西大寺の裸祭り – ‘Naked Man’ Festival

The real reason that we found ourselves in Okayama was to participate in or observe the chaos that is known among foreigners as the ‘Naked Man Festival’.  This event is held once a year at the Saidaiji Temple and has been going on for centuries.  It all started when the priests began throwing out amulets, and it quickly was regarded as good fortune to obtain one of these sticks.  Over the years, it became more and more of an event, reaching its current level of insanity where 9,000 participants organize into teams and battle over sponsored cash prizes, spectators gawk, and of course the ever eager foreigners get in the fray as well.

When we arrived near the temple Ben and I had to buy our uniform then go to a go to a tent to get changed.  It was here that the nature of the festival would start to take form in my mind.  While it is dubbed the Naked Man Festival, that isn’t quite true.  We wore thin cloth socks and a traditional Japanese loincloth called a fundoshi.  Once we stripped down in the tent, the helpers on hand were there suit us up.  Also in the tent was a guy with a camera shamelessly taking pictures of us throughout this process.  I was a little surprised, but mostly thought that if he wanted pics of this naked form, he could have his fill.  With a few wraps around the waist, one heck of a wedgie, and a knot to hold it all in place, we were ready.  It was so very cold though.  The weather was subzero with flurries throughout the day,  and it was not going to get any warmer at night.  We were being hurried to the event out of fears from Jon that it would be starting shortly only to realize that we had about 2.5 hours yet to wait.  That is a very long time to wear neigh nothing in the bitter cold.

Ben and I in our fundoshis.  No fair, he had a sweater.

In order to pass the time, the participants run around in their various teams to keep spirits and temperatures high.  The different teams are made up of local organizations, businesses and friends.  The idea is that they work together and then split the $10,0o0 prize.  Winning this event would be nearly impossible solo, as the objective is not only to catch the amulet, but also escape the temple grounds with it.  To escape from the thousands of people is no easy feat and having a linebacker defense to help you out of the the mass would be a great help.  People will put differently colored tape around their wrists and fingers to differentiate themselves, since arms are all you can see of those around you.  We jumped in with a group that passed by, threw arms over each other’s shoulders, and joined in shouting “Wasshoi!” over and over again (I don’t really know why).  After a while we realized we were running away from the action, and instead to some high school.  We turned back as they went inside, but laughed when we considered how this sort of behavior would go over at schools in any Western country.

Slowly, slowly, ever so slowly the minutes passed.  We went to a shop to get some drinks, but I also grabbed an ice cream cone, earning me a few legitimate stares.  They were giving out a hot porridge drink called amazake and that helped a little bit against the nip, but my hands were shaking so much I was constantly sloshing it out of the Dixie cup.  To escape the cold, a couple hundred of us remained penguin huddled in the tent until it was time for the actual event to kick off.  When one of the foreigners shouted it was time to go, we assembled in our ranks and pushed our way into the temple grounds while continuing with the chanting.

From this point on, things were a bit more traditional and religiously symbolic.  The first place we went was some waist deep water which is meant to purify us as we enter the holy grounds.  This water was unbelievably cold, and stole the last of the sensation from my toes.  Of course no one was content just to wade around, they had to gaily splash about and erase any and all warmth we had accrued while in that tent.  Back in our lines, chanting, shivering,  we worked towards one of the shrines to make a prayer to the deity.  These entire temple grounds were surrounded by spectators in stands, and hundreds of police officers behind wooden barricades.  It was only later that I would come to understand their merit.  The people were all cheering, and throwing high fives as we passed – we as a big group of foreigners are a bit of a novelty and we were getting a lot of attention from the cameras.

The Shinto and Buddhist religions coexist without any theological conflict, so Shinto purification is a non issue in the eyes of a Buddhist festival.  Around the little statue and back out.

From the shrine, our last stop was the platform before the main entry of the temple.  Here, we crammed more bodies into a space then I ever thought possible.  We were one of the earlier groups to the stage, and were thus able to get a spot close to epicenter.  The density of man was incredible and there were several instances where I would avoid the hellish destruction of my toes and feet by simply picking them up off the ground – yes, both of them.  Everyone was required to keep their arms above their heads for what I assume are reasons of safety and space efficiency.  The mass of people would push and surge against each other, all jockeying for prime position.  One of the head priests would ladle some sort of icy holy water on the crowd from a second story window which always resulted in cheers and more surging.  Another priest would occasionally announce how much time until the amulets were thrown.  “。。。後45分。。。後30分。。。”  An hour is a very long time to endure those conditions;  thank goodness I’m a little bigger than average.  There were times where people would crumple under the duress of the event and need to be evacuated out.  A red light was the signal for people to settle a bit so they could help as necessary.  As time passed, I was slowly shifted away from anyone I recognized and eventually spit out the back of the mass.  Everyone was pushing towards the raised stone platform, but being on the outskirts was a major hazard.  The stone steps that surrounded it were unprotected, and people were constantly thrown back by the surging crowd.  Once I found myself in that danger zone, I took my leave and enjoyed the rest of the event from a slightly further and much colder distance.

Here is a front on shot of the action.  You can see where the steps are, and the steam coming off the warm bodies at the core.   I was at the middle, where the event horizon was starting to take shape.

At last, when it was time to throw the amulets the lights were blacked out.  Among those thrown are some worth lesser amounts, and other decoys that equate to nothing more than a year’s worth of bad luck.  When the lights were flipped back on, the battle for fortune was well underway.  I could see some pockets of heavy activity, but mostly I think that the small sized prizes could be hidden away in the darkness without too many people noticing.   Soon, the pockets or activity shifted towards the main entrance and at times it took the phalanx of police officer to contain the ruckus within the temple grounds.  I was really quite surprised at how fast the whole thing played out though.  I had figured it would be a fight over something more like a track baton or at least something a little more difficult to slip away unnoticed with.  Also, anyone not in prime position at the beginning really had no chance of coming away with a prize.

Afterwards, Ben and I somehow reunited with each other and then the rest of the spectator crew.  After a joyful reunion with our warm clothes, we made our way home.  A stop at McDonald’s was all that it took to cleanse the sense of failure from our hearts, though nothing could possibly purge the physical exhaustion and soreness from my body.  At the end of it all, I can’t believe that events of such insanity occur in this world.  Health and safety are thrown by the wayside to make way for fun, fortune and a truly unforgettable experience.  Couldn’t be happier to have had this opportunity, insane as it is.

Just to get a better idea of how this all works.  This is video of the events leading up to the event.   Chanting, cleansing, etc.

This is more of the event itself.

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