You’re bombing down a hill on top of an 18m (60ft) tree trunk. One wrong move and you could lose a limb, or worse, be crushed under its 12-ton weight. There is no slowing down, and people are ready to fight for your spot. So hang on tight. Your life depends on it.
Japan’s Onbashira Festival takes place every six years in the Suwa area of Japan, about 200 km (120 mi) from Tokyo. Founded by the Shinto religion 1200 years ago, the purpose of this festival is to renew the shrine sanctuaries by replacing giant sacred wooden pillars, called Onbashira. 16 fir trees are selected, cut down, and carried by hand from the surrounding mountain region to be erected at the Suwa Grand Shrine. Only those that are over at least 150 years old and over 17 m (56 ft) will make the cut. Pun intended.
There are three main stages of the festival. The first stage is Yamadashi, when the perfect trees are selected for the festival. They are chopped down, stripped of their branches and bark, then left to dry. Stage two is Kiotoshi. Here the logs are hauled up a steep hill, where groups of participants try to ride them back down the hill and across a freezing river.
Satobiki, the third and final stage, is when the logs are raised upright by hand and placed at the shrine complex. Selected log bearers stay on top of the pillar as it is erected. Riding the logs is a special honor, but also incredibly dangerous. People have died in seven of the last ten festivals. When is it best to tuck and roll? Why should you avoid the front of the log? And how could a ThighMaster save your life?
Step 1. Prepare Yourself
Participating in the Onbashira is risky, but the challenges are very specific. Participants for the festival are evaluated and selected by community eldersbased on fitness levels. Holding onto the log will be your biggest challenge, so get yourself some sturdy work gloves to protect your hands. You’re also going to want to get those hands in shape so you have the strength to hold on. You’re also going to want to get those hands in shape so you have the strength to hold on. This will help you avoid shock from the freezing temperatures, and to benefit from the adrenaline released by your body when it hits you.
Step 2. Get a Grip
During Kiotoshi, the greatest danger is falling off the log. Especially if you’re near the front. You could easily lose a limb or be crushed to death underneath it. To stabilize yourself, straddle the log with your feet slightly forward, and squeeze the trunk between your legs. Hopefully you’ve been using that ThighMaster. Try to find some divots to place your feet into. You can use this leverage to maintain your balance when things start to get rough.
This is important. Lean forward to take the pressure off your butt so your legs do all the work. And hold on tight.
Step 3. Tuck and Roll
The last thing you want to do is fall off the log. But if you do, controlling how you land could save your life.
If the log starts to turn over, use your feet to throw yourself clear. When you hit the ground, try to roll out of its path. The good news is, if you haven’t suffered any major injuries you should be able to catch up to it and maybe even get back on. If not, at least you’re not a pancake.
If you find the other riders are pushing you to try and get a better position, clamp down harder. Getting pushed off the log is extremely dangerous since you’re depending more on luck than skill to avoid being hurt. So hold on like your life depends on it, because it just might.
Step 4. Know When to Let Go
During the Satobiki stage, the logs are erected at the shrine with the riders still on them. This is one of the most dangerous parts of the festival. In 2016, a man fell from the top of a pillar as it was being erected and died. In 2010, two people were killed after falling when a guide wire snapped lifting a pillar in place.
If you are losing your grip during the pillar raising ceremony, the best thing you can do is let go early. The shorter the fall, the safer the landing. Participating in the Onbashira Festival is considered a great honor, especially for followers of Shintoism. But it’s also incredibly dangerous.
With the throngs of people pushing you to get your spot, getting to the end of the festival is worth celebrating!
But just how dangerous is a massive crowd of rowdy humans?
- “ONBASHIRA | 御柱祭 ONBASHIRA In SUWA”. 2022. Onbashira.Jp.
- “The Most Dangerous Festival In The World: Onbashira“. 2019. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!.
- “Onbashira: The Most Dangerous Festival In Japan”. 2020. Kuriositas.Com.
- “The Pillar Riders: An Interview“. 2016. Onbashira.
- “A Glimpse Into Onbashira, The Dangerous Japanese Log Moving Festival“. 2016. Colossal.