar raising) ritual, held a month later, is less adrenaline-fueled, it is no less spectacular—or dangerous. Participants have also died while falling from atop the logs while they are paraded through the town or erected at the shrines.
There is no shortage of pageantry as beautiful horses prance, hanagasa dances are performed, the unforgettable high pitched Onbashira songs sung throughout, and countless traditions passed down from generation to generation take place while townspeople enjoy the street party they’ve meticulously prepared for leading up to the festivities.
As the festivities take place over many weeks, there is plenty of time for visitors to explore the surrounding area. It is a great cycling region highlighted by the 70-kilometer Venus Line that goes from Shimosuwa up to Kirigamine, the Kurumayama Plateau, Lake Shirakaba and then on to the tourist area of Tateshina before dropping down into Chino and looping back to Lake Suwa. The area is famous for miso and sake, so try to include a stop at Masumi, a well-known sake brewer on the northeast side of the lake between Kamisuwa and Shimosuwa. If you are lucky, long-term resident and international sales director, Keith Norum, will be in to share his extensive knowledge of their sake and the brewing process.
Lake Suwa is an onsen destination blessed with many hot springs and hot spring inns. There are footpaths and public baths including the Katakurakan’s famous “Sennin-buro” (thousand person hot spring), which is Japan’s oldest recreational onsen and designated as an important cultural property.
By car it takes about two hours and 30 minutes from Tokyo (Shinjuku) to the Suwa I.C. or two hours and 40 minutes from Nagoya to the Suwa I.C. on the Chuo Expressway. By train, it’s two hours and 35 minutes on the Super Azusa from Shinjuku Station to Kami-Suwa Staton (there are no shinkansen) or two hours and 40 minutes on the Shinano Limited Express from Nagoya. Shinshu Matsumoto Airport also has flights from Sapporo (90 minutes) or Fukuoka (two hours and 50 minutes). Matsumoto is about 30 minutes from Lake Suwa by car or train.
When: Yamadashi: Apr. 2-4, 8-10; Satobiki: May 3-5, 14-16
Where: Suwa, Shimosuwa and Chino, Nagano