Suwa Onbashira Festival

Japan’s most dangerous festival, the Onbashira Matsuri (also known as the “Log Riding Festival”) is back and you definitely don’t want to miss it — especially since it takes place only once every six years.

What happens at the Suwa Onbashira Festival?

Held in the Lake Suwa area of Nagano, this festival is split into two parts: Yamadashi and Satobiki. The former takes place in April and features groups of young men risking their lives proving their bravery by riding giant tree logs down a hill — a ceremonial ritual called ki-otoshi or “tree falling.” The logs, which are about 18m-long and can weigh up to 12 tons, are used to replace the main pillars at each corner of the main shrine buildings.

onbashira festival
Photo by shibainu used under CC

The latter takes place in May and involves, again, a group of men clinging to a log for dear life. But this time they hold on as the logs are raised with ropes into position, singing all the while.

The festival has been happening in some form for about 1200 years. The origins have been lost to time though there are various hypotheses relating to the ritual rebuilding of shrines (like Ise-jingu) and also Chinese geomancy. The log riding aspect is only about 100 years old, and every year claims the lives of several participants and/or spectators.

Festival schedule for 2022

The Suwa Onbashira Festival takes place over four weekends at different parts of the shrine, which is divided into the Kamisha (“Upper Shrine”) and the Shimosha (“Lower Shrine”). Festivities happen daily from dawn to dusk.

  • Kamisha Yamadashi April 2–4 (cancelled)
  • Shimosha Yamadashi April 8–10 (cancelled)
  • Kamisha Satobiki May 3–5
  • Shimosha Satobiki May 14–16

The ki-otoshi can be seen from the second day of the Kamisha Yamadashi and everyday during the Shimosha Yamadashi. The tate-onbashira, the raising of the logs, takes place on the second and third day of the Kamisha Satobiki and everyday of the event during the Shimosha Satobiki. Tickets are normally required for the official viewing area for the ki-otoshi.

Getting to the Suwa Onbashira Festival

Suwa is just south of Matsumoto, in Nagano Prefecture. The nearest train stations to the shrine are Kami-Suwa (for Kamisha) and Shimo-Suwa (for Shimosha) on the JR Chuo Main Line. You can catch a Super Azusa limited express train from Shinjuku, which takes around 2.5 hours and costs ¥5,980. Regular express trains cost ¥3,740 and can take 3.5–4 hours, requiring a transfer. Because of the crowds and road detours during the festival, driving is not recommended.

Organizers may cancel events, alter schedules, or change admission requirements without notice. Always check official sites before heading to an event.

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