For the second year running I found myself driving up to Okayama Prefecture to take part in the ‘Naked Man’ Festival. This event has been held for the last 500 years or so and is the largest and most famous of its kind. Despite being in the ice cold dead of winter, 9000 men bundle up in loincloths and booties with hopes of seizing a good fortune tossed out by the monks. This event is really one of the most incredible opportunities to experience Japanese culture and I was more than happy to initiate some of the new recruits to the madness.
John, Luke and myself piled into my car and drove across the Seito Bridge to the Japanese mainland. After an hour or so we had arrived at our hotel in Okayama, parked and scarfed down some McDonalds. Thomas from Naoshima came by ferry and my friend Spencer took the train over from faraway Fukuoka to join in the fun as well. Once our band of merry men had been assembled, we stopped by a store to get Spencer some spray paint. One of the rules that they strictly enforce is that all tattoos must be covered. Tattoos are synonymous with crime in Japan and in an effort to keep the riffraff, street rats and Yakuza from taking part employ an army of eyes to make sure everyone is up to scruff.
We gathered in our hotel room to get Spencer covered up. I was the guy in charge of the painting and everyone else just tried to avoid death by inhalation of the fumes. We had to go one tattoo at a time to keep the air safe to breath, though I’m sure it wasn’t. Everything turned out quite well and definitely better than we expected from a can of model toy spray paint.
Taking care of business
We got some rations and hopped in my car to drive over to the Saidaiji Temple complex, where the actual madness takes place. On the way we were rockin’ out to and singing some Elton John and Savage Garden so as to keep our energy levels at maximum. We arrived at just the right time where we were able to fully take part in the group running without any of our digits succumbing to the freezing cold. Before any of that could happen though, we had to buy our fundoshi (loincloth) and tabi (socks), strip down in a large tent filled with other participants, and then have one of a number of elderly gentleman suit us up. After one final, wrenching wedgie we were all good to go. All of the spray paint managed to come off Spencer somehow, but they let him by with some very unconvincing tape.
With two Hope grads present, I set our team colors accordingly.
For the running portion, rows of about five brethren put their arms over each other’s shoulders to weave through the streets and arrive at the temple complex all while chanting ”Wasshoi!’, which is pretty much just a high energy word to keep everyone excited. The most interesting part of this is when a group makes its way into the temple grounds to go through the purification rituals.
The first part of this involves running though absolutely frigid waist deep water. The participants run in through a torii gate, around a statue and then back out, all the while splashing about gaily. Being as cold as it was, I was plenty content with getting in and out of there as quickly as possible. With our group reassembled outside of the pool and before the thousands of spectators, we continued our jog up to the main Buddhist temple to pray and receive the monk’s blessing.
This is the spot where participants gather for the actual event, so those hoping to snag some prime real estate right up front might end their campaign here. We had plenty of time yet, so our group carried on around over to the Shinto Shrine directly adjacent to it, where we continued with the prayers and blessings and after another quick bow carried on. The fun part about being a foreigner here is that we are a sort of spectacle for the Japanese people in attendance and many of them are reaching into the chute to high fives. We went directly through another loop of all this, to the detriment of my toes, before taking a quick break back at my car.
We got our core temperatures up just a bit before realizing we had only and hour before the fortunes would be thrown. We hurried back, a handful of white men hustling through the crowds on the winter streets, cheeks borne in full, to the temple. After making a final round though the prayer and icy purification, we plunged deep into the mass of scantily dressed men where we would spend the next 50 minutes or so jockeying for position while at the mercy of the blob’s ebb and flow.
The density of the mass is beyond intense, and is not a place for the claustrophobic – despite lifting both feet off the ground, the inward pressure holds you firmly in place. Everyone keeps their arms in the air so that they can pack in tighter and also to keep the body afloat. Certainly to go down under would be a death sentence. The whole while, Buddhist priests in the upper windows are casting ladles of water out over the crowd to keep them cool. The massive heat generated by our penguin thermodynamics is enough to have a dense cloud of steam swelling to fill the air under the overhang.
One of the monks scooping water from the same windows that the fortunes are thrown. I was at the very core of the legion.
I remember last year there being a whole lot of crushing and my toes feeling like they were being destroyed, but this time around it wasn’t as bad. As the monks and officials announced how much time was left before the 10pm climax, our fervor grew and gave way to some aggressive pushing from all directions. This tends to have the effect of shoving those on the outskirts of the stage down the stone steps and also makes the calves burn as you try push back against such an impossible tide. I was worked out of the main group and into the danger zone last year but was very pleased to have maintained a location directly in the center. Of course, I was at the focal point of the thousands pressing in, but it at least meant that I couldn’t be moved much in any one direction. I’m sure that this is what protected my phalanges.
Time seemed to pass quicker this time around as well and before long it was time. I saw a number of the monks gathering, one in each window with an armful of fortunes. These small scroll-like objects had good or bad fortunes written on them, but there was no way to know what you had until everything was all over. Over the centuries the event has grown in popularity and now sees sponsors awarding such prizes as cars and considerable money to those few who come away successful. It certainly keeps things interesting at least. With the hour upon us, all lights were extinguished and the monks began tossing the goods into the crowed. Everyone was flailing and scrambling to either get one or escape with the one they got. Simply getting your hands on one at this point guarantees you nothing – the prize goes to whoever gets it out through the main temple gate first.
Here you can appreciate the weighty task of getting out alive.
The frenzy started working away from the main stage, down the steps, and eventually through the crowd of men surrounding it. You could see little pockets of people fighting over a rod but soon the battle abated a bit and we bustled back to our changing tent. While I was unable to get my hands on one of the rods, I plenty pleased to have experienced it all from deep within the fray.
Once the five of us reunited, we returned to town and talked about what had just happened. Everyone agreed that this was definitely a once (maybe twice) in a lifetime event and so far from the normal of life at home. I know that my participation in such madness will be a story I recount for the rest of my life, as one of those crazy things I did in my younger days. Hopefully I can find a few more such things before I’m out of the adventure game though. Back in Okayama, we met up with some other teachers from our next door prefecture of Tokushima at a place called Pinball. At the end of the night, we managed to get everyone in the hotel room for some sleep before making the trip back.