Riding a tree trunk as it slides down the side of a mountain is as safe as it sounds. There are injuries, and numerous participants have died. The Onbashira festival, however, has taken place for over 12 centuries. Every 6 years, tradition takes priority over health and safety, and with a heady mixture of religious fervor and adrenaline, the men go for the ride of their lives.
The kiotoshi (tree falling) part of the Shimosha Onbashira takes place over three days. Friday 8th of April 2016, was the first day, with three different teams riding in the afternoon.
Having shot the first team with a 300mm telephoto lens, I switched to the 90mm so that I could put the action in a little more context.
When the tree trunks finally comes to a stop, all the members of the team scramble together to celebrate and then start to drag the trunk onwards. The men with white helmets and riot shields at the base of the hill are to stop dislodged stones from hitting the crowds.
As the third and final group prepared to launch, for a brief moment sunlight found its way through the overcast sky.
The third tree came to juddering halt with no riders making it all the way down. The event would go on for another couple of days, but we had to head to Tokyo that night.
With the roads closed to traffic, the day finished with a 30 minute run to the station so we’d make the express train. It turns out that its not that easy to run with about 16 kilos of camera gear on your back and a tripod. As I gasped and wheezed my way downhill there were raised eyebrows from several spectators. I guess they hadn’t expected one of the day’s strangest sights to be an exhausted gaijin careening down the road.