Onbashira: Mystery Behind the Sacred Trees

Onbashira: Mystery behind the Sacred Trees takes to Suwa in Japan to witness the very special cultural festival of honoring sacred tree pillars.

There are sixteen sacred pillars which must be honored, each one is a part of the four shrines at the Suwa Lake, the two Upper and two Lower, of Suwa-Taisha and the Suwa’s Grand Shrine.

During the Japanese festival, these sixteen specially-chosen fir trees are felled and then transported down a mountain. Festival participants ride the Onbashira as they are slid down the mountain, dragged to the shrine and then raised.

The festival has a reputation of being the most dangerous in Japan due to the number of people regularly injured or killed while riding the logs.

The festival lasts several months and consists of two main segments, Yamadashi and Satobiki. Yamadashi traditionally takes place in April, and Satobiki takes place in May.

By custom the Onbashira are replaced every six years, in the years of the Monkey and the Tiger in the Chinese zodiac.

Alternative sources suggest the processions are held every seventh year due to the Japanese custom of counting time differently. However, the last time it took place was in 2016 and the next one is likely to take place in 2022.

Although the Onbashira’s origins and original purpose are shrouded in mystery, the Onbashira tradition has continued for over 1200 years.

There are different interpretations as to what the tree pillars symbolize, though common theories suggest they serve as boundary markers, totem poles, symbolic substitutes or even an ancient practice of prehistoric tree worship.

Whatever the cause is, the festival makes for an exciting spectacle of culture for both locals and visitors alike.

Onbashira: Mystery Behind the Sacred Trees
  • Info
  • Release date2016
  • Full runtime
  • Director(s)Uchida Hiromi
  • Production companyNHK