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Lake Suwa in Nagano, Japan
Surrounded by mountains, Lake Suwa is an area of water in the center of Nagano prefecture in Japan. The largest lake in the prefecture, Suwa-ko has a circumference of 15.9 kilometers. Strolling around the lake and enjoying the views of the mountains is pleasant. It certainly seems to be a popular activity for the many older people who live in the area. A bike ride around the lake also makes for a pleasant experience.
The town of Suwa on the side of the lake has several ryokans (hotels with hot springs). There are many izakayas (Japanese drinking establishments which also serve food) around the station area, as well as several small local bars. Suwa has a population of about 50,000. Other towns on the lake include Okaya and Shimosuwa. The Suwa region was once known as "The Oriental Switzerland" in Japan because of its precision machinery industry. Seiko Epson Corporation, one of the world's largest manufacturers of computer printers, information and imaging related equipment, has its headquarters at Suwa.
How The Gods Walk Across Lake Suwa
There is an interesting natural phenomenon which occurs on the lake. A natural hot spring under the surface keeps the waters warm, even during the cold winter when when the top has frozen over and turned to ice. The warm water beneath the surface causes the ice to push upwards and create a ridge, which can extend upwards sometimes to a height of 30cm or more.
Local people have traditionally believed that these pressure ridges were formed by the gods crossing the lake. The gods are supposed to walk across the lake, travelling between the various Shinto shrines. Shinto is the indigenous spirituality of Japan. In Shinto, lots of things have a spiritual essence: humans, animals, mountains, rivers, lightning, wind, waves, trees and rocks. Suwa Taisha, or Suwa Grand Shrine, is one of the oldest shrines in Japan.
Onbashira and Other Festivals on Lake Suwa
Onbashira is a festival which is held every six years (in the years of the Tiger and the Monkey) on the banks of Lake Suwa. The festival is supposed to have continued uninterrupted for 1200 years. The purpose of the festival is so that the shrine at Suwa can be symbolically renewed. There are two parts to the festival. In the first part, Yamadashi, Huge trees are cut down in a ceremony. They are then decorated in red and white regalia. Teams of men then drag the logs down the mountain side, pulling them with ropes. To demonstrate their bravery, many local young men ride on the logs as they hurtle down the slopes. This can obviously be quite dangerous. Injuries and sometimes deaths do occur. The next part of the festival, Satobiki, involves the logs being paraded through town and taken up to the shrine. The logs are raised and the shrine gets renewed spiritually. The whole event attracts huge crowds.
Lake Suwa Fireworks Festival, held in mid-August every year, is as one of the largest displays in all of Japan. More than 40,000 fireworks are let off over the lake. The festival began after the second world war to lighten the spirits of the people. The display now attracts crowds from all around the area.
Okaya Taiko Matsuri is another summer festival. During the event, floats of drums and dancers parade through the city of Okaya. As darkness falls, the crowds head towards an outdoor stage, where the rhythmical fun continues. The Kiyari singers and Taiko groups then perform one after another. The climax of the whole festival involves a mass drumming session with around 300 drummers all performing together.