Sun, Apr 11, 2004 - Page 4 News List

Log-riding festival is as odd as it gets

JAPAN In a society which normally cherishes decorum, some religious festivals provide an opportunity for some truly over the top behavior

AP , SHIMOSUWA, JAPAN

Straddling a giant log, six men peer over the edge of a precipitous slope. There, they teeter as buglers and bards, dressed in bright robes and knickers, whip up the crowd.

Minutes later, a green flag goes up and the log hurtles down, twisting and bucking until it reaches a narrow paved road 100m below and throwing most of its riders along the way.

"Someone always gets hurt. I fell off and broke a rib on my first time down," said Kazuaki Miyasaka, a spry 60-year-old former sushi chef for whom this year's ride Friday was his fourth -- and final.

It's an unusually cavalier stunt in a country where decorum is cherished. But when it comes to Japanese festivals, the usual rules of conduct don't apply.

Every year, the Japanese stage thousands of festivals, big and small, celebrating traditions dating back centuries. Some mark the occasion when the gods of the country's indigenous Shinto religion commune with the townspeople who pay to upkeep local shrines. Others have ties to Buddhism or play on superstitions about the need to ward off evil spirits.

Mostly, though, they offer people a rare chance to let loose, and many take advantage of that by being outlandish or getting raucously drunk.

For sheer over-the-top zeal, nothing beats the "Onbashira," or sacred pillar, festival.

Held once every six years in the central Japanese towns along Suwa Lake, the festival combines the nature worship of Shinto with a dash of bravado and derring-do. Priests say it's ancient -- the oldest references to it go back more than 1,200 years to the time of Japan's first written histories, when "ujiko," or shrine parishioners, organized the events, much as they do today.

Over several months, the residents of this area fell sixteen massive ancient trees and drag them from the nearby mountains into town, where they are paraded down the main streets with music and dancing. Eventually, four logs will stand at the corners of each of Suwa Grand Shrine's four lesser shrines: Maemiya and Honmiya on the northern shore of the lake; and Harumiya and Akimiya on the southern side.

Residents believe deities dwell in the trees and the posts are supposed to bring spiritual renewal to the shrines, which represent the gods of hunting, farming, wind and water.

As one of Japan's biggest festivals, the Onbashira attracts a total of 2 million spectators. Thousands of townspeople are expected to take part in this year's festival.

On Friday, dozens of men and a few women in aprons or waist-length robes, knickers and the split-toed, knee-high shoes called "jikatabi" gathered in the morning half-light near eight logs cut earlier this year from fir trees hundreds of years old.

After a Shinto priest performed a purification ceremony with chants and a sprinkling of salt, everyone took sides along two massive straw ropes and began hauling the trees, the biggest of which measure more than 1 meter across and 17m-long and weigh over 12 tonnes.

Only three of the trees would make the first half of the trip into town; the others are expected to go over the next few days.

It's slow going: Nearly eight hours after the groups begin steering the monstrous trunks along the narrow mountain path, they arrived at the ledge for the "kiotoshi," the log ride that is by far the biggest tourist draw.

And it doesn't disappoint. Think of it as a mix of religion and show and extreme sport.

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