Tokyo: Japan’s most dangerous religious festival has claimed its first life this year after a participant fell more than 40 feet from a tree trunk that was being raised in the grounds of a shrine in Nagano Prefecture, northern Japan.
Police identified the man as Yukihiro Kusakabe, a resident of the town of Suwa, who was taking part in the Onbashira Festival. Mr Kusakabe, 41, lost his grip as he tried to release a rope used to raise the pillar to the vertical and fell onto machinery, Kyodo News reported.
Onlookers said Mr Kusakabe had not been wearing a safety harness, despite the introduction of new regulations after previous deaths. The festival is only held every six years but is notorious for the number of fatalities and injuries that occur.
Two men died in the 2010 event, both also falling from a tree trunk that was being raised alongside Suwa Taisha Shrine after a guide wire snapped. Six years previously, two men drowned when one of the massive trees that are the focal point of the festival was being manhandled across a fast-flowing river.
But fording rivers and raising fir tree trunks weighing more than 1 ton are not the most dangerous part of the festival, which dates back more than 1,200 years and lasts almost two months.
The initial part of the festival, known as “yamadashi”, consists of teams of local men cutting down trees that weigh as much as 10 tons and dragging them with ropes towards the shrine, where they will replace the wooden pillars erected at the previous festival.
The highlight of the event – and the inevitable cause of most injuries – is when the 16 carefully selected trunks emerge from the treeline and need to slide down steep hillsides into the valley below.
After a purification ceremony by a Shinto priest, the local men climb onto the massive tree trunks and do their best to hang on as they career down the slopes, a ceremony known as “kiotoshi”.
Being killed during the festivities is considered an honourable death.