Book: Exploring Shinto
Chapter: 6. Buddhist-Shinto Syncretization at the Medieval Suwa Shrine
Suwa Shrine in central Japan is famous for its Great Pillar Festival (Onbashira-sai 御柱祭) held every six years. Some 20,000 active participants are joined by more than a million viewer-participants in the celebration of the festival. Sixteen specially selected fir trees are cut down in the mountains and their gigantic trunks are dragged over miles of rough terrain to the villages around Lake Suwa, where they are erected in the courtyards of the four shrines that constitute the Suwa Shrine. Some scholars interpret this unique Onbashira festival as symbolizing the ancient nature worship characteristic of native Shinto thought. A historical analysis, however, shows that the meaning of the kami (divinities) enshrined there was transformed in various modes, especially under the strong influence of esoteric Buddhism in medieval times. This essay examines such multiple faces of the kami of Suwa that were uniquely developed through the interaction of Buddhist and Shinto traditions in the medieval period.