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. \nMinutes 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. \n"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. \nIt'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. \nEvery 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. \nMostly, though, they offer people a rare chance to let loose, and many take advantage of that by being outlandish or getting raucously drunk. \nFor sheer over-the-top zeal, nothing beats the "Onbashira," or sacred pillar, festival. \nHeld 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. \nOver 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. \nResidents 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. \nAs 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. \nOn 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. \nAfter 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. \nOnly 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. \nIt'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. \nAnd it doesn't disappoint. Think of it as a mix of religion and show and extreme sport. \nOne minute, the riders are atop the log egging on the crowd and taking their positions as fireworks explode and bards sing folksongs to ask the townspeople to lend the men their strength. Buglers belt out a cavalry charge tune. A carpenter chops away the log's final support with a steel ax he carries in a straw sling. \nThen, the riders are barreling down the hill, trying without much success to stay on. \nAlmost every year, a few riders -- or onlookers -- die and dozens more are hurt. That's why festival officials now choose riders beforehand based on fitness and past experience. And former riders like six-time downhiller, Hajime Okubo, coach neophytes on the fine points of leaning and holding on. \nBut danger is part of the thrill, according to Kunitake Fujimori, the 39-year-old owner of a construction firm who rode at the coveted head of the biggest of the day's logs. If it weren't for the risks, the festivities might lose their excitement. \n"It gets the blood pumping," said Fujimori. \nMiyasaka, the 60-year-old veteran, puts it differently: "Without the ride, it just wouldn't be a festival."
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