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Onbashira Festival, Suwa, Nagano, Japan

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PERFECT FOR: Festivalgoers

WHY: Suwa’s Onbashira Festival takes place only once every six years. So  if you miss 2016’s event, you’ll have to wait until 2022. Celebrated for more than 1,200 years, Onbashira (“the honored pillars”) involves replacing the sacred pillars at the four shrines (two Upper and two Lower) of Suwa-Taisha, Suwa’s Grand Shrine. The DIY pillar project—done entirely by hand—begins with the felling of massive fir trees. Locals use ropes to pull (and, more terrifyingly, ride) the huge logs down steep hills. Making it to the shrine involves river crossings and festive processions through the streets. The pageantry unfolds over two months, April and May, and in two stages—Yamadashi (the tree toppling portion) and Satobiki (parading and pillar raising). Nagano resident Blair Guardia, who serves as a foreign consultant for the Nagano Prefecture Tourism Department, recommends planning a visit to coincide with Satobiki (May 3-5, 2016, at the Upper shrine or May 14-16, 2016, at the Lower shrine). “The most dangerous portion of the festival is over, and everyone celebrates in a colorful parade toward the shrine,” Guardia says. “The pillars are raised with participants still clinging tightly and cheering, a truly awesome spectacle.”

WHERE: Suwa-Taisha is located northwest of Tokyo in the Suwa region of Nagano.

HOW: From Tokyo Narita Airport, take the Narita Express (N’EX) train to Tokyo Station (one hour). From there, take the Nagano Shinkansen Asama bullet train northwest to Nagano Station (about two hours). From here, take the JR Shinano train line to Shiojiri (about one hour), and then transfer to the JR Chuo line heading to either Chino Station (closest to the Upper shrine) or Shimo-Suwa Station (closest to the Lower shrine).

STAY: Kamisuwa Onsen Shinyu in Suwa city is a traditional ryokan (Japanese inn) with tatami-matted rooms and communal onsen (hot spring baths). Request a room overlooking Lake Suwa. Rates include breakfast and dinner in the onsen’s Miko Ryoutei restaurant. Take the free (for guests) Shinyu-Go shuttle bus from the Kamisuwato train station to the inn. The bus also shuttles guests to the Suwa shrines and other local attractions.

EAT: Sample some Suwa specialties, such as a bowl of unagi (freshwater eel), and regional snacks including shio yōkan (soft jelly candy seasoned with salt) and taisha senbei (rice crackers baked with peanuts). Suwa also is a sake brewing hub. Take a sake-tasting walking tour along the quarter-mile stretch of Koshu Highway, where five sake breweries—Masumi, Maihime, Reijin, Honkin, and Yokobue—are located and are open most weekdays for tours. Some also have weekend hours. Reservations are required.

DON’T MISS: In late spring, cruise around Lake Suwa on one of the ubiquitous swan-shaped tour boats or small pedal boats. Then visit Takashima Castle, known as “the floating castle” because it once stood on a small island in the lake. Most of the original 16th-century castle was dismantled in the 1870s. In 1970, the donjon (castle keep), Kabuki gate, and the corner turret were reconstructed. Climb to the top of the three-story donjon for stunning views of the surrounding Takashima Park (and, if you’re lucky, its blooming cherry trees), Lake Suwa, and the Yatsugatake Mountains.

TRAVEL TIP: Locals spend years preparing for the spring Onbashira Festival. That makes it difficult for outsiders to participate in any of the festival’s signature hands-on activities, such as pulling down the trees and placing the pillars. There are less crowded komiya no Onbashira (downsized versions of the spring event) held in Suwa’s smaller communities from late August to late October. These smaller events are more likely to have opportunities for the public to pitch in and be part of a pillar construction crew.


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