The Suwa Pillar Festival, onbashira-matsuri, in the Nagano region of Japan, when briefly explained to those who lack any substantial knowledge of Japanese culture, sounds bizarre. “Once every six years, sixteen trees in the mountains are selected to be erected at the Suwa Shrine as pillars. After the trees are cut, they’re slid down a steep mountain, and men jump on them and get injured or even die. See, look at this video! As the trees are brought through town, the community hosts a sort of carnival, with thousands partying in the streets and cheering on the trees. Then religious officials erect them at the Suwa Shrine, selling the former pillars to construction sites, and the cycle continues.”
Strange as the concept sounds at a cursory glance, and although scholars recognize the danger inherent in some of its elements (Kitazawa 112), the festival is ripe with meaning and religious significance, and every step is carefully planned and meticulously executed. The festival dates back over 1200 years, when the kami Takeminakata is rumoured to have aided the general Sakanoue Tamuramaro in war (Gerbert 328).
The sixteen trees used as pillars to stand in the Shinto Suwa Shrine are carefully selected by experts; the festival then follows the processes roughly outlined above. These various steps of the festival, carried out according to very strict time guidelines, symbolize a transition from the eternal spirit world of the kami into the temporal world of human beings. As the onbashira-matsuri progresses, the festivities also change drastically in nature, beginning as sombre and controlled and eventually becoming wild and disorderly (Gerbert 330-334). Every item used in the festival holds some significance and demonstrates the respect the practitioners hold for the world of the kami in the mountains (for example, priests must purify all axes used). Ritual purity is a necessity: the matsuri finds its structure by differentiating between the sacred and pure realm of the kami and the impurity outside of the festival. Onbashira-matsuri also presents demonstrations of unity through difference: the two styles of rope used to pull the trees are understood to be male and female, and the fact that they work together shows the complementary nature of two ostensible opposites (Gerbert 340). Furthermore, the festival reminds participants of their connection to the earth, bringing those who would not spend much time outside deep into the mountains and into close contact with elements of nature (Gerbert 369).
The kami are the main consideration in the festival: all members of the Suwa community work together to prepare songs and dances to ensure that the kami are entertained throughout the festival (Gerbert 335-339). Furthermore, when a man is killed while riding the pillar down the mountain in the portion of the festival called shimosha ki-otoshi, the justification for the death is simply that kami took the man (Gerbert 343). Spaces usually remaining in the realm of humans, like roads, sit at the mercy of the kami during the onbashira-matsuri and lose their regular functions (Gerbert 374).
The “carnival” portion of the festival, when the trees are pulled through town towards the shrine, demonstrates an intriguing juxtaposition of orderly and chaotic. Reactions to the trees are similar to reactions to marathon runners: the audience celebrates, waves flags and takes photos of the trees (Gerbert 347). Though the festivities follow very specific guidelines, practitioners revel in the streets, closing down their businesses, abandoning their clothes or wearing ornate historical costumes, imbibing sake and eating insatiably (Gerbert 344-346). The presence of the kami in the town opens up opportunities for members of the community to act like children, forgetting the rules that otherwise provide such careful structure in their lives (Gerbert 374).
Evidently, the Suwa Pillar Festival stands as an impressive example of many key aspects of Japanese religion that we’re studying: the importance of ritual purity, the reverence held for nature and by proxy the kami, and elements of carnival existing amongst orderliness.