NEW YORK -- Something strange and wonderful is coming your way. Please take a few moments to read about it. Otherwise you surely will not know what it is when it reaches you.

It is Ondekoza, the "demon drummers" -- a troupe of a dozen percussionists and flutists based in Nagoya, Japan. They also run marathons, and right now, as you read this, they are running around the perimeter of the United States. They started in New York, where they ran the New York Marathon on Nov. 4 and played Carnegie Hall Nov. 12. After running south, around Florida, and west, along the Mexican border, they will run in the Los Angeles Marathon. They will return to New York along the Canadian border. "On Thanksgiving Day {1993}, the powerful sound of our drums will fill the streets of New York City," declares a handbill. "Once again, we will enter the New York Marathon. And once again, we will perform at Carnegie Hall. Witness our brave performance, as we will emerge as American heroes."

At stops along the way, in American communities great and small, they will give concerts to raise money for cancer research and to foster their vision of world peace through drumming. (They expect to play Washington on Jan. 29, at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, but that's more of a guess than a promise.) Then, if they're still feeling up to it, they'll do Europe.

Told you it was strange. But then, the Japanese have always had a higher tolerance for strangeness.

This improbable odyssey is the waking dream of Tagayasu Den, who founded Ondekoza in 1970 on Sado Island, the site of a former gold mine worked by exiled prisoners, in the Japan Sea 170 miles from Tokyo. Den and his friends were hippies, but while their American counterparts were doing drugs, they were doing drums. Sado was glad to have them, since its population was declining as native-born young people left for schools and jobs on the mainland. A decade later Den too fled the idyll after a split with his confreres, and moved to Nagoya, where he recruited the current members. The other founders, now called Kodo, continue to live communally, perform, and jog at sunup on Sado, and tour internationally.

Japanese drumming, known as taiko, may not be as pleadingly expressive as jazz drumming, or as helplessly passionate as African drumming, or as languorously communicative as Amerind drumming. Indeed, the first impression is of an overly controlled, unsophisticated, almost juvenile banging. But as Den discovered -- as Ondekoza's audiences discover -- even a few minutes yields a hypnotic effect that is as intellectually challenging for the listener as it is physically demanding for the performers. It is easy to see how people who are attracted to sunrises over Sado's rocky shores can also become addicted to taiko.

But why marathoning? Den's answer is so straightforward, you wonder if he is speaking cryptically, cloaking some profound Oriental philosophy in ingenuously naive language: "This is the kind of thing that keeps you young." Marathoning develops the lower body, whereas drumming only develops the upper body. Still the hipster, he also says that after the exertion of drumming and running, life's pleasures, from eating to bathing to sex, become all the more enjoyable.

The cross-country (rather, round-country) journey began Nov. 15 at the finish line of the New York Marathon, near Tavern on the Green in Central Park. Representatives of the New York Road Runners Club were there to lend moral support and drum up publicity. They were more effective with the moral support; only two camera crews were on hand, both Japanese.

An organization called Stop Cancer is also involved. Ondekoza is collecting funds for Stop Cancer in part as a tribute to Road Runners President Fred Lebow, who has been diagnosed with brain cancer. Lebow acknowledged that the tour is "a little bizarre," but said, "The music gives you energy, it gives you excitement, it even makes you run faster." From a running point of view, Lebow said, the effort is not necessarily superhuman. "They're not going to exert themselves. They're not trying to run the whole country in a year. They're taking three years."

The afternoon was auspiciously bright and warm. Dressed in white split-toed slippers, blue happi coats and white headbands, the musicians, nine men and three women from 15 to 28, unloaded their personal gear from the back of a rented truck (parked illegally) and then produced two drums, one huge and one not so huge, both painted a fierce red; a cymbal that looked like something from the Williams Sonoma cookware department; and two wood flutes.

Onlookers had mixed reactions. A roller skater was glad to have music to skate by. Ann Shea, an actress who first heard Ondekoza six years ago in Europe, said, "The music is very visceral, very physical, and very holistic in a way. It's really about the human spirit, and that's what the run is about too. ... You can't help but love a group of Japanese people running through Harlem. In a way, it's insane. It's about as vulnerable and heroic as you can get." A man carrying a bottle in a paper bag said, "What's this? Japanese marathoners? Heh heh!"

Most, however, were speechless, and a strangely subdued atmosphere prevailed. Even by New York standards, it was all too daring, too exciting, too nuts.

Suddenly, there was thunder. One observer -- a journalist who does not ordinarily admit to being taken by surprise -- actually looked skyward, shocked that foul weather could have rolled in so abruptly.

There were no storm clouds, of course. It was Ondekoza.

There was thunder and there was lightning and there was the sea crashing against a cliff, and there were birds and squirrels frolicking, and there were rice farmers staving off famine, and volcanoes spitting fury at tiny, impotent mortals, and festivals and carnivals and folk dances and feasts and wedding nights and babies and funerals. For a few utterly transporting minutes beneath the sunny sky in Central Park, there was, expressed in the metaphors of merciless rhythms and fluttering melodies, anything a listener had experienced, would experience, could imagine experiencing. At regular intervals the musicians rotated positions in a sort of tag-team arrangement, so that each played every instrument. No matter which instrument was being played, the left foot was ahead of the right, giving the musicians a strong stance, prefiguring the run to come.

The younger members dropped out of school to participate, reasoning that meeting several thousand Americans would be more educational than calculus. Among the cast of characters are 20-year-old identical twins Kohei and Ryohei Inoue. It is awesome to consider that when this is all over, they will be 23-year-old identical twins Kohei and Ryohei Inoue.

The only member who speaks English is the only one who isn't Japanese: Marco Lienhard, a gangly 28-year-old Swiss who towers above his colleagues, who discovered Ondekoza as an exchange student. The others are planning on learning fast. Since necessity is the mother of locution, having to ask for housing will probably help. Concert venues are also being left somewhat to fate. A Stop Cancer representative counseled Lienhard, "Are you familiar with basketball? It's a very, very big sport in this country -- you shoot the ball through the hoop. You're going to be going through the heart of basketball country, and I think you have a good shot of getting on some halftime shows. TV picks these things up."

An American, 18-year-old Maceo Hernandez of Los Angeles, decided to drop out of the tour. That he was even considering it is testament to what Ondekoza call "the spirit of Nagoya": Hernandez has only one leg. His left leg was amputated in April after a truck's cargo fell out and injured him during road training. He did, however, complete the New York Marathon in eight hours, running on a prosthetic leg.

After loading the instruments back onto the truck, these "American heroes" of transcontinental musicianship and athleticism hid behind clumps of suitcases and changed into shocking orange and purple Asics running shoes and shorts, posed for a portrait, studied a map to find the best way onto and off of the George Washington Bridge, and started running toward Fort Lee, N.J., where they would spend their first night. Since the bridge and Fort Lee are north of Central Park, they probably should have run south to the financial district and taken the ferry to Hoboken. Nobody thought to tell them that at the time, so they lost a day. But with 1,095 days and uncountable stories to tell their grandchildren ahead of them, one lost day was no loss at all.