The torch relay for the Tokyo Olympics, beginning in Fukushima on Thursday, will showcase Japan's culture, history and landscapes as the coronavirus-weary nation gears up for the opening of the games in late July.
The flame, lit in Greece last year before the one-year postponement of the games, will travel through all of Japan's 47 prefectures, with some of the roughly 10,000 torchbearers set to participate in various ways, with some skiing, being dragged behind a horse while standing on an iron sled or even using centuries-old Japanese swimming techniques.
The starting point of the 121-day relay is the J-Village soccer training center, which was an operational base when the nuclear disaster struck Fukushima, triggered by the massive March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
From there, the flame will head progressively south, reaching Okinawa Prefecture around the start of May before working its way to Hokkaido at the other end of the country and then to Tokyo.
But due to the need to ensure the relay does not turn into a coronavirus-spreading event, the Tokyo Games organizing committee will take never-before-seen precautions.
Due to the lack of public support for the games, the committee considers the relay a crucial opportunity to convince Japan that it is prepared to host the games even during a worldwide public health crisis.
As well as being a momentum building exercise for the Olympics, which open on July 23, the relay also serves as a much-needed PR opportunity for traditional sports in Japan.
In Hiroshima, a female torchbearer will cross a river in front of the Atomic Bomb Dome, the skeletal remains of a building partially left standing after the 1945 explosion.
She is one of the torch "swimmers" demonstrating a classical Japanese swimming style called Nihon eihō, which dates back some 300 years, passed down as a form of water-based martial arts. The segments of the relay in Oita Prefecture and Tokyo will also have people carry the torch using the same swimming style.
Kazuhisa Yamane, who heads the Japan classical swimming arts committee in the country's swimming federation, said he campaigned to have the sport included in the relay to help spread the word about it.
"Unlike competitive swimming, it is not about swimming fast. It is about brushing up one's techniques and coming to terms with water," he said. "Japan is the only country with such a distinct style of swimming."
According to Yamane, there are about 3,000 swimmers in the country who practice the traditional method, ranging from as young as elementary students to as old as those in their 80s.
In an island nation that is crisscrossed by many rivers flowing from its mountainous areas, it has always been crucial for Japanese people to know how to swim and be safe around water, he said. Swimmers developed different techniques and even practiced them during battle.
Nihon eihō is also unique in that performances can be held with swimmers waving large flags, fans or by even wearing armor.
"Because of currents in rivers, it may be a little bit of a challenge to cross with the torch," Yamane said. "But I want many people to see how original Nihon eihō is."
Among other distinctive methods of carrying the flame, a jockey will accompany a torchbearer as they ride a heavy iron sled pulled by a horse at Obihiro Racecourse in Hokkaido in June to highlight the agriculture-derived banei horseracing, held on a sandy 200-meter course with ramps.
The flame will be put on a traditional wooden fishing boat called a sabani in Okinawa, while it will be carried on a ropeway up Mount Kinka in central Japan, where the historical Gifu Castle is located.
In Fukushima Prefecture, former Japanese Olympic freestyle skier Sho Endo will glide down a slope at a popular ski resort while holding the torch, with local elementary school children skiing behind him.
"I'm happy to be able to ski in my hometown," said Endo, who competed in the moguls event at three Winter Games, after a rehearsal in mid-March.
UNESCO World Heritage sites — including Mount Fuji, Japan's tallest peak, and Hiroshima Prefecture's Miyajima Island, home to the Itsukushima Shrine and its floating gate — are among major landmarks along the route that passes through 859 municipalities on its journey.
Other popular tourist locations include Todaiji temple in Nara, with its 15-meter-high Great Buddha statue, and Amanohashidate, a sandbar in Kyoto Prefecture covered with pine trees and considered one of Japan's three most scenic spots.
The flame will start its journey in Tokyo on July 9 at the Komazawa Olympic Park, which staged events during the 1964 Summer Olympics. Torchbearers are also scheduled to make stops at the 634-meter Tokyo Sky Tree tower and Ryogoku Kokugikan, the city's famous sumo venue.
While the relay route contains many attractions, the organizing committee of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics requested that people refrain from traveling outside of their home prefectures to watch the event in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The organizers have said the relay may be suspended or certain routes may be skipped if too many people gather on the roadside. Spectators are also asked to clap rather than shouting in support of runners.
The Tokyo Olympics were postponed on March 24 last year, just two days before the scheduled start of the relay.
Before the decision was made, the organizing committee had considered carrying the flame around the country in a car, instead of having people running during a pandemic, according to Toshiro Muto, the organizing committee CEO.
Muto, who also heads the virus response team for the relay, has said he expects there will be cases of infections among people involved.
However, given that many Japanese remain skeptical about holding the games in just four months, he said that the organizers will need to prove that they can take sufficient measures against the virus.
"It will be difficult for us to earn support from the public if we cannot show that we can respond quickly and appropriately in the wake of infections," he said.
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