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The clock hits 4:59 am - a taiko drum beats - instant noise, shouts, the flash of naked human flesh - a wave of passion sweeps the air and a huge wooden "kakiyama" float hurtles into view. This is the "Oiyama" - no parade, no genteel display of past culture for out of towners. For this is Fukuoka, Japan's city of passion and this is a race, and it's serious, and that float is heavy and the course is more than 2 km. At least 30 minutes of backbreaking work that starts with a sprint.

There will be a winner - and six losers.

The "kakiyama" floats - sturdy portable shrines weighing over a ton - are carried on the shoulders of the men of the different townships of Hakata, the ancient city that is the soul of modern Fukuoka. The first 14 days of the festival have been gentler; parades, blessings, tradition, viewings of the towering but immovable "kazariyama" floats that have graced the streets for almost a month. But in the last few days the pace has quickened as practice becomes serious. Today is about raw power, dynamism, speed, athleticism - but also about bonding - for foreign business people, of being accepted, of your company succeeding or failing. On each float sit three men, the Dai-agare who will exhort the shifting teams of men who bear it to ever greater efforts. Perhaps a thousand men will be with each team, young and old, grandads holding tiny children of both sexes, boys and fathers, but the very young and old will stay well clear of the float itself. A central core of younger men does the hard work, constantly changing as tired bearers drop back and fresh, eager shoulders take the load.

It's hot - dawn has broken and the sun rises. The air warms further. The crowds jostle for a better view. As they hurtle through the city streets each shrine is framed majestically by waves of water thrown high above it to cool the runners. For a moment, as the water glints in the first rays of the dawn sun, each looks to be borne on graceful but madly beating wings.

"Osshoi! Osshoi!" chant the runners. Each wears a "mizuhappi"(a short coat) and a "shimekomi" a - loincloth the thickness of a rolled up teatowel that at once preserves modesty and suggests nudity. Women do not run the "Oiyama" - though young girls often run with their fathers. If they have obeyed the ancient injunction the men will have refrained from sex from the festival's start.

Cucumbers - in cross section a cucumber is reminiscent of the symbol of Kushida shrine - are also forbidden.

It's male bonding - but female bonding too - it's wives and mothers who do much of the background work, preparing the food and drink without which no festival in Japan could function

By 6am its almost over.

The Yamagasa is ancient, but in its good natured passion and its dynamism it captures something that essentially Fukuokan.

The 750 Year History of the Yamakasa.

The Yamakasa is the sacred festival of Kushida shrine, the main tutelary shrine of Hakata, the ancient city that lies at the heart of Fukuoka city.

It dates back to 1241 when a priest called Shioichu Kokushi saved Hakata from a terrible plague by being carried around the city on a movable shrine and throwing water. An annual festival developed. The modern festival is for health, purity and ritual cleansing. Seven teams compete from different areas of Hakata. They are Daikoku, Higashi, Nakasu, Nishi, Chiyo, Ebisu, and Doi.

The Floats

In the modern Yamakasa there are two types of shrines - the kazariyama , which are dressed by the Hakata Doll masters with a different theme each year. These are stationary and citizens go to "view" them. The shrines that are used in the final race are smaller and sturdier and weigh about a ton.

Until quite recent times the kakiyama shrines were used in the Oiyama (the final race). Electrification of the city in the early part of the century meant that the height of the shrines had to be reduced. The kazariyama floats are about 8 metres tall and can be seen at a variety of sites throughout the city over the festival.

The Origins of the Oiyama Race

In most parts of Japan shrines are paraded decorously through the streets, not raced against the clock and other teams. There are several stories as to how the Oiyama became a race about 300 years ago - the most popular of which involves a pretty young lady from a prominent family in one part of Hakata who married into a prominent family of another part. Things did not go well. Jealousy, pride - the usual human frailties - lead to the bearers of one shrine attempting to overtake another in the annual procession. A somewhat obvious and very public race ensued. From that the Oiyama developed.

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