July 1-15 is probably the biggest festival in Fukuoka: Hakata Yamagasa. Guys spend basically the two weeks before and during the festival training for its culmination on the 15th, when there's this kind of a race that begins at 5 am in which--well, if a picture is worth a thousand words, this ten-second clip from YouTube from last year is worth several billion....
Fortunately or unfortunately, you can't see the thongs those guys are wearing for the competition too clearly in that clip. So here's another. Click at your own risk (and wait, wait, for it....).
Yup, basically teams of a hundred or so guys [Update 7/23/07: actually, it's 600-3000)] work together carrying this float (no more than 15-20 at a time, it seems) [Update 7/23/07: actually, it's around 25)] that they designed and built on a course that winds through the city streets in a kind of mini-marathon, complete with time trials. I'm proud to report that our neighborhood--Chiyo--won their category. Our only contribution was to watch the guys running through the street one night chanting, "Washoi! Washoi!" (which they do while carrying the float). We did take our friends visiting from Nagoya to the shrine inside of which all the teams did a kind of figure 8 early in the race--including one float that looked (on tv, that is) like it was about 30 feet tall, and looked even taller in real life (onechan was afraid it would fall down on her). Yes, we learned our lesson from the previous time we went to that temple during the Candy Throwing Festival (otherwise known as Setsubun--originally they threw soybeans, then during the Bubble Economy, money--which probably accounts for all the gigis and babas who almost crushed onechan and imoto scrambling for the candy that was being thrown when I foolishly asked the tsuma if we could experience it from the middle of the crowd rather than its edges) and only ventured into it hours after the last float did its loop.
Now I understand why the tsuma was so disappointed with the July 4 parade in our hometown last year. And that you actually can turn a parade into interesting tv, unlike, say, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day one. These guys are so hard-core that they never thought of cancelling the race, even though all during the second half of the week forecasters were predicting that a powerful typhoon was bearing down on Fukuoka. One team leader was quoted on tv as saying it would make it even better.
Now that's a festival I can get behind. Figuratively. Definitely.