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Japanese Festivals: Thrills and Spills at the Onbashira Matsuri

The Japanese love celebrations. Roughly speaking, there are two kinds: matsuri, or festivals of Shinto origin, and nenchu gyoji, or annual events derived from Buddhism. Among these festivals and annual events are some dating as far back as the 8th century. Kyoto's Aoi Matsuri, an elegant procession held every May 15, features hundreds of people dressed in traditional 7th-century-style garb parading through the streets of the ancient capital. Tokyo's Sanja Matsuri, an animated three-day-long festival in mid-May, involves ritual music, dancing, and the carrying of about 100 portable shrines through the old streets of Tokyo's Asakusa district. Aomori's Nebuta Matsuri, held in northern Japan between August 1-7, sees nebuta (gigantic colorful floats decorated with enormous glowing paper images of popular or legendary characters) paraded through town.

An important festival in Nagano is the Onbashira Matsuri, which takes place once every seven years in Suwa. The Nagano Games' Opening Ceremony will incorporate part of this festival, which in fact lasts a whole three months and is known as a thrilling spectacle. This event's original aim was the rebuilding of the shrine in Suwa. Wood would be logged and hauled from a mountain a whole 20 kilometers (13 miles) away! Nowadays the shrine is not actually rebuilt, but four pillars are erected on its grounds to symbolize the shrine's buildings. Local people all look forward to this festival, and some 1.5 million spectators from all over Japan come to observe the dynamic spectacle. The sliding of the lumber (ki-otoshi) down a 30-degree slope is the festival's highlight. Many men straddle each log as it shoots down the 100-meter (330-foot) slope in one swoop, rumbling and enveloped in a cloud of dust. It is not unusual for some of the young men sitting astride the logs to fall off and injure themselves.

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