Cheese Rolling and Log Riding
Little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter
Spring is here which means that all over the world there are festivals aplenty! Some are clearly pagan in their history and others are clearly pagan in their history but have since been annexed by christians. Easter egg anyone?
Separated by about 10,000 km we can see two such glorious tributes to mankind’s incomparable, unconquerable spirit to look for meaning where there is none and at the same time do it in the most ridiculous and dangerous ways possible. The two festivals I refer to are Cheese-rolling at Cooper’s Hill in Gloucestershire, England and Onbashira Matsuri in Suwa, Japan.
Falling, yes I am falling
Every year in Gloucestershire and every six in Japan scores of men (and women in the UK) tumble down hillsides for fun, for credibility and for reasons half forgotten (both historically and alcoholically). In the UK they careen down after a cheese whilst in Japan they plummet down on and after and away from a… tree! A BIG tree! Like a real life version of Donkey Kong.
Tell me why
As best as I can tell Onbashira (lit: honoured pillars) has its origins 1200 or so years ago. The four shrines near Lake Suwa would have to be rebuilt in the Chinese years of the tiger and monkey. In case you’ve forgotten that’s twice in every Chinese duodecimal astrological cycle. Or if you prefer, every six years. Or every seven if you’re Japanese who include the current year just to confuse everyone else.
Apparently, during the reign of Emperor Kammu (so sometime between 781 and 806 CE) a commander of an expeditionary force against the Ainu stopped off in Suwa in Nagano prefecture and paid homage there to the Shinto kami. His expedition was so successful that Kammu decreed that the shrines would be reconstructed every six years in gratitude to these spirits (as an aside its probably worth noting here that Japanese kami or gods/spirits have never been as anthropomorphic as say the Roman or Greek gods and perhaps shouldn’t be thought of in the same way). This melds neatly with the even more ancient (and still existing) ideals of ritual cleanliness that predate any written records in Japan.
This meant that the town’s folk would now be taxed into building not only a holy shrine but also a great torii (大鳥居: the Shinto shrine’s great archway), a stage, corridors between them, and fences for the shrines. It’s probably not too big a leap of imagination to think that it didn’t take all that long for locals to grow tired of this expenditure and at some stage in history change the requirements to what we have now ie one massive log on each corner of the four shrines.
During the trees’ highly ritualised journey from forest to shrine a steep 100m long hill is encountered. I guess that originally the trees were simply lowered down but at some point some bright spark thought it would be fun to ride one down. Maybe he gained enough prestige and few enough bruises/lost limbs for someone else to try it later. This part of the festival is now known as Kiotoshi (木落とし tree-dropping) and is by far the most popular part of the three month long festival. Thousands of people look on, drinking, singing and chanting as, over a three day period, they watch the 16 huge logs (the largest are more than a meter in diameter, 17 metres long and can weigh over 12 tonnes) and their mental riders churn up the hillside.
Fall on a hill
Cheese rolling goes back at least a couple of centuries but seems to have its roots in more ancient times. Maybe its origins lie in Celtic and Saxon Mayday celebrations where, as part of the welcoming back of the sun and fertility of the soil after winter, folk would ignite wooden wheels and send them hurtling down mountains and hills into the fields as a misguided offering/bribe to the gods in exchange for a decent harvest.
Maybe it comes from pagan healing rituals during Roman times, Panicale in Umbria still has cheese rolling at Easter today. Maybe it’s from some conflation of many traditions or maybe someone just thought it’d be a laugh. Whatever the genesis of it was we should be thankful, as watching folk cartwheeling after a 70 mph, 8Ib Double Gloucester on a 45-70º concave muddy slope is one of the very best achievements in human culture.
‘Cause I couldn’t stand the pain
Cooper’s Hill has had its fair share of injuries (mostly minor, bear in mind that St Johns Ambulance would log a splinter as an injury) over the years, even enough to get cancelled in 1998 but there are no recorded deaths. Onbashira on the other hand seems to have them in droves. As best as I can tell there were none during 2010’s Kiotoshi, perhaps due to the dry weather or the more careful selection process for the riders but there was a fatality during the Satobiki stage where the logs are raised to position at the shrine by hand. I can’t find any figures for previous years but I am (unreliably) informed that in 2004 about 20 people died when a log knocked down scaffolding in the crowd at the side of the hill. It seems though that everyone is well aware of the risks and that they are an intrinsic part of the festivals appeal. C’est la vie. Hakuna matata. Shikata ga nai.
At one point this year during the long wait as the log balanced at the top of the hill (a lot of this wait I guess was ceremony and ritual with some rousing songs and chants and music and so on but I also think it just got stuck) I and several others were moved away from our fairly central vantage point for (I choose to assume) our safety by police. I chose to ignore this and circled back round to get an even better spot amongst the crowd of a hundred or so people ignoring the guide ropes.
Like most festivals in Japan it seems that most Japanese people (at least that I’ve spoken to) haven’t heard of it. I suspect that the only ones who care are the locals and the tourists. I’d also wager that as many people believe in kami in Japan as Europeans believe in Freyr or Yggdrassil when we celebrate our old festivals. Having said that it feels good to have been some small part of this throng of humanity for just a short while. As the log stopped just over halfway down the hill scores of happi wearing men crowded around it readying for the next stage. I felt a rush of excitement with all the noise and adrenaline enveloping me and it’s only several days later that I realise I hadnt even bothered to look up the slope to see if anyone was injured/squished.
Sadly, there won’t be any such lunacy in Gloucestershire this year as due to increasing popularity of the event and worries about the ability to handle large crowds (not nanny state health and safety mollycoddling as suggested in some parts of the press) the fun has been cancelled. As is always the case when such events transpire a man in a white coat and top hat will roll down the cheese anyway.
You can probably buy it online afterwards.
Feel free to send in any corrections/omissions.
A History of Japan by George Sansom
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