Last weekend I headed down to Okayama 岡山 along with a couple buddies to participate in Saidaiji Temples annual Hadaka Matsuri 裸祭り. This has been an event I have long wanted to participate in, so it was certainly a check off my Japan bucket list.
Every year in the second weekend of February 9,000 or so men take part in the celebrations which in English are usually translated to the ‘Naked Man Festival’!
A brief summary of the festival would entail that a plethora of men annually head to the temple in the middle of winter.
At which they run laps of the temple grounds in teams of four wearing little more than a fundoshi 褌 (Japanese loincloth) and tabi 足袋 (traditional Japanese socks).
During each lap the participants jump into a waist deep fountain where their bodies are purified by the water.
After several hours of seemingly aforementioned insanity participants gather onto the temples stage, where they proceed to fight to obtain one of the lucky sticks that are thrown out of the upper floors by the temples priests.
It is believed that the man who successful makes it out of the chaos with a lucky stick, will be endowed with and entire year of good fortune!
That’s the basics of it, but I’ll get into exactly what went down first hand.
Getting up early Saturday morning we departed Sannomiya 三宮 the center of Kobe on a 3 hour bus down to Okayama 岡山 where the festival is held.
To those who know anything of Japanese folklore, Okayama prefecture will ring familiar as the location of the immensely well know story Momotaro (Peach Boy).
The story holds a special place in my heart, as shortly after arriving in Japan, I played the main character Momotaro in a play at the Kobe Board of Education. Showcasing the feeble amount of Japanese I learnt during a week of intensive Japanese classes. To many ALTs it is also very familiar as a chapter featuring the story in English is contained within our students 6th grade textbooks.
Anyhow us Naked Man lads striked a pose in front of the Momotaro statue at Okayama station prior to the event.
One thing about the festival is that tattoos are absolutely forbidden, an attempted discouraging the heavy yakuza presence that has plagued previous years festivals with violence and unnecessary injuries.
Having had a sizable back piece done a few years ago, I invested a great deal of thought into how to exactly circumvent the temples ruling on the issue.
I had considered covering it with large bandage, sticky kairo and even spray paint! However a few hours before the festival I reached an epiphany, electrical tap! Although I am quite confident it’s short of amazing for your skin it worked a charm for me , never did it begin to peal despite what I put my body through. Better yet no one said a word about the large patch on my back, although I wasn’t as if I was the only one in such a position.
Anyhow onto the meat of the tale, after a day of loitering around the city we boarded a bus alongside a couple dozen other ALTs from all over Japan, which transported us to Saidaiji Temple.
On route the manliness aboard said bus was tangible as bottles of whiskey, tequila, vodka and sakè flowed freely up and down the aisles.
Our leader a representative from AJET fired up the boys, explaining in detail what exactly was going to go down that evening. Comradely bonds were forged between us through manly chanting, filthy exchanges and the consumption of grand quantities of liquor. By the time we arrived the windows to the bus were fogged over and sprits were high!
We marched as a great gaggle of gaijin to the temple grounds, nearing the entrance we sighted the stall selling our required outfits the fundoshi 褌 and tabi 足袋 costing us 2000円. After purchasing said ‘outfits’ we entered a large adjacent tent where we handed over another 1000円 to have a couple elderly volunteers ‘dress us’
Inside we were motioned to strip naked and queue alongside the other similarly butt naked guys. Reaching the front of the queue an old man unrolled my fundoshi material told me to hold the top of it under my chin as he strapped it around my waist ‘extremely’ tightly!
I’m not going to go into the mechanics of exactly what happens when that amount of pressure is exerted against ones manly parts, but use your imagination, thank god it was already cold.
After the dressing (if you can call it that) was done with we took to the streets! From the moment I stepped outside the relative warmth of the tent and felt the chill of the cold night make it’s way across my skin a sudden yet brief panic came over me……. you know the feeling, the fuck fuck fuck what have I got myself into kind.
Luckily it was short lived as I grasped the shoulders of my almost but not quite naked comrades. We ran from the tent in teams of four, arm in arm, ribs pushed up against one another’s in an attempt to salvage any scrap of warmth we could from our buddies.
We ran through streets towards the temple grounds, flanked by thousands and thousands of onlookers separated by a long chain of uniformed police presence. Camera crews and photographers ran alongside us trying to capture every moment, putting forth a plethora of questions. However my mind was ironclad focused on the task at hand, one foot in front of the other.
As each team runs, one guy in each foursome chants わっしょい (wasshoi) which is then echoed by a reply wasshoi by the other 3, the chant I guess might be equivalent to something like Heave, Ho! in English.
After a few minutes of running we come to the fountain, we hesitate, but are swept by the momentum of the group and the anticipation of the eager crowds. I waiver, I regret, but ultimately I clench! The waist deep freezing water hits me like a ton of bricks, my body stops accepting my commands for a moment, the cold takes me, yet I 頑張れ!
Look I guess cold is relative depending upon where in the world you hail from, I myself came from the down under and not even a particularly warm part of it at that. However that said running around in my underpants dripping wet on a night a degree or two above freezing, certainly left me colder than I had ever found myself in my life prior to that point.
We run from the fountain to the empty stage, my body no on autopilot. We stop for a moment and turn around, this is the first time I look out at the spectators and fully appreciate the true scale of the event. Eyes are all on us as the night is still young and there are few teams out running.
In lieu of returning to our team tent to try and claim a few moments out of the cold we then make what I now consider a poor decision in hindsight.
A YOLO moment takes hold of us (in the most un-ironic of ways) screaming もう一度 (one more time) we charge once more towards the purification fountain.
After the first plunge my feet had begun to feel like pieces of dead meat attached to my body, the second time in a span of a few minutes allowed this sensation to creep up towards my thighs.
Needless to say by this point instinct had taken hold of me, little time was spared in deciding it was indeed time to return to our tent.
Upon entering I was disheartened to realize there was one tiny stove burning to warm the hundreds of participants sharing the tent for the night. Luckily however it was not long before a large group of those crowding around the one small source of warmth decided to charge out once again into the chilly night air towards the fountain.
As mentioned earlier, our fundoshi are not something we can simply remove and re-adorn, so if you need to take a slash once in the get up it’s game over. And so we switched over to consuming straight liquor to keep spirits high and bellies warm, perhaps not the most amazing choice of beverage for a chilly winter night tuning a makeshift marathon but it got the job done.
These efforts combine with the somewhat dangerous (in hindsight) practice of pushing my numb feet directly into the metal of the burning stove, slowly allowed me to reclaim my previously frozen flesh.
Now I guess towards the later hours of the evening the proceedings became a little fuzzy. However after the grand scramble for the lucky sticks the festival ended quite abruptly and I was left feeling a little disappointed at the anticlimax of it all. I soon found myself once again donning my heavy jacket and downing a midnight bowl of udon from a roadside vendor, before boarding our bus back to Okayama station.
Of course with such a large festival being held in what is realistically quite the modest sized city, accommodation was more or less impossible to secure. I tried hotels, mangakiss and even love hotels finding little more than no-vacancy sign at every turn. Eventually we resolved to spend the night in the only warm place we could find, a 24hour McDonalds, an experience I will surely never recommend.
Anyhow the morning eventually rolled around and we got our 7:15 am bus back to Kobe. All in all Hadaka Matsuri made for one hell of a weekend, one I’m fairly sure I will be keen to repeat next year!