Loud drums, or is that the heartbeat of the many riders – set the pace. And then the ride of hell, upon these honored pillars, for that’s what Onbashira means, unfolds. Two teams in front of the log tug their rope to get that log ready to roll.
The frequency of this proverbial and literal log-riding race to the bottom happens every six years. (If you are in festive mood and can’t wait six years the Japanese have thoughtfully sprung an annual festival celebrating the penis. You could take that in...) Finding trees big enough might be one reason for the infrequency. Finding semi-sane participants willing to shed, if only briefly, mental decency, might be another...
The logs are Japanese fir trees, about 200 years old, which hung out on Mount Yatsugatake. The logs are needed for the shrine, you see.
Don’t see? Not to worry. Legend has it that this mountain was higher than Mount Fuji, but the Fuji goddess took Yatsugatake down a peg; out of spite...Don’t understand? Don’t worry about that either...
But understand this: if you gotta go and meet your maker, go honorably; go off the deep end via the Kiotoshi – the act of insane men riding these logs down the dangerous slope. My sense of dying honorably is a little more pedestrian and practical. If I’m not glued to a bedpan and strapped to a respirator, I’ll consider myself as having gone out as a warrior.
Where were we?
The nasty word notorious is sometimes used to describe the festivities as in the "notorious tree-sliding festival." Seems harsh. While this spiritual-cultural offering may not be westerners’ cup of tea, what might Japanese think of Nathan's hot dog eating contest, or bull riding?
Bull riding occurs at the Calgary Stampede, for example. Animal activists would like to shutter up the Stampede, saying it is cruel to animals. But who would have the nerve to demand this log ride religious rite be stopped, saying it is cruel to people? Gotta reckon nobody. Who is going to buck with a tradition going back some 1,200 years? What’s weird is that the log riders, some of them at least, wave one hand in the air, like bull riders in the Stampede do.
The handpicked? logs, 16 in all, each are about 1 m wide and 16 m long. Each Shrine will get four of these trunks. They weigh some 20,000 pounds.
One must go off the beaten track momentarily here and wonder if the weight of dying honorably, or getting maimed honorably, as opposed to living dishonorably with wood splinters in the bum - that could cause a premature disembark – dishonorable discharge - weighs heavier than the logs...
500,000 folks took in the 2010 festival and you can bet your bottom dollar most weren't there to absorb Shinto theories, niceties, and real-life ramifications but were there to see who survived and who got squashed. And unless you are a Japanese citizen you can't ride the lumbering logs. A boon and blessing, in other words.
Japanese were once thought of, before political correctness demanded that acceptable thoughts be vapid, euphemistic, and wrong - as inscrutable. Outsiders couldn’t figure them out from the get go and surely, riding down logs, holding onto a rope for safety – and on for dear life - is unfathomable to not only outsiders, but to many Japanese themselves.
But, boy, the Japanese that surround the log before, during, and after its rock and roll swarm it like ants. They could be exalting or exhuming bodies, hard to tell which, they’re in such a frenzy. Shinto religious figures are around. So are, what look to be cheerleaders waving the biggest tasseled white-blond wigs in the world. Bands, dressed up in costumes so colorful the hues boggle the mind, play energetically. The crowd sings songs, or chants. Whistles toot. What sounds like a bugle corps gets its two cents in. Constabularies in white gloves, white-flat-topped, black banded caps - with white shirts and dark ties - keep surging crowds back from the track. Officials carrying huge variously-colored flags lead the procession downhill while some figures in all-white get ups stand en masse exhorting the crowd. Then folks with white smoke billowing from torches run down the hill. All in all, it’s great theater, a magnificent mishmash, a true spectacle, a sight for any eye.
In riding logs, the participants might say they’d never lose their principles, though they might lose their lives. For them, the risk is worth it. At least they’re not sitting on their duffs watching the world pass them by. They’re actors, players, combatants in an epic battle of knotty tree versus kooky humanity.
Perhaps, too, Shinto with its many gods has a spirit of soft landings that could be prayed to. Definitely, it would seem that the Shinto religion and culture emboldens nerve. It would seem to be a spiritual essence that knows no set-line boundaries, and thus the sheer enjoyment and self-satisfaction from log riding knows no bounds. They have a saying: even the wishes of an ant reach to heaven. Sounds like the riders are infused with a belief that anything is possible – like living through an Onbashira ride.
Course, being crazy to try this log-jam on for size can’t hurt either...