Yamato, Japan -- For years, they have traveled the back roads of Japan in an all-white caravan, swathing their camps in white fabric. They say are protecting a sick prophet from an invisible enemy, and the world from Armageddon.
Most Japanese had never heard of the Pana Wave Laboratory cult until it rolled into this rural community in western Japan last week, transforming a secluded mountain road into a clinical white cocoon.
But as a police standoff began and pictures of the strange camp began dominating the television news, something seemed eerily familiar to many Japanese.
"The first thing I thought was, it's another Aum Shinrikyo," said farmer Kanichi Sakai, standing at a police barricade near the group's camp. "It was so unreal I had to come see for myself."
The weeklong standoff was resolved with little more than a show of force and the issuing of parking tickets. But it riveted Japan, and served as a reminder that cults like Aum, which set up strongholds in the countryside and carried out a deadly nerve gas attack on Tokyo's subways in 1995, continue to thrive.
The timing of the standoff was almost as spooky as the white-draped landscapes.
Just days before, prosecutors closed their case against Aum's guru, Shoko Asahara, who allegedly ordered the subway gassing to provoke an apocalypse he predicted only his followers would survive. He faces the death penalty for the attack, which killed 12 and left thousands sick.
No link between Aum and Pana Wave is suspected, and the standoff was nonviolent.
But before ordering a crackdown, even the chief of Japan's National Police Agency was quoted as saying the cult - with its doomsday doctrine, claims of persecution and mysterious leader - "resembles Aum in its early days."
Police broke up the camp on Thursday when about 300 officers, some in riot gear, moved in and warned an estimated 30 cultists to leave or face arrest for obstructing traffic.
The dozen-or-so vehicles left, then stopped for the night along a rural highway 12 miles away.
It was unclear where they were headed.
The caravan, believed to carry the group's ailing guru, has moved around western Japan since 1994. Before arriving here, about 160 miles west of Tokyo, it spent almost eight months on a desolate stretch of road in a neighboring state.
The cult says it seeks refuge from deadly electromagnetic waves generated by power lines and controlled by "left-wing elements." It believes white fabric helps neutralize the waves.
"It's impossible to get away from the effects of these weapons completely," spokesman Mitsumoto Kikuchi told dozens of reporters who converged on the caravan this week. "What we're doing is looking for the safest possible environment, one far away from power lines."
According to cult watchers and media reports quoting police sources, Pana Wave was founded under a different name around 1977 by Yuko Chino, a self-proclaimed prophet who preaches a blend of Christianity, Buddhism and New Age doctrines.
The group reportedly owns property in several rural areas and once claimed several thousand members. Estimates of its membership range from several hundred to 1,200.
Pana Wave says attacks by electromagnetic waves have left Chino - who is believed to be in the most heavily guarded van in the caravan - with terminal cancer.
Her death, according to cult literature, would deprive humanity of its only hope for salvation.
Chino has prophesied that a tenth planet approaching earth will bring massive earthquakes, giant tidal waves and other "cataclysmic" changes as early as this summer.
"This is a cult in its terminal phase," said lawyer Taro Takimoto, part of a national network advising cult victims. "Its delusions are getting deeper and it appears less concerned about run-ins with the outside world."
Police nationwide are strengthening surveillance.
But critics say the initial reluctance to crack down may send the wrong message to other fringe groups. Experts have long blamed inaction for emboldening Aum.
"The only word for it is negligence," said Masaki Kido, a lawyer who has represented victims of the subway gas attack.