The blog of Tokyo based photographer and photojournalist, Damon Coulter

Faces and Feet of the Onbashira Festival

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Once every seven years, in the town of Suwa in Nagano, the madness that is the Onbashira matsuri takes place.

What happens is the locals cut down some big trees to put up in the Grand Taisa shrine where the tree gods will protect and rejuvenate the shrine apparently. The problem being of course that the trees are up in the mountain forests while the shrine is down, if not exactly in the town, nearer to it than the forests where the tree rest. The subsequent transportation of the trees through the forests and especially their slide down the hills and river crossing has been for over 1,000 years, one of Japan’s most dangerous, thrilling and unique festivals. More recently it is also one of the most photogenic which is why even with press accreditation, that has to be arranged months in advance, it still costs you 15,000 yen a day (at least) to sit on the press platforms and take pictures. Without that location though you get nothing, the police don’t let you rest a moment in any halfway decent location, the crowds are immense and basically, it’s a zoo that if this festival wasn’t quite so amazing to be near would not be worth doing. Of course if photography is your purpose it is not worth doing without the accreditation and entry fees and such like because basically you can see bugger all from where the tourists are confined, and I use the word on purpose!

Due to me not being sure I could go in the first place, and not having the money to do it properly, ended up: standing with the throng, on one leg for 3 hours waiting for a tree to slide (unseen) down a hill over to my right behind some trees. I did have a better location but was moved on by the policeman above, i did move around and back to my original location that I had been told was not allowed but which was now crowded with japanese photographers blocking my view. (Police did move them on).

My good friend, Chris Willson, was there with his extortionate and  hard-earned press vest and I’m sure got some amazing shots, I had to make do with the drag part which is interesting but is not going to earn me any money. Having been to the last Onbashira seven years ago I had been looking forward to this for a long time and hoped I’d get better images this time knowing how the system worked, but didn’t get the shots I wanted and in the end couldn’t summon the energy  to hang around anymore and shoot the same missed opportunities the next day. Though perhaps I should have tried.

It is an amazing event, don’t get me wrong, there is nothing quite like it anywhere else in the world probably and just being there is to feel something special but the restriction imposed by the police, festival organizers, and sheer number of other people intent on trying to see the festival made it unbearable at times and next to impossible to photograph well.

Anyway more info on the event (which you will now have to wait another 7 years to see again), is here and here.

Got to rest



2 responses

  1. love the shot of the guy with the beer can!

    April 15, 2010 at 6:55 am

  2. Like the little details you got, the feet, the rope, the can on the head, you did well despite not forking out for the press position (never heard of anyone charging for a festival for snappers before, but I guess it is special). I saw a bit of it on TV, looked like absolute madness. Would love to go and see it myself, but don’t think I will be around 7 years from now. If I’m still in Asia you never know though.

    April 18, 2010 at 12:46 am

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